For the most part, machismo remains the lifeblood of Animal Kingdom, and in its third episode, “Stay Close, Stick Together,” writer Eliza Clark comes up with an amusing/disturbing scene that fully encapsulates this sense of manly camaraderie. As with most testosterone-based pissing contests, the scene revolves around a dare: Deran Cody’s (Jake Weary) challenge to J (Finn Cole) to hold his breath while holding a dumbbell underwater in the Codys’ backyard pool for as long as possible. J loses the contest, but it’s what happens during their time underwater that’s more significant: Deran’s long, hard stare at J, the level of homoeroticism increasing seemingly by the second; and then his attempt to wrestle him. Considering that, in the preceding scene, Deran responded to J’s attempt to get on his good side by denying that that blow job in the bathroom stall in the previous episode ever happened, the act isn’t just mere rough playfulness on his part, but a threatening attempt to show J who truly belongs in this family. Certainly, J gets the message; not long after, he’s grabbed all of his stuff from the Codys’ home and is trying to get the hell out of dodge, before Smurf (Ellen Barkin) finds him and drops a quiet bombshell about his birth father that persuades him to stay.
Said bombshell revolves around Baz (Scott Speedman), who Smurf says is the only one of J’s drug-addicted mother’s many boyfriends she actually loved, the implication being that he may be the father he never knew. Perhaps that, even more than his relative outsider status, explains Baz’s outward affection for J. Speaking of Baz, “Stay Close, Stick Together” fleshes out the implications the previous episode’s final scene: Baz kissing a woman down in Mexico, where he has taken Craig (Ben Robson) to treat the shoulder wound he sustained from the failed robbery at the end of the pilot. Turns out, the woman’s name is Lucy (Carolina Guerra), and she also has a son of her own, one he apparently loves enough to gift him a copy of the video game Halo. Is there more to Baz’s relationship with Lucy than the one he carries on with Catherine (Daniella Alonso) back in California? At the very least, we haven’t seen him have sex with Catherine as passionately as he does with Lucy. The possibility of a collision course between Baz’s two lives—both of which most of the members of the Cody clan seem to be fully aware—is thick indeed.
A collision course may already be in motion between Catherine and Smurf, as the latter’s treatment of the former’s daughter, Lena—first seen struggling to swim in the backyard pool with Smurf doing nothing to help her, then being literally abducted from a supermarket by Smurf while she’s being watched by another babysitter—brings out heretofore unseen tensions between the two. The air is ripe for a betrayal on her part, especially with a cop (Dorian Missick) who frequents the bar at which Catherine works making gestures toward courting her in some way, especially after he scares off Pope (Shawn Hatosy), who had suddenly appeared in the bar parking lot trying to give her a bunch of money in order to hush her up about the supermarket-abduction incident.
Pope, meanwhile, is as wildly impulsive as ever. Upon a tip from a mysterious man in the episode’s opening scene (possibly his dad?), he—in the episode’s one big action/suspense sequence—enlists both Deran and J to help him steal a safe full of money from a construction business. This robbery, however, is off the books, not one sanctioned by Smurf. It does, however, offer J an opportunity to come through at a critical juncture, when he cuts through a wire in order to fit the safe through a hole in the wall—a coming-through-in-the-clutch gesture that Pope remembers when, in the aftermath of the theft, he defends J against Deran’s insults against him. (Another sign of the way Deran feels his manhood challenged with J around: his refusal to buckle under Pope’s pressure and saying, “Thank you, J, for having some genuine balls.”) There’s another secret criminal job in “Stay Close, Stick Together”: In Mexico, even as Craig is recuperating from his gunshot wound, he still can’t help but do some drug-running for Marco (Joseph Julian Soria), Lucy’s brother, smuggling drugs across the Mexican border (in a burrito, no less) for a huge payday. Baz initially reacts to this with extreme consternation, but it appears even he, the ostensibly responsible one, is still susceptible to the immediate joys of the big score, as evidenced in that smile on his face after Craig shows him the money he earned from the job.
All this criminal activity under Smurf’s nose can’t bode well for the iron grip she currently has over her clan. Ellen Barkin continues to play the role with a potent mixture of toughness and tenderness, but one suspects that we haven’t yet seen her really bear her talons. After all, the Smurf of David Michôd’s 2010 film eventually revealed her true colors by turning against the film’s J, exuding no shame at all in ordering a hit on him. Series creator Jonathan Lisco’s Smurf seems fully capable of a similar kind of ruthlessness. Animal Kingdom is showing hints of a slow-motion collapse-of-family arc. For now, though, Smurf still has the upper hand, shown not only by the tremulousness in Deran’s voice when he calls her “Mom,” and but also the final scene of Pope crawling into bed with her while she sleeps. Even for a live wire like Pope, as Norman Bates famously said in Psycho, “a boy’s best friend is his mother.”
- J’s girlfriend Nicky’s (Molly Gordon) father (C. Thomas Howell) turns out to be a Navy officer, one with a hard-ass streak who nevertheless asks J how his daughter is doing because “she doesn’t really talk to me.” If he’s willing to be tough on J, however, one can only imagine how much harder he’ll come down on Pope if all those lingering glances he exchanges with Nicky lead to anything.
- Also, regarding J and Nicky, I’m sure Nicky is now mighty confused as to why J would steal from her the stolen-though-she-doesn’t-know-it-yet watch he gave her as a gift and then return it. I look forward to the confrontation in the next episode, assuming it’s forthcoming. Surely J can’t hide all the criminal activity he’s witnessing from her forever.
- Building on Smurf’s brief flashback in the previous episode, Smurf admits to J as she tries to convince him to stay that her own mother was also a junkie. How this has shaped her into the person she is now is something I hope Lisco will reveal over the next few episodes.
- A hint is tossed just before Deran and J’s underwater challenge of an imminent surfing competition. Perhaps that, instead of another violent crime, will become a focal point of a future episode.