From its would-be striking first sequence, Low Winter Sun promised edgy, gritty thrills from a tried-and-true thriller setup (good cop does bad thing and tries to get away with it). But by only its fourth episode, “Catacombs,” showrunner Chris Mundy is showing an almost total lack of feel for where the strengths of his show lie. It might not have had the impact Mundy was banking on, but that initial sequence, where Frank succumbs to Joe’s manipulation and then uses his knowledge of police work to expertly cover up their resulting crime, set the stage for an intense battle of wills between the two. Instead, Low Winter Sun has each of them drifting off on dramatically inert tangents, only checking in from time to time to snarl at each other and advance the plot a little bit—seriously, in this episode, Joe and Frank share about five minutes of screen time. By this point, what initial promise there was has deflated into directionless faffing around.
The episode begins with Frank walking the mean streets of Windsor, Ontario, looking for his lost prostitute lady love Katia. Which is fine—Katia was involved somehow with the cop Frank and Joe murdered, so Frank’s pursuit of her (unlike much of the rest of the plot strands we’ll get to later) has some bearing on the show’s central narrative. Plus, in theory, it gives Mark Strong some dramatic opportunities, as his yearning for her is increasingly colored by suspicions that she (the Romanian prostitute) wasn’t telling him everything. The problem is that there’s no sense Frank is a hard-bitten, seen-it-all, street-wise Detroit cop—he blunders through his quest here like, well, you or I might.
Find a local pimp. Ask for pictures of his hookers (apparently all Canadian pimps carry whore composite cards). Miraculously find his lady love in the pimp’s picture stable. Fluff up pillows and watch Canadian football highlights waiting for her to arrive. Be crestfallen when it’s a different Romanian hooker instead. Despite ascertaining that said hooker doesn’t speak English, demand that she respond to your desperate entreaty, “I need to know who controls you—who controls girls like you, here in Windsor!” Be further surprised when her pimp responds to her cries with a gun butt to the shnoz despite your outraged complaint that, “You brought me the wrong girl!” Apart from his professional acumen (which, aside from his decisive actions faking dead cop Brendan’s suicide, viewers are continually told about rather than shown), Frank is written as unrealistically naïve about almost everything, and his tortured soul comes across as wet-eyed simpering.
Meanwhile, the show seems intent on broadening its supporting characters by revealing the least interesting things about them, extraneous details of their personal lives which do nothing but diffuse whatever lingering tension remains in the main plot—Brendan’s murder. So in this episode, we see Joe spar crabbily with his ex-wife and their teenage daughter, who’s been caught shoplifting and is coming to live with Joe and his Mama. And that Maya has two kids who she abandoned with her sister and never sees. And that Damon’s dad knuckled under to Skelos, and Damon’s mad about it and thinking of making a move against Skelos. Even if these parental conflicts were presented in compelling, affecting fashion (they’re not), they would still be bafflingly unnecessary.
Whatever remaining dramatic interest Low Winter Sun holds hinges on its central conceit—Joe and Frank’s crime and the resulting coverup—but the show persists in ceding the foreground to its side-plots, sapping the story’s momentum with each new, limp twist. While it’s true that Damon’s murder of the drug dealer at the trap house connects his new venture setting up the blind pig to Brendan’s murder, the resulting investigation, led by Athena Karkanis’ dully competent Muslim Detective Khalil, is pure dead space on screen. (Her dogged questioning of a potential witness in this episode is as perfunctory a four minutes of television as I’ve seen this year.) Like its Detroit setting, all of these expanding ancillary stories are intended as world-building. Instead, they’re poorly integrated distractions.
The chief such distraction, Damon’s attempt to set himself up as a major player in the Detroit crime scene, remains dramatically inert, no matter how many underage prostitutes and henchman deep-fryings it introduces. James Ransone’s yeoman service in the role notwithstanding, this subplot is simply not of equal interest to Frank and Joe’s, and Low Winter Sun keeps asserting that it is. (And, like Frank, Damon is ludicrously naïve about the realities of what he’s doing, being shocked—shocked I say!—that not every one of the drug-addicted hookers he’s lured to a makeshift brothel in an abandoned Detroit row house is 18 or older.) And while Damon’s developing friendship with one of the black henchmen sent to work with him by benefactor Reverend Lowdown is intended as an intriguing new element of potential conflict, instead it’s just another example of the show tossing an underdeveloped new character onto the pile.
Finally, Frank’s quest to find Katia sends him to the titular “Catacombs,” a Windsor sex dungeon where, once again, he’s disappointed to be sent a different Romanian prostitute instead. Frank’s journey here, culminating in him “taking some comfort there” (as Paul Simon might say) in not-Katia’s arms should be a big dramatic moment for Frank and for Strong. Unfortunately here, as in every other dramatic climax on Low Winter Sun thus far, the moment is inadequately set up and just sits there—intended to be an expression of Frank’s exhausted, crushing desperation as his search reaches yet another, seemingly final dead-end, this sequence unfolds in predictable lockstep. Penned in as he is by the pedestrian script, it’s hard not to feel bad for Mark Strong, especially as Frank is the sort of character he seems born to play. In movies like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Strong’s bullet head and mournful eyes are practically cinematic shorthand for “conflicted man of action,” but in Low Winter Sun he’s adrift, struggling manfully against a contradictory, nigh-unplayable character at the center of a show without direction.
- Despite his hotel room disappointment, Frank’s abandonment of that lead makes no sense. The pimp had Katia’s picture—therefore he knows her, or at least where to find her. Instead of running off to the Catacombs on the flimsiest of barroom gossip, why isn’t Frank following the conclusive lead he already has? Just maddening.
- Low Winter Sun continues to waste David Costabile. After sitting quietly in the squad room all day waiting for Frank, he attempts to reach out to Joe regarding his family problems in one of the most graceless character bits he’s been given so far, leading to Joe’s exasperated yet accurate assessment, “You’re a weird dude.”
- Oh, and there’s another new character, whose backstory is revealed as simultaneously complicated and very, very dull. Trevor Long’s Sean is both an ex-cop and Maya’s ex-husband who has become a stereotypical “colorful” wino, and Frank’s new sounding-board and possible roommate. At least he steals Frank a cat.
- When a prostitute wants Frank to prove he’s not a cop, he complies by showing her his penis. Which makes sense if... nope, it doesn’t make sense.
- In their one germane conversation about their ongoing criminal conspiracy, Frank again shows unrealistic naïveté, resisting Joe’s plan to frame someone else for their murder with a plan of “just doing our jobs and letting the case go cold.” Despite the fact that the high-profile murder of a policeman is the department’s highest priority.