At some point, Lights Out turned into “guest star theatre.” We’ve had drop-in performances from Eamonn Walker (in two episodes), David Morse, and now Valerie Perrine in four straight episodes at this point. And these aren’t characters who just pop in to support everybody else; outside of Lights, they’re the most important characters to the show in that given week. In a way, this is a way to stall between the Lights fight with Morales (where the build-up to that fight was fairly slow and deliberate) and the big fight with Death Row. There just hasn’t been the amount of story needed to cover for these weeks, so that means we more or less end up with standalone episodes that explore a new facet of the world of boxing or of the Leary family. This, in and of itself, isn’t bad. Last week’s “Rainmaker” was a terrific episode of television, and the hallmark of a good show is often if it can do a truly kick-ass standalone story in the midst of everything else. But Lights Out occasionally has that feel of, “Here’s a new thing you’re supposed to care about!” in the back half of its first (and only) season.
I’ve never felt that more acutely than I did in tonight’s episode, where Lights’ mother comes back after many years absent and the episode is as much about everybody’s reactions to her as it is anything else. Granted, this is something the show has been preparing us for. We’ve had plenty of offhand mentions of Lights’ mom over the weeks, and there’s always been a sense that her absence is one that has left a certain bitterness. There’s grief and loss there, sure, but also an all-consuming anger. And we get that confirmed this week, as Johnny and Margaret want basically nothing to do with her, even as Lights tries to pull the family back together. At the same time, Pops seems to think his hour has arrived. The man his ex-wife left him for is out of the picture (dead, she says), and it’s time for him to make his move. So he puts on his nice shirt. He breaks out the candy.
And while this is all well and good—and the episode has some terrific moments that might have been leading somewhere in a theoretical season two, like when Mae (for that is Lights’ mom’s name) says to him that Theresa will leave him eventually—it also feels kind of abrupt, like the show needed something to do in its next-to-last episode and just didn’t have any better ideas. Heading into a huge season finale, most of which will apparently be taken up by the fight the whole series has been building to, one would usually imagine that the show would try to build as much momentum as it possibly could, until the storyline became unstoppable. Instead, Lights Out built most of its (admittedly slow-moving) momentum into the FIRST half of the season, then futzed around and did stuff—some of it really interesting—in the back half.
Here’s a question that may illustrate my point: Just how well are we supposed to think Lights is doing in his training? Granted, this is something the show suffered from in the build-up to the Morales fight as well, but the series seems to view Lights’ preparations for the big fight not just as ancillary to the domestic storylines (which would be fine) but even to this very odd crime storyline about the beef between Brennan and Barry that’s mostly made up anyway. There’s some interesting business in this episode about the line moving against Lights because people in the know think he’s going to throw the fight (and some even more interesting business where Lights starts to think Brennan might ask him to take a dive), but that’s all done away with easily enough by a couple of calls from Johnny that give the impression Death Row has had a mild heart attack and/or a domestic spat with his wife. I enjoy all of the actors involved in this crime storyline, but I’m not sure the story itself has really taken off, outside of the odd standalone story, like last week’s “Rainmaker.”
Indeed, the biggest thing we know about the fight is that it keeps getting rescheduled. Every time the show picks up a potentially interesting idea in regards to the upcoming fight—that Ed Romeo is going to change Lights’ training regimen, that the publicity for the fight is starting to become as much a part of preparation as anything else, that Brennan is financing the delays—it seems to set it down almost as quickly. Granted, there’s a way to make all of this work by pulling it together in the finale, but when the storytelling is this stutter step on a serialized show, it makes me a little nervous. If all of this—the question of Morales throwing the fight, Ed’s new training ideas, the fears about pugilistic dementia—has a big payoff in a week’s time, that’s great, and I’ll salute the show for pulling it all together. But to kill even more time on a storyline that might have worked better a few weeks ago? It’s just a little disconcerting.
This is not to say that the Mae story wasn’t well done. I wasn’t a huge fan of the idea that she was still with Lester and that he was trying to manipulate her to get the house from Pops (though she wanted to hold out for the bigger payday after Lights won his fight). It just felt a little too neat of a reversal. I know that one of the major ideas of the show is that leopards don’t change their spots and it’s impossible to trust someone who’s not immediate family, but Mae went too quickly from addled old woman trying to make good for what went wrong long ago to mustache-twirling villain. Still, this was mostly made up for by that final scene in the park where she really DOES seem contrite, but Lights still has to get her out of town, giving her the money necessary to start a new life and telling her to get on a bus somewhere and never come back again. It’s a good scene for the two actors, and Holt McCallany really lets the audience see just how much this decision weighs on Lights.
And I liked one of the underlying ideas of the Mae storyline, which is that everyone always blames the person who leaves or the person who cheats or the person who makes things fall apart, but they never really stop to think that that person might have been pushed to that action in some way. It’s easy to stand on the outside of a crumbling marriage and blame the person who keeps running away, but it’s harder to put yourself in the head of a woman who sees her husband’s life eaten up by a profession that—at best—will completely devour his life and—at worst—will leave him a broken shell of a man who can’t even think for himself. Perrine’s flightiness nicely suggested just why none of the Learys could trust Mae, but it also suggested a woman who’d found herself in over her head in a marriage she needed to get out of, then chose an escape hatch that did horrific damage to everyone around her.
Still, while I liked “Sucker Punch,” it left me a little antsy. I know the worst possible thing to do when criticizing a show like this is to try to take the wheel from the writers and say how YOU would have done it, but I can’t help but feel like the show has been having a difficult time building and sustaining momentum since the Morales fight. And that’s a problem when you’re trying to tell a big, serialized story about how one man’s actions impact everybody around him. I’ve still enjoyed the run of Lights Out, and I’ve still mostly dug these last few standalone episodes, but next week’s finale may have too much of an impetus to make all of this COUNT to ever fully live up to.
- I know that it was mostly a stunt seemingly designed to get people thinking Lights was going to throw the fight (or something), but didn’t it seem like that whole, “Oh, yeah, someone fired a gun at my sister!” plotline disappeared awfully quickly?
- Part of the problem with the crime story is that it’s hard to pin down Brennan’s motives beyond, “Get as much money and power as possible.” Granted, maybe that should be enough.
- Lester was just a terrible character on every level. A desperate drummer, jonesing for cash? C’mon.
- I did like the scenes where Mae played with her grandchildren. They had a very nice tentativeness to them, as though everybody but Katie was feeling this situation out.
- Unfortunate about that title, episode.
- And, yes, in case you hadn't heard, Lights Out has been canceled. This is too bad. It was a good show, and I think it would have gotten even better in a second season.
- "Not a musician. Drummer. It was a lateral move."