It’s probably a bad sign for a gritty, intense cop drama when a viewer bursts out laughing at its most “shocking” plot twist. But I did. Out loud. Something like a guffaw. Completely spontaneous. Lasting longer than any laugh at the jokes in a certain comedy show I watched on the same day. My wife came into the room to see what was so funny.
Again—not a good sign, right?
Sigh. Look—I think we’ve all given Low Winter Sun more than a fair chance to prove itself by this point. I’ve begun most of my reviews of this show with disclaimers about the talented people involved in its making and playing devil’s advocate before launching into a dispassionate dissection of where the show goes off the rails, on every level. Structure, performance, authenticity, plot logic, focus, emotional complexity, local color—all failing in differing degree and resulting in one of the most plodding, obvious, and alternately dreary and ludicrous cop shows of the season. Sure, its post-Breaking Bad position set viewers’ expectations unreasonably high, but nothing about this show has fulfilled even the most modest expectations of it being “the next big AMC quality drama.” Or just a quality drama.
Unfair? With the ads for tonight’s episode promising big changes and startling developments, let’s see how things actually played out, and you tell me.
Frank and Joe are in court. Not pursuant to the case they’re working on (and that the whole series is predicated on), no. They’re brought in to testify about a completely unrelated murder they worked years ago, another in the series of minor sub-plots Low Winter Sun keeps ladling on (see: Joe’s rebellious daughter, Maya’s abandoned kids, Dani’s plans to become a lawyer). Intended to broaden the show’s world and its characters, each such development, bereft of inherent interest, simply piles up, unintegrated, one upon the other. In this particular subplot, there’s some badgering from the defense attorney about the idea that Frank’s absurdly stellar super-cop clearance rate (some 30 percent above the rest of the Detroit PD’s) is the result of fudging. Chicanery, even. It’s another attempt to add color to Frank’s antihero status—except here Frank, the ADA, and even the judge shut that noise down. Frank’s a super-cop, and Low Winter Sun wants everyone to know it at every opportunity, dammit!
Joe and Frank used to be partners before Joe went bad. We learn this when Joe states, “None o’ this woulda happened, if we stayed partners.” Because Frank is a good cop and Joe is a bad cop. The promised complexity of the Joe/Frank relationship outlined in the first episode has been reduced to exactly that.
Damon and Maya are now working for Skelos. (These are three characters in the show’s B-story, in case you forgot.) Damon’s father was forced to work for Skelos in a similar manner, when he knuckled under in oder to protect young Damon. Now Damon agrees to do Skelos’ bidding in order to protect Maya’s kids—the ones she abandoned years ago and never sees. As the godfather of “Greektown,” Alon Aboutboul’s Skelos has the sort of purring, nasal, foreign accent (think The Fugitive’s Jeroen Krabbe) tailor-made to threaten James Bond, not James Ransone’s pipsqueak punk. Lines like Skelos’ “You know, I’m not going to kill you, Damon. I hope never to kill you... because there’ll be no need” are wasted menacing a guy who just wants to sell cocaine and fried chicken.
Speaking of Damon’s crew (what some of you commenters have taken to calling the “li’l gangsters”), this episode sees his blond henchman (no distinguishing characteristics) finally develop one characteristic—a stereotypically slangy way of expressing himself (“You gotta do right by Mike’s family. If there’s money to be had, you gotta give some to his next of!”)—right before he decides he doesn’t want to work for Skelos. He is replaced in Damon’s diminishing crew by Billy Lush’s shell-shocked ex-soldier Nick, who was featured in the series’ one distinctively imaginative sequence a few episodes ago, so that’s something, although Damon’s current plan to murder Skelos doesn’t look any more compelling than his idea to open the “blind pig”/brothel/chicken shack.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s lieutenant finally has it out with bad cop Joe in a rooftop throwdown about Joe’s general bad cop-ness, only to be immediately blackmailed into scuttling any further investigation of a damning connection to Brendan’s murder. See, the Lieutenant had been signing off on the series of murders which Joe and Brendan had been writing off as suicides on behalf of Skelos, and the revelation that two of his cops were doing something so sneaky on his watch will cost the lieutenant his dream of a corner office with a river view. Santiago-Hudson, like so many on this show, struggles manfully to generate some immediacy to his character’s plight here, but apart from a repeated “Oh... my... God...” he’s fighting a hopeless battle.
Desperate to prove its “gritty” street cred, Low Winter Sun continues to pepper episodes with would-be startling acts of violence. Unfortunately, as the show’s characters and situations recede further in interest, the show’s violence stands out as garish and gratuitous. To Damon’s urine swirly last episode add some bafflingly unnecessary home dentistry this time out when Frank yanks Sean’s rotten tooth out graphically with a par of pliers. (Sean, Frank’s drunk of an ex-cop colleague was introduced as having a bad tooth at one point, presumably just for this one scene. Thanks, Low Winter Sun.)
