Southland: “Babel”
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Southland: “Babel”

The opening flash-forward, freeze-frame, and narration scene is the one major stylistic constant over Southland’s four-plus seasons. Though it’s always a bit hokey, sometimes it frames an episode well, and this week is certainly one of those times. “Babel” explores many different kinds of miscommunication: between LAPD partners, Training Officers and their boots straight out of the academy, the myriad non-English speaking citizens of Los Angeles and the police, and within the personal lives of the officers. Though Southland rarely unites plotlines under a theme with subtlety, each of the main characters deal with miscommunication or utter failure to communicate in some fashion. The most obvious representation of theme comes from the dispatch system, which malfunctions early on, forcing everyone to work the old fashioned way, responding to calls later than normal. Though Lydia and Ruben don't typically deal with this system, establishing the malfunctioning lines of communication goes a long way toward illustrating just how discombobulated the police force can be when dealing with 4 million people who speak 100 different languages.

Let’s start with the two most significant scenes of the night, both with Sammy and Ben. Tammi was the least developed character on Southland for the first few seasons, and the most prone to dragging an episode down. And in her initial appearance this season, it appeared that nothing had changed. But tonight introduces the very real possibility that Tammi isn’t being crazy and isn’t on drugs, as Sammy’s perspective pains her. Sammy’s paranoia and pent-up rage play an equal part in their increasingly strained relationship as separated parents to Nate.

It’s not just that Sammy confronts her, yells at her, and tosses out accusations of drugs and suddenly moving to Chicago in her face. Tammi can refute each of those thoughts with something Sammy does: calling all the time, possibly not knowing their custody schedule as perfectly as he implies. I’ve watched the scene a few times now, and it escalates once Tammi hits Sammy with her bag and slaps him. Sammy retaliates by grabbing her and beginning to arrest her, but Victor walking outside to film is the worst idea.

It’s a murky situation—Tammi yells for help while the camera rolls, Sammy appears more agitated at the camera than at what Tammi did, and it feeds right into his paranoia about Tammi’s intentions to take full custody. Tammi jumps on Sammy’s back, and the handheld camera POV shot cuts to Ben’s perspective, where he can’t see what’s going on.

And yet there’s Ben, still on the phone with Brooke the schoolteacher, finally getting out of the car once the shouting reaches a loud enough volume, and Sammy has his ex-wife backed up against whatever high voltage equipment sits on the street. Ben is the cop so focused on flirting that he’s late to intervene in what blows up to be an assault charge that could cost Sammy joint custody—but hey, at least he’ll say whatever Sammy wants, since it’s “our word versus hers” after Sammy grabs the camera Victor used to record the incident.

If we’re doling out blame, Sammy should not have shown up at Victor’s place and started a confrontation. But Tammi did start the physical part of the altercation, and Victor basically lobbed a grenade into the scenario with the camera. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that legal precedents side with the mother in situations like this, and Sammy should know better. This is a questionable confrontation on both sides, and as a completely broken down line of communication, it effectively portrays the difficulty Sammy feels with separating his personal life from his job.

The next time we see Ben and Sammy, it’s clear that Sammy is still on edge, worried about