“What do you want us to do, Michael? Go to the cops? ’Cause otherwise this is all a bunch of hot air.”
The artificially inflated, effortful melodrama of try-hard prestige pulp Your Honor can only exist in a world governed by crime clichés. Big bad cities where one criminal mastermind not-so-secretly holds all the power, and every story beat reveals an interconnectedness among literally every character we meet. (The show tries several times to convince us that all this coincidence is just New Orleans being New Orleans, but not well enough.) That this Showtime series remains watchable through its unnecessarily attenuated ten episodes—to the extent that it does—is thanks to its cast, a who’s-who of prestige TV stalwarts judiciously plucked from better shows.
“Part 10" concludes this overlong, overheated, underwhelming first (and, from what it looks like, only) season with a clumsy shocker of a final scene that will likely be the final gavel on Michael Desiato’s trials. After failing in his lumbering attempts to bum-rush the Baxter House, where arch-enemy Jimmy Baxter has ominously ensconced son Adam at Carlo Baxter’s “congrats on beating the rap” party, Michael ultimately finds himself cradling the dying body of the son he’s sacrificed everything to protect. Earlier in the series, Baxter family henchman Frankie mocked the judge’s wry realization that he was elbow-deep cleaning up the blood of another sacrificial witness to his and Baxter’s deadly gamesmanship on Michael’s birthday. “We’re a long way past that,” smirked Tony Curran’s Frankie, answering Michael’s bewilderment with a mordant, “Irony.”
Except, in the end, it’s all irony, Your Honor’s whole, ten-episode marathon of deceit and contrivance a sick joke presented as classical tragedy. Adam is accidentally shot in the neck by Eugene, who was aiming for Carlo, whose acquittal thanks to Michael was the thing that drove the boy to seek extrajudicial revenge on the man who killed Kofi. Adam dies coughing on his own blood, just like Rocco, in case anyone missed the twist. A long, bloody, often ludicrously labored labyrinth lurches to a stop not so much inevitable as effortfully engineered for one final, ineffectual sock in the gut. As Michael Desiato screams to the heavens, all his crimes and discarded ideals having come to nothing, it’s a howl all right.
Your Honor never established itself as much more than a plot-delivery device, the noble efforts of the actors involved only serving to spotlight what a shoddy framework the series’ source material is. Throughout, there were times when the various familial and relationship beats of the story (Michael and Lee’s budding romance, Adam’s wan love triangle, Fia’s crises of faith in her God and her father) provoked irritation (edging into on outright contempt), despite the overall above-standard performances. As Michael stumbled with his feelings about Lee and his late wife over drinks, the romantic chatter chafed against just how shabby Your Honor’s use of New Orleans’ very real problems and those of its Black secondary characters was throughout. Your Honor wants things both ways, but fails to make its drama equal to its milieu. Show of hands, who gave a damn about whether Adam chose Lilli Kay’s Fia or teacher Frannie (Sofia Black D’Elia)? (Apart from the fact that Frannie’s technically a sex criminal.)
I’m reminded (as anyone would have to be) of fellow failed award-bait TV Low Winter Sun, its struggling Detroit’s most picturesque rot periodically deployed for “color.” During his time on the witness stand, Carlo Baxter appeals to the jurors’ lingering distrust of the NOPD, raising the memory of the police shooting “their own citizens during Katrina.” Carlo’s gambit is portrayed as an ineptly cynical ploy there, but Your Honor consistently and distastefully—and without irony—feints toward a similar connection to real civic tragedy that it hasn’t earned. (Treme it is, most assuredly, not.)
