Called a two-hour finale, tonight’s season-ending broadcast of Low Winter Sun is clearly two distinct episodes, the former of which performs the seemingly impossible task of making me want to watch more Low Winter Sun. The fact that “Ann Arbor” derives most of its power from completely abandoning most of the series’ plot and characters points out how tiresome Low Winter Sun has become, but it’s still the best episode of the series, allowing Mark Strong—and one stellar guest star—an opportunity to act, unencumbered by the scrap heap of cliché and poor writing that’s plagued the show from the outset.
“Ann Arbor” is an apt name for this episode, as Frank, fleeing the show’s Detroit, removes us from Low Winter Sun’s dreary milieu with him. We see Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Lt. Dawson for one scene, but only hear Joe’s voice on the phone once (before he shows up at the end). The ever-skippable B-story disappears entirely, with James Ransone’s Damon showing up only as a photograph. Essentially, the show yokes us to Frank as he, desperate and frantic after Katia’s death, spins out of control and embarks on a desperate series of actions seemingly designed to burn those elements of the show to the ground. Honestly, it’s a shame that he doesn’t succeed.
The episode begins with a battered Frank in the back of a squad car. One of his pupils is ringed with blood. He slurs his exhausted words, bantering absently with the rookie cop guarding him. Frank’s clearly been through it, and we’re led to assume he’s been picked up after his typically lunkheaded frontal assault on the webcam house where he believed he’d find Katia. But it’s a swerve, as we’re actually seeing Frank as he’ll be at the end of Frank And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, a piece of structural ingenuity Low Winter Sun traditionally has no room for. It’s all of a piece with “Ann Arbor,” where the dead weight of the series is ceded to Mark Strong’s performance—and he seizes it, especially once he makes his way to the placid suburban home of his heretofore-unmentioned ex-wife, played by Jennifer Ehle.
Coming at the three-quarter mark, this scene is like a visitor from another, much better show. After storming around Detroit, taunting Joe and Dawson with false information, and visiting some choice locations of Motown ruin porn, Frank carjacks some nice lady at the airport where he’d planned to skip the country for Germany and pounds on his ex-wife’s door. And thus begins the most remarkable scene in a bad show I can ever remember.
Ehle (I’m going to call her Ehle from now on, because, after watching this scene four times, I can confirm that she’s never named once), meets Frank, against whom she has a restraining order, with a barely restrained initial rage which gradually reveals the depths of pain and resentment she’s stored up against Frank for years. Sure, their bust-up seems to be of the “you were too into your job!” cop vs. ex-wife cliché, but Ehle makes that well-trod dramatic pretext affectingly specific, especially when she reveals how Frank’s continuing cockeyed obsession with sending her care packages has kept her afraid— and bound to him. Apart from that fact that she’s never given a damned name, Ehle stands her ground against Frank’s unwanted intrusion with the dramatic integrity of the protagonist of her own series, a formidable agent of her own destiny. Strong and Ehle are on equal footing here, and as the scene escalates, over 10 genuinely gripping minutes, it’s easy to imagine it being shown for their shared Emmy clips.
Making room for several truly intense and dramatic turns, this scene finally sheds some light onto Frank’s character and his relationship with Katia. Frank Agnew clearly (as David Costabile’s IA detective states later) “has women troubles.” It doesn’t make Frank’s character any more integrated or consistent, but at least it backfills why he was so unrealistically besotted with the ambivalently worthy Katia. And it provides the background that underlies this scene, especially when Ehle calls him on his rosy recollections of their rocky marriage. Frank’s unstable with women, even when he’s not desperately planning to flee the country and waving a gun around, and his extended confrontation with Ehle provides more insight into Low Winter Sun’s protagonist than we got from the previous eight episodes combined.
When Frank, at the end of his rope, urges Ehle to take care of the infant son she never wanted to have with him while he holds his gun under his chin, there’s no doubt, except that there’s still another episode to go, that he’s going to pull the trigger. And when Ehle, trying to stop him, breaks through his suicidal intentions by repeating, “Frank! Frank! Frank!,” the levels inside the words speak volumes. Ehle, while never conceding one inch of her justified anger at Frank’s violation, still manages to convey the deeply buried love she still bears for him. Honestly, it’s one of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen all year.
