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Graceland: “Pawn”

Occasional sun-soaked beach volleyball aside, the first season of Graceland has been about a slow downward slide. Mike arrived an assured ethical pillar and is now wandering around an amoral mess; Charlie started out a confident den-mother veteran agent and has become a suspicious outcast; Johnny’s gone from house mascot to house pinball, and realizes it just enough to resent everyone a little. Briggs is well aware of what he is, but since he killed undercover agent Badillo, in what was admittedly the worst sting ever planned, his goals have fallen apart: He’s lost his shot at revenging himself on the real Jangles, and assumes the end is nigh.

Unfortunately, the first season has suffered, partially in the nature of first seasons and partially in the nature of this particular show, because these arcs haven’t happened evenly or with any particular deliberation. For the front six the series couldn’t decide if it was an action show flipping between comedy and drama or a slowly unpeeling California noir. It’s improved in the second half by committing to a couple of overarching plots (following crime lord Bello and ghostly middleman Odin), and settling into the necessary drama of Mike’s disillusionment and Briggs’ long-running lies.

Last week, those lies broke wide open, as Jakes and Paige chose sides, and Mike went after proof that Briggs committed a murder of the world’s worst undercover FBI agent. Mike didn’t find anything, but Briggs bolted anyway, which everyone agrees is about as condemning as actually finding the recording. Going into the finale, we have two agents at cross-purposes amid a houseful of broken surf cops who used to gather for Sauce Night and are now located on some suspicion spectrum that’s driven them all to a standstill.

And the finale acknowledges these situations and resolves many of them, but seems more interested in endings than closure. This might be best illustrated in the Bureau debrief, giving Johnny and Charlie an ill-advised montage of quick cuts that plays for laughs what should be a devastating reveal of Mike’s deception and Briggs’ corruption. Charlie in particular, who’s spent weeks on a quest to prove Briggs’ guilt, gets a huffy eyeroll and not much else; even Johnny seems merely annoyed at the news that the man he gave the benefit of a dozen doubts turns out to have been using him. (Later, he sticks up for Briggs even in his guilty absence, reinforcing the little-brother attitude he’ll presumably carry into next season.)

Charlie’s other arc plays out exactly as it’s been set up, as her romantic interest in the season’s biggest serial killer turns out to be just what it looks like: She’s enormously misjudged him, and when Briggs comes by to stop him and they end up unarmed and fighting it out, she sides against Briggs. It makes sense she would misjudge Briggs in a tight situation (she’s accurately suspected him for several episodes), but it makes it no less disappointing to watch her realize the truth too late, defend herself inadequately, and end up helplessly damseled. At the end of the episode, Briggs has to talk her out of turning in her badge, which would have made her the second woman to burn out of Graceland this season. But she’s sticking around, and hopefully next year will be better to her than this one was. There is a decent character in there, if the show can find it.

Briggs, meanwhile, covers his ass–gives Quinn a fake ID flagged as Odin, plants keys on Jangles’ ring to frame him for Badillo’s murder and the torching of Graceland 1.0–which means that all he needs to do is survive a second encounter with Jangles to be in the clear. And he does! Mike tracks him down and uses his famed quick-draw one last time, in a midnight standoff that puts a few rounds right through Jangles’ chest. Bello would be proud. (We assume; for someone who defined so much of the arc this season, we haven’t heard much from him.)

Mike’s big victory is one of three plots of his that move forward dutifully this episode. This is the big one, of course–atonement for having been a rat, learning to put personal loyalty ahead of the job–though his immediate acceptance back at the Graceland bonfire feels like another of the things the show hopes you won’t notice until it needs something next season for someone to resent. In the second subplot, Paige and Mike get a kiss, though their chemistry hasn’t been particularly romantic; Paige wisely cuts that off for now, noting shrewdly that he’s lost (an aspect of his long-term undercover emptiness that goes without mention here). And with the big wrap on Briggs’ case, Mike finally gets to go to DC, where he has just enough time to miss the beach before Briggs calls him up for a favor.

It’s strange how an episode that manages to resolve so many things on a checklist still feels so unfinished. Many of the major tensions that have been set up throughout the season either vanish or are written off; the return to normalcy at the bonfire feels forced not because the characters are trying to push through qualms, but because those qualms seem to have been pushed aside in favor of a clean wrap. Has anyone but Charlie evaluated their place in the house? Does anyone have reservations about Briggs coming back? Is there no fragility to the re-established trust in the house? If there is, there’s no telling until next season; right now it’s just laughter and beer.

Where the finale succeeds most is in the smooth transition of its biggest villain – Briggs – from man with a grudge to man who will spend the rest of his life trying to keep himself from tripping over the lies he’s set in motion. With Mike as a part-time sociopath nostalgic for his time on the West Coast, he knows he has a willing accomplice. And, if the closing moments are any indication, Briggs will remain a becalmed asshole more than happy to continue using others to cover his mistakes. Is Mike willing to put up with it? Tune in next year.

Stray observations:

  • Across the firelight, our two leads shared a loaded, lingering gaze. Slashers, start your engines? (There’s not a lot of There there, but hey, they’re your engines.)
  • Paige and Mike also seem to have some unfinished kissbusiness. If you absolutely must, start your engines.
  • Bello will hopefully make another appearance next season; his absence removed a charismatic adversary from a show that needs all the charisma it can get.
  • Mike and Briggs talk about the incomparable Lisa while they’re still at Mike’s truck outside Jangles’ house, moments after the rescue. Is Charlie getting coffee?
  • That recorder has some impressive battery life.
  • Mike’s big rescue gets him back in good standing with Briggs and the house, but one wonders what ranked higher priority for the other residents of Graceland just then, that they weren’t asked for backup. Not that all of them would have gone–Paige for sure would have opted out–but if the goal was to show the house unifying again, they missed an opportunity. The bonfire scene loses resonance given that they were all apparently just hanging out there, waiting to see who made it back alive.

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