Early season bright spot character Kofi Jones’ mangled body is trotted out for abuse even after he’s dead, gory trial photos and graphic reenactments of his beating death at the worthless Carlo Baxter’s hands serving to illuminate only how tough things are for Judge Michael Desiato to endure. I just kept recalling Lamar Johnson’s vitality in his brief time on the show, Kofi just one of the multiplying roster of Your Honor characters I wanted to follow for a while instead. Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s Charlie (who, as we’re intermittently reminded, is favored to be the next Mayor of New Orleans) is another, but spends all his time cleaning up best friend Michael’s messes, his own inimitable blend of genial glad-handing and chilling pragmatism finally squandered in service of telling Adam’s teacher girlfriend Frannie to get over her underage victim—or else.
As Michael’s tattered web of lies finally shudders apart in this last episode, all Your Honor’s window-dressing use of its host city’s alluded-to actual problems (Kofi Jones was tortured by Baxter-aligned corrupt cops at a routinely used police black site, for one) portrayed as mere local flavor. Charlie ultimately expends his political capital on an attempt to clam up Amy Landecker’s unshakeable Detective Costello, promising her the power to clean up a city run by bad cops and a brutal crime family—if only she’ll let Michael and Adam’s crimes go unrevealed.
And then there are the bodies of Eugene’s family, blown up in front of the already grieving boy in sacrifice to Baxter and Desiato’s machinations, and Your Honor’s thirst for sacrifices to its need for stakes. Carmen Ejogo’s Lee Delamere, thanklessly stuck in the dual role of dupe and obstacle with regard to lover and mentor Michael’s plotting, at least finally gets her moment tonight, Michael’s simultaneously self-righteous and self-pitying manipulation upon being found out swatted aside in horrified shock. Not so much that she hadn’t seen what Michael was up to under her nose (she was not just his lover, but his handpicked lawyer for Kofi), as that she has allowed herself to be taken in by a charming man who, it’s revealed at last, saw in her genuine devotion a means to several ends. “Stop talking about yourself!,” Lee interrupts Michael’s two-pronged appeal to love and loyalty, “You can’t ever have me now.” Ejogo plays the scene as if she’s just discovered her beloved has been replaced by a pod person, which, honestly, is the only way to do it.
Would that Your Honor expected us to follow Lee out the door. (It’s her disillusioned “Just take everything you can get” to Eugene after realizing the extent of Michael’s self-absolving deceptions that both funds and fuels the poor lad’s final act of misguided revenge.) It’s just another in Your Honor’s long, long line of improbabilities and hand-waved artifices that Lee, in full possession of the facts of a powerful judge’s destructive indebtedness to an even more powerful gangster, would slink off without acting. Just as it’s left open as to how the incorruptible Costello would do so. Or how the supposedly shark-clever Jimmy Baxter never thought to question just whose inhaler was found at the accident scene. (Michael Stuhlbarg and Hope Davis’ Baxters do as much as they can with the finale’s big reveal, when they see the distraught Adam taking a desperate draw on his puffer outside the courtroom.) Maura Tierney does the same (with, I have to admit, delicious aplomb) when springing her own big courtroom surprise, a basic, caught-on-security-footage kicker that one would imagine no defense attorney (not to mention the Baxter’s high-powered mob lawyer) would blunder into so easily.
There’s the potentially incriminating autographed baseball taken from Adam’s car. And the truly silly number of times the judge is able to stave off Jimmy Baxter’s wrath by engineering a Murder She Wrote’s-worth of in-court schemes, including framing one juror and drugging a potential witness—on the witness stand, no less. (Tonight, he simply scribbles a fake juror’s note and leaves it on the prosecution’s table to put the final nail in the state’s case against Carlo.)
Anchoring all this, naturally, is Bryan Cranston, whose now-legendary acumen at playing corruptible father figures thinking one step ahead of the bad guys looks a whole lot less impressive when not crafted by Vince Gilligan and company. The difference between Walter White and Michael Desiato is one of stakes. Sure, there’s death (of his son and himself) on the line here, but, for the outwardly virtuous and ethical judge, his only real conflict is how far he’ll go to protect his son. It’s a conundrum stacked so far in Michael’s favor that we’re conditioned to absolve him and the sensitive Adam even as Michael’s framing his boss for drunk driving, or dumping a dead man’s body in the river. It’s “relatable,” and therefore the sort of dramatic dilemma that paints every action Desiato makes, no matter how much it inadvertently hurts others, ultimately forgivable in the eyes of the story.
