One of the things that has set most of the recent FX series apart from the series the network made its name on are that these series are about people trying to do the right thing. This sounds sort of silly, since around 90 percent of television (probably more) is about people trying to do the right thing. But the idea of the cable drama has almost always been about people who see no problem with doing the wrong thing, if it’s more expedient to them. Particularly since The Sopranos, cable dramas have often been about people who walk both sides of the morality line but end up on the black side more often than not. Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty, Al Swearengen, Don Draper, Vic Mackey, Walter White, Patty Hewes, and Dexter Morgan are all people who do very bad things. (Well, McNulty’s not really in the same league, but he’s not as clean a cop as he might be, and he’s arguably not even the protagonist of his series.) Toss in folks like Tommy Gavin or the doctors of Nip/Tuck, and you have a set of characters who are largely callous with the thoughts and feelings of others.
But look at the protagonists of Justified, Terriers, and Lights Out. These are people who have their moments on the bad side of the line, but, more often than not, they end up skewing on the side of good. One of the central struggles of Justified, for instance, is that keeping the bad guys alive is preferable to shooting them through the head, which may be easier in the moment but results in more paperwork. Terriers was all about a guy who worked under the radar of the law but tried to keep from backsliding into the darkness that had claimed him a few years earlier. And now we have Lights Out, a show that seems to be almost entirely about a guy resisting temptation when it would be so much easier to give in. Lights seems genuinely upset by what’s happening with this family in this episode, by how Theresa seems done with him in some ways, but he stays true to her nonetheless.
This, in some ways, is hard to take for TV critics and fans. At this point, we’re USED to the visceral excitement we get from seeing a bad guy do very bad things. But there’s a way to make a good guy trying to do good things interesting, and I think Lights Out is slowly finding its way toward doing so. Warren Leight, who’s the showrunner, previously worked on one of the best dramas out there about a good guy trying to keep his moral compass clean, In Treatment. In Treatment was sort of all by itself, unlike anything else on the HBO schedule, and the season Leight presided over, season two, was easily the show’s best, largely because it was about questions of whether doing the right thing superseded living by a professional code. (On that show, the central character, Dr. Paul Weston, often found himself stepping over the line in the name of goodness, which was unusual on cable at the time.) Lights Out, then, is all about a guy whose professional code would seem to let him indulge his very worst temptations who tries to avoid doing so.
Tonight’s episode, “Combinations,” is another example of the show taking small steps forward in both character development and narrative drive, but I found it slightly more compelling than last week’s because it further crystallizes just what the show’s up to. Everything here is natural fallout from last week, where Lights finally agreed to fight a more dangerous fighter than the one he wanted, simply because he needed the money, and Theresa kicked him out of the house. This episode progresses both of those storylines, but only a little bit. We see the build-up to the big fight and how it’s already beginning to get big hype in the press. We see Lights trying to worm his way back into Theresa’s affections and her struggling with the results of her ultimatum. We see Lights overextend himself in a fight and take a nasty blow to the head, one that leaves him with double vision.
The thing I’m intrigued by about Lights is that he seems to have an immense capacity for forgiveness. He doesn’t just keep giving his brother and wife chance after chance after chance after they do things many men would find unforgivable. He continues to give Mike, the newspaper reporter, chance after chance after chance, even though he keeps writing stories that burn him. Even though he’s a man with an immense capacity for violence, he’s a man with a certain gentleness to him, a gentleness that seems almost like an affect at times. How much of this is who he really is? How much of it is the man trying to be what everyone—especially his wife—wants him to be?
The thing that’s making most of this work is the fact that Lights seems genuinely tempted a lot of the time. He clearly wants to take the prostitute back to his hotel room, even though he ultimately resists her advances. (Those apology bracelets from a few episodes ago would suggest he hasn’t always been this good at resisting temptation.) He gives in to the temptation to break from his father’s rigid training regimen to try and sock around his sparring partner and ends up with that bad case of double vision. But when the chips are down, he’s a man you can rely on. A good friend, a good brother, a good son, and a good family man. And that could be hard to keep developing. Just how many times can we watch him choose to do the right, self-sacrificing thing, even if he’s training for the big fight? I don’t know yet, but I find it refreshing to watch at present.
And that’s where I find the double vision particularly compelling and a nice visual metaphor for all of this. There are always two paths. There’s the one path that isn’t quite right and the other that is true and straightforward. But telling between the two can be as hard as anything else. The wrong hovers ever so slightly away from the right, and mere inches separate a good punch from one that goes wildly wrong. The price of the right path can be substantial—you keep forgiving a brother who always fucks you over, you keep giving a reporter more fodder to ruin your life, you keep placating a wife who no longer wants to be placated—but there are payoffs every so often. Sometimes, the people you love come through. Sometimes, the lawyers keep the bad stories from running. Sometimes, you catch a break (or two). And then you know just where to hit, and you swing true.
- I’m intrigued by some of what the show is doing with Barry and the racial divide among boxers, between white guys and everybody else. I’m not sure what it will come to, but I like that the show is at least making an issue of the fact that Lights pretty much gets to be the good guy in most fights solely because of his race.
- On the other hand, I continue to find Theresa kind of hard to take. She was better in the last few episodes, but she’s back to being inflexible in this episode largely because the narrative needs her to. Is there any way we can get an episode from her perspective?
- It’s taken a while, but the show’s theme song has really grown on me. I like its goofy, ‘70s vibe.
- Also, where Katie sat out last week’s episode, presumably because the Leary family had put her on the open market, Daniella was the one who sat out tonight. Ostensibly, she just didn’t want to talk to Lights, but we all know that the family was disappointed with the offers for Katie and tossed Daniella into some sort of mail-order bride situation.
- One nice thing: This episode gives a little more characterization to Ava and Death Row beyond just a stereotypical teen girl and antagonist.