As Lights headed into his episode-ending fight with Javier “El Diablo” Morales, I had the strangest sensation: dread. Now, it was obvious that Lights wasn’t going to die or be so seriously injured that he could no longer box. Unless the series abruptly shifted into some sort of Kill Bill riff where Daniella got her revenge on everyone who had harmed her father (and I would definitely watch that, Warren Leight), Lights was going to emerge from the fight alive and mostly OK. But I was still worried, still convinced that he would be hurt horribly, knocked to the canvas and out of the boxing world forever, making the rest of the series kind of a sad tale of a once-great athlete’s long decline. As this dread crept over me, I realized that for all of this series’ faults, it’s really starting to get to me. I care about Lights. I want him to figure a way out of this corner he’s backed himself into. I want his family to be OK. And for a young TV show, that’s about the best you can hope for.
I mean, yes, I have plenty of quibbles with this episode. For one thing, the script relies a little too much on telling us things it should be showing us. The moment when Daniella starts sneaking schnapps to her classmates via a hairspray bottle feels terribly forced, as though the writers needed her to start acting out and came up with the most ridiculous thing they could possibly think of. There are a few too many scenes in this episode where Daniella rages to someone about WHY her FATHER could be BOXING, and they play out the same way all of these scenes have played out. (In general, I like Ryann Shane, the actress playing Daniella, but she’s struggling to find new ways to play this basic dramatic beat, and it shows.) Hopefully, the scene between Daniella and her aunt, when her aunt offers to carry the burden of knowing about Lights’ condition, will be the end of this narrative dead end.
Similarly on the “telling, not showing” front, we get a lot of talk from Johnny and Pops about how Lights has looked good in his training, and that doesn’t match up to what we’ve seen. Frankly, Lights has looked like shit, basically no match for a man who growls when he gets in the ring and carries around a machete to press appearances (something I need to start doing). Morales is younger, hungrier, and fresh out of jail. Lights is older, desperate, and fighting off a nasty case of double vision and a training regimen that’s had him dropping weight, until he’s barely heavy enough to fight. Sure, 17 pounds isn’t much, but Morales also has that over Lights, and his frame looks more muscular. To combat this, the show could have shown us a Lights who was doing solidly in his training, but instead, we saw him struggling with his double vision and collapsing to his knees. So the show resorts to Johnny just telling us that Lights has been looking good out there and hopes that’s enough.
And you know what? It kind of is. When Lights unexpectedly wins the match, dropping Morales in the second round, it somehow feels like a win for not just the character but also the show. The fight sequences are nicely paced and beautifully edited, giving us a sense of the ebb and flow of the (very short) fight, and that wordless moment when Lights and Theresa locked eyes across the room and she mouthed a private something to him sold me far more on their marriage than any of the dialogue about how much they love each other has. (My favorite cut? Morales rushes directly at Lights, and we… head to commercial. One of my favorite act breaks in a long time, and you can’t tell me you didn’t sit there, waiting for what came next.) The scenes never found a rhythm, letting us get used to the ring just as Lights was getting reacquainted with it. We were cutting between the fight and the stands and the girls watching back at home, and it was all a thrill to watch.
But the episode leading up to the fight was pretty darn good too. Start with that lovely little scene between Death Row and Lights in the diner booth, a scene that resulted in Death Row turning over all of the information he had on Morales to Lights because he didn’t want Lights’ journey to the comeback fight getting derailed by a bad outcome. The scene has texture and flavor. It’s not just two guys talking about a fight. It’s two guys talking about their PHILOSOPHY of the fight, and it goes further to explain who Death Row is than any other scene this season. The episode pulls a neat structural trick by having the final scene also take place at the diner, offering a counterpoint to that opening scene. Where Death Row wants Lights back in the ring with him as soon as possible, Pops wants Lights to wait, to take a few more smaller fights and really get back in shape. That $10 million isn’t going to go away any time soon, Pops argues, and he’s probably right. But Lights is greedy and has his one good eye on the big prize. He needs that payday. Too much more, and he could destroy himself. It’s a nice little scene between two men who each know something they’re not ready to tell each other. Lights can’t tell Pops about his condition. Pops can’t tell Lights that he’s not entirely sure what happened against Morales (about which more in comments), but the look on his face as soon as the fight’s over lets us know he’s troubled by what happened, and he’s not ready to sign off on his son’s big comeback just yet.
I also liked that this episode gave us some sense of why Theresa fell in love with a boxer in the first place. Sure, seeing him get the crap beaten out of him week after week got wearing after a while, but there was also a thrill to seeing him out there, hitting another man as hard as he could. It’s clear she’s both a little in awe of this and a little turned on. Similarly, the act of seeing her dad fight seems to have calmed Daniella just a little bit, though it could also have something to do with the fact that he doesn’t come back from the fight with his mind further gone. (Ava also seems pretty impressed.) Lights’ immediate family draws closer together, even as he loses the man who brought him this far in the first place. It’s a neat bit of symmetry in an episode that might be my favorite yet.
- In talking with another critic after the episode’s end, he raised the idea that, perhaps, Morales had thrown the fight. (At one point, Morales looks over at Brennan, or so the camera suggests.) Now, this could just be clumsy shot selection, but it’s an intriguing notion. I certainly didn’t think so, but I have a tendency to miss these sorts of twists. So I throw it to you, readers: Was the fight thrown? Or do we not have enough evidence for either viewpoint yet?
- Another clumsy choice: Too much of the music in this episode intrudes on scenes, trying to let us know how to feel. I’m fine with the non-diegetic music for the closing montages, but it feels clumsy when the series tosses them in willy-nilly, like it did here.
- Unfortunate coincidence: The song that Lights walks into the arena to is also prominently used in The Fighter, inviting unfair comparisons between the two works. (Though it’s possible this was changed between the burning of my screener in December and the airing tonight. The song on the screener was The Heavy’s “How You Like Me Now?”)
- Ratings were down a touch last week, which is a bad sign. The show’s already got abysmal numbers, and it can’t afford to lose any more. I’d doubt a season two at this point, but there’s always value in making sure the numbers go up, instead of down.
- "You come from a long line of gentleman fighters."