Unfortunately, “Ann Arbor” gives way to “Surrender,” the final episode of the season, where the accumulated plot creaks back to somnambulant life, especially as it highlights the ham-fisted tonal shifts the show’s been notorious for. In it, Frank’s liberating, anarchic impulses—where he phoned up every relative of the murder victims in order to instruct them how to contest Joe and Brendan’s crooked classifications of the deaths as suicides—gives way with bewildering placidity to his attempt to clear Sean of the various murders he and Joe were involved with. (Disgraced ex-officer Sean had copped to the crimes to spare Frank at the end of “Ann Arbor,” another solid twist the episode managed to spring in defiance of precedent.) The tonal shifts in this series have been one of its most maddening deficiencies, and between episodes Frank’s demeanor changes so drastically as to suggest that the show’s been crafted by isolated teams of writers unaware of anything but the most basic outlines of the story.
Remember when Joe threw Frank’s beloved Katia out of a hotel window last episode? Well the inevitable confrontation between Frank and Joe comes down to a few scenes of growly shrugs. (“I should kill you.” “Probably.”) It’s a complete failure of the promised battle of wits (and dramatic chops) between Strong’s Frank and Lennie James’ Joe. The B-plot similarly concludes with a pair of perfunctory gunshots—Damon and Nick hit Skelos, then Reverend Lowdown hits Damon. Farewell, characters Low Winter Sun failed to make remotely compelling. And the series’ raison d'être? That’s the biggest disappointment of all.
David Costabile’s internal affairs cop Boyd has been building the case against Joe and Frank since the first episode, and, more importantly, the show itself has been built on the idea that that murder would be the driving force of the narrative. Ultimately, Boyd gets his promised Hercule Poirot moment in front of Frank, Joe, and the assembled weight of the district attorney, DPD, and mayor’s office, only to see his preternaturally accurate reconstruction of Brendan’s murder trumped by bargain-basement evidence tampering and institutional expediency. As a denouement, this travesty could be seen as a resonant encapsulation of Detroit’s inherent corruption (“Forget it Boyd—it’s Detroit-town...”), but instead it plays as a flabby summary of Low Winter Sun’s intrinsic laziness. Again, no matter how interesting Costabile tries to make Boyd, if his role is to be absolutely right about everything, it undermines both the credibility of his character and the formidability of the main characters—his failure to land the show’s central case parallels the show’s inability to make viewers imagine that it would matter one way or another if he did.
- As good as much of it is, “Ann Arbor” can’t escape the show’s prosaic nature entirely. In response to Frank’s half-crazed voicemail, “I haven’t eaten, I haven’t slept. I feel like a god,” Joe responds with one of his own: “You feel like a god? What does that mean?”
- Similarly, after Frank accuses Dawson of being on the take because he has a swimming pool, he receives a voicemail from Dawson explaining, “[My wife’s] dad, he comes from money. That’s how I afford my house!”
- In the scene between Frank and Ehle, Frank’s line, “And you know that spot where I don’t like to be touched? She could put her hand there, I didn’t mind” comes off as unintentionally humorous, right? Just me?
- When Frank sets up office (complete with loudly squawking police scanner) in his favorite diner and starts calling the relatives of all the people Joe and Brendan falsely classified as suicides, there’s a nice, manic energy—Frank is losing it, and it looks good on him. Then Trey (Frank’s boxer) comes to pick up his car and Frank lectures him on the gun and drugs he saw inside (“It’s the wrong path”), ripping him out of crazed (more interesting) Frank mode and back into “Frank’s a good cop!” mode. Because Frank is a good cop!
- Just as Boyd is Low Winter Sun’s tragic figure, David Costabile is its most unfortunate victim. Ever alive on screen, Costabile elevates every scene he appears in, even though the lines he’s given are routinely feeble. Never so clear as in his big scene where, thwarted, he’s left to repeat, “You know I’m right” about 30 times. Valiantly attempting to wring some gravitas out of so under-imagined a confrontation, the poor guy ends up pinned like a bug to the screen, thrashing around to diminishing effect.
- In Boyd’s final scene, where, having resigned from the (even more corrupt than he’d imagined) DPD, he comes home and strips down to his underwear, I found myself hoping he was then going to don a superhero suit and chase justice on his own terms The pudgy, middle-aged vigilante that Detroit needs right now—It’s Boydman!
- Frank, after spending an episode planning to flee, or take down the department, or kill himself, is now hell-bent on making sure Sean doesn’t go down for three murders, one of which Frank committed. Why doesn’t Frank just confess? Finger Joe? Because his character as written, right up to the end, makes no damned sense. That’s why.
- Thanks for reading and commenting along with me, gang. I’ll see you all in season two! Or, you know, somewhere else that will actually exist.