Poor Dani—right about everything, suspicious about those things before being proven right, and now berated by Frank for being “lazy” and “moaning” because things aren’t going her way. (“Do your job before you bitch about how Dawson does his, okay?”) Frank walks away, leaving Dani to look after him, suspiciously—and correctly. Both Athena Karkanis’ Dani and David Costabile’s IA detective Boyd are invariably 100 percent correct in their suspicions and conclusions 100 percent of the time, and their characters are far less interesting because of it. (Although Costabile at least appears to still be having some fun with his role—his scene inviting the lieutenant out to dinner provides yet another example of Costabile being the only person in the episode with something like an actual personality.)
Speaking of performance—by this point in the series, the thinness of their characters is taking a toll on both Mark Strong and James Ransone. Tasked with conveying intense emotion, each actor is left stranded without an emotional core, and their “big moments” in this episode smack of effort. In the scene where he plans Skelos’ murder and argues with Maya, Ransone seems to be succumbing to Andrew McCarthy syndrome, a crippling dramatic condition where strong emotion causes the character to bug his eyes out as far as he can. (That, coupled with Ransone’s thick, over-expressive eyebrows continue to give Damon a certain muppet quality that, strangely, works against his portrayal of an intense, brooding thug.) Strong, too, is running out of ways to make sense of his character, with Frank’s own big scene—an anonymous webcam chat with Katia where he gets his prostitute former lover to admit that she loves him—producing precisely none of the emotional resonance such a sure-fire setup promises. Like Ransone, Strong’s left to flail around searching for something to hang his portrayal on, and comes across strained and bland in the process. (Plus, his signature Frank tortured expression—mournful eyes under beetled brows—has its own muppet-esque air. Think about Sam the Eagle and then watch this scene again.) Sprague Grayden, too, gets one physical trait (Maya’s precisely-tousled hair) to express her inner life.
And then we come to the episode’s big twist, onto which I’ll throw a big SPOILER warning—everyone should really experience this one for him/herself.
Joe, dumping his mama and daughter off at the Alvin Ailey dance company performance in Chicago, lures Katia to a suspiciously high-up hotel room and lulls her into a false sense of security with a big stack of cash, and an apology for telling her that one time that he’d kill her if he ever saw her again. And then he suddenly pitches her over the balcony.
That’s the part where my wife walked in to see what was so funny.
Why was this theoretically pivotal moment in Low Winter Sun so unintentionally hilarious? Well, the direction doesn’t help, with the artless quick cut to Joe’s act and Katia’s silent exit over the railing causing me to fill in the scene with a cartoonish sound effect in my head. (For the record, it was something like “NYOIY!!!”) Or that I immediately flashed to Sheldon Leonard’s line as the bartender in It’s A Wonderful Life (“Out you two pixies go—through the door or out the window!”) Or that Joe’s nonchalant buildup to the murder of Katia (perhaps the least-canny hardened Eastern European prostitute in TV history) is so transparent. But mainly due to the fact that, after all the ineffectual plot machinations Low Winter Sun has thrown at us all season, it’s just impossible to care what happens to any of these people.
- Low Winter Sun “Detroit is a bad place” shorthand: Both times we’ve seen Frank leave his house for work, he picks up empty pint bottles from off his lawn.
- In case that didn’t bring the point home, the lieutenant’s cry to the heavens, “Only in Detroit! Only in this Godforsaken, firebombed hellhole!” should do the trick.
- Similar to his failure at the computer, Strong’s Frank, driving feverishly to keep Joe from killing Katia, just looks edgy and irritated. Like he’s going to be late for a movie.
- More proof of Frank’s brilliant supercop tactical prowess: Showing up at Katia’s webcam house with a broken table leg and going all Buford Pusser on the bouncer before yelling “Katia!” over and over again. He does yell it pretty loudly.
- Joe’s question about IA surveillance “Why do I have a tail?” made me wish I were watching trained Shakespearean actor Lennie James as Bottom in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
- Sean’s later observation about similar surveillance of Frank, “You’ve got a tail. Blue impala.” similarly set my mind a-wander. Maybe Mark Strong transformed into a heroic antelope in a Pixar movie? I’d watch that.
- Homeless guy Sean gets his own monologue about wanting to see his kids, making me flash back to Tom Jane on Arrested Development (“I just want my kids back!”) I think this show may have broken me.
- Santiago-Hudson continues the entertaining tradition of characters being humorously bewildered by Boyd’s eccentricity. His delivery of the line, “Why the hell am I here, you peculiar little prick?” earns him his one laugh of the series so far.
- Winner of the worst line of the episode award goes to the judge, admonishing the defense attorney: “You chose a dark path, Mister Pearce, don’t curse the thorns.”