Looking back to the very first scene in the series, Low Winter Sun has held out the promise of an escalating succession of intense confrontations between Joe and Frank. (And a series of acting showdowns between Lennie James and Mark Strong.) In that first scene, when viewers (at least those who hadn’t been watching the overly spoiler-y ads) didn’t know what was coming, there was undeniable frisson in watching these two good actors, with their photogenically severe faces, matching wits and chops as they talked around what they were planning to do—Strong’s Frank haunted and drunkenly ambivalent, James’ Joe strutting around and inciting him to action. Again, looking back, there was a show there—a cop show, to be sure, but one replete with possibilities.
What’s been most disappointing thus far is how little the writers and creator Chris Mundy have made of what they have. Apart from Strong and James, Low Winter Sun has a handful of decent supporting talent (especially David Costabile and The Wire’s James Ransone), and the innate potential of the infamously decrepit city of Detroit as its setting. And the show has squandered all of it, so far, turning out to be, instead, a loudly empty simulacrum of every quality police show it tries to emulate, underpopulated and under-imagined. And the promised game of wits between two tough Detroit cops on the edge, as evidenced by the climactic face-off at the end of tonight’s episode, remains a strident yelling contest of exposition and cop show cliché.
As the episode begins, it seems that the show’s two stubbornly disparate plot threads will finally come together, with Frank hauling in Damon’s crew in order to question them about the murder of the drug dealer at the trap house. With their lieutenant (Ruben Santiago-Hudson, your go-to cop show boss) urging them to tie the crew into Brendan’s murder as well, Frank, Dani (Athena Karkanis), and Joe split up to question, respectively, Damon, Gus (the one with the chicken-fried hand), and the other guy (no distinguishing characteristics). Apparently, Frank has gotten over his good-cop reluctance to frame someone else for his crime between episodes, and he immediately goes to work trying to position Damon as their chief suspect for both murders. Since he’s the DPD’s finest homicide investigator, that means we’re in for a scene of masterful gamesmanship between Frank and the wily Damon, right?
Nope. Instead, Frank and Damon toss some standard cop show banter for about 60 seconds before the scene gives way with striking abruptness—as soon as Damon responds in kind to Frank’s insult of “his woman”—to some good ol’ police brutality. As soon as Damon’s head goes into a piss-filled toilet, courtesy of Frank, Joe, and the complicity of the lieutenant and Dani, Low Winter Sun’s continuing lack of authenticity is underscored. Not that cops don’t abuse suspects, but this iteration of the Detroit PD continues to be as slapdash and inconsistently portrayed as the rest of the show. As underpopulated as it is, Low Winter Sun has been portraying the DPD as a fundamentally decent organization, shot through with a few bad apples. There’s nothing wrong with creating a vision of the beleaguered, overwhelmed police department of a dying American city as having fallen victim to rampant corruption and violence—as long as you portray it that way. The show’s version of the department, like its depiction of its characters, has no dramatic integrity. It is what the plot needs it to be. Dani’s later outrage over Joe having “violated every one of [Damon’s] civil rights” is problematic, since she knows what Joe and Frank have already done to him in the bathroom. Yes, she’s upset that this particular act of police brutality has been witnessed and could damage the case, but Athena Karkanis’ reaction here makes no such fine distinctions: In the world of Low Winter Sun, plot drives character, and the driver is inattentive.
Frank is purported to be a brilliant homicide detective, but he immediately allows himself to be baited into a violent hissy fit by a mild insult. Even if he and Joe had their bathroom beatdown planned ahead of time, the (department-sanctioned) hairtrigger thuggery of his technique is hardly the stuff of great, respected detective work. And certainly not the stuff of great drama. Look at the following scene, where Frank and Dani take a cool-down stroll and Dani reveals that she visited the witness that Joe and Frank had badgered into fudging his descriptions of the guys he saw driving Brandan’s car into the river. (You know, since it was Frank and Joe who did it.) Frank’s abrupt segue to “talk about the other night” (when they slept together) could be read as some master manipulation by supposed supercop Frank to distract Dani from her suspicions, only it doesn’t play that way at all, with Frank’s boyishly awkward approach echoing exactly his impossibly naïve entreaties to Katia in the last episode. There are no colors to Frank except those the script dictates, the only contradictions to be found the result of the inconsistent writing.
The whole interrogation sequence is one missed dramatic opportunity after another—this sequence, clearly meant to ratchet up the tension as each interrogation proceeds, plays out to indifference: a series of loud, inert shouting matches which don’t build on each other, but exist in dull, yell-y isolation. (Dani vs. Gus: “Which one killed Billy Hobson?!” “Neither!” “Which one!” “Neither!”) In addition, there’s just some terrible interrogation technique going on in the scene, with Frank practically abetting Damon and Maya getting their story straight. (Why separate the two if you’re going to ferry the message from Maya that the play is to pin the drug dealer’s murder on dead pal Michael to Damon? Especially since Frank’s plan is to frame all the various murders on Damon? Frank could not be more helpful to Damon here if he were working for him.) This whole sequence, aiming for both heightened drama and grubby realism, instead comes across as TV-conventional and thoroughly contrived.
Regardless of their questionable police work, the detectives seem poised to get Damon to confess to everything in exchange for leniency for Maya, at least until Joe goes apeshit and starts beating him, this time not in a gratuitously gross bathroom, but in full view of the squad and its security cameras. There are narrative reasons for this, as Joe received a call from crime boss Skelos ordering him to sabotage Damon’s confession, but, again, the creaking to life of the plot machine sends whatever drama this sequence has generated (not a lot, admittedly) leaking out, with none of the characters allowed an opportunity to register their reaction in any meaningful way.
Rushed, unconvincing, and contrived, these scenes force the actors to rely on performance shorthand since their characters are so sketchily drawn. The problem is in these “powerful” scenes, at no time am I responding to what the characters are going through, instead occasionally thinking admiringly, “Wow, Lennie James yelled that line really well.” The same goes for the later scene at the bar where the recently-sprung Maya and junkie/drunkie ex Sean share their troubles over some whiskey. Despite Sprague Grayden’s solid work here (Trevor Long remains too showy as Sean), the only thing to admire is the technique, as neither character has been given any inner life of his/her own. So much of the experience of watching Low Winter Sun has been plucking out the moments when a talented actor manages to lend a little color to his or her flat, poorly-conceived character. Like when David Costabile’s internal affairs cop shows up at Dani’s door and lends his signature deadpan snark to the line, “I hear Joe Geddes was a little bit off today.” You take what enjoyment you can, I suppose...
As in the episode’s climax, where all the day’s histrionics lead up to another showdown between Frank and Joe, this time on Joe’s boat, drifting evocatively in the darkness past the city lights. As noted, these confrontations between the show’s two marquee stars should be the heart of Low Winter Sun, but when they come they’re invariably little more than expositional shouting matches. Strong and James do what they can, but the script, credited to Melanie Marnich, loads them down with overheated cliches, and all they can do is shout them past one another into the emptiness.
- Again, Joe and Frank wait all of—literally—three seconds for the other cops to vacate the (wide open) break room before discussing, at full voice, their plans to steer the investigation back to Damon. How have they not been caught yet?
- After his initial swirly technique fails, Frank has a few more questions for Damon, and then it’s back to the bathroom for some more brutality (thankfully urine-less this time). Such is brilliant cop Frank’s technique.
- Sample dialogue from Joe and Frank’s big showdown include:
-“I don’t give a rat’s ass!”
-“That prick—he’s givin’ me a headache.”
-“You see that river Frank? That’s me—always seeking the path of least resistance.”
-“I hope God can see that you sold your soul for a couple of bucks!”
-“All those families that didn’t get justice! You lied to them all!”
- “Yeah, and it sticks in your craw for a while, then it just goes away.”
-“That noose around your neck is gonna get tighter and tighter!”
- Frank’s relationship with Katia remains baffling. His accusation to Joe (“You destroyed her. She was innocent. She was worth saving. And now I can’t”) makes no sense. She was a hooker when Frank was with her. An innocent hooker? And why is she beyond saving now? Because she’s living in Chicago and doing webcam shows?