If there’s one element of Cranston’s overall performance that strikes me as canny, it’s how easily Michael’s chummy, avuncular charm is transformed into a tool of manipulation. Here, the out-of-nowhere, late-series revelation that the late Robin Desatio had been unfaithful to Michael prior to her murder sees Michael comforting his seemingly inconsolable son by pivoting to another of his sunnily leading anecdotes with unnerving ease. The power of this father and judge to, as he brags to the skeptical Baxter at one point, manipulate others without them even knowing it is a vein of actual moral complexity Your Honor never fully engages with. In his earlier confrontation with formidable former mother-in-law (Margo Martindale’s Elizabeth), Michael’s self-righteous tirade upon learning that she’d told Adam about his mother emerges in showy bravado, leaving the never-before retiring matriarch, in her last scene of the series, tongue-tied and slump-shouldered.
Cranton’s a bravura actor, for better or worse. When fitted to the right role, in the right project, he’s mesmerizing. Yoked to an inconsistently written character, he’s distracting and showy. As Your Honor careens to its bloody, unsatisfying end tonight, Cranston’s final expert grief serves only to show how hot air can only hold up a poorly constructed edifice for so long.
- Since we’re only dropping in for the first and last episodes of Your Honor, here’s to a few fine performers along the way. Maura Tierney’s prosecutor serenely echoing the embarrassed Carlo’s insult back to him in court (“Now you tell me which one of us is a stupid cunt”) is delicious stuff. Lorraine Toussaint’s fellow judge, in her steely dignity, would have made this a much shorter series as protagonist. Andrene Ward-Hammond’s earthy Baxter rival crime boss would have stepped out of The Wire (and would have had more interesting moves to make). And, as the disabled veteran whose inconvenient memory of one terrible day threatens to sink all of the judge’s careful schemes, John Beasley has the sort of day that the term scene-stealer was coined for.
- Michael Stuhlbarg made Jimmy Baxter’s villainy a lot more entertaining than his counterpart’s, the luxury of playing a villain coupled with Stuhlbarg’s way of making the contortions of TV mob boss menace feel like an organic adaptation of a stunted but sneakily complicated little man. (He can turn his face into an almost cartoonish mask of tough guy thuggery that yet will send shivers down your spine.) Stuhlbarg used his diminutive physicality cannily, especially when paired with Hope Davis’ willowy but iron-backed wife Gina constantly prodding him toward action.
- The apparently false rumors of a continuation of Your Honor frees up this stacked cast for hopefully better things. Still, a guilty part of me wants a truly gloves-off second season where it’s now the grief-crazed Michael who becomes New Orleans’ vengeance-bent criminal mastermind. I think back to Stuhlbarg’s speech in episode 6, explaining the horrible clarity and freedom afforded to the father of a dead child, and thinking, while looking at the series-ending grief of Michael Desiato, that’s how you get Jokers.
- Poor Hunter Doohan was turned into a will-less shuttlecock after seeming like Cranston’s co-protagonist at the start, his passive Adam being used, once more, to “up the stakes” when he, stretching all probability, becomes romantically involved with the Fia. You know, whose brother he killed and whose gangster father is out to get him. The stakes for Adam were human enough without the dastardly Baxter tonight making a taunting phone call to the judge at episode’s end, telling Michael, Scream-style, “You wanna watch what I do to your son?”
- Pity the family pet written into one of these cat-and-mouse dramas, as poor old Django has a rough time of things. Not only does the faithful hound have a series of seizures, he’s also constantly unearthing bloody clues (a rag, a piece of human brain) that never pay off. Good dog. Not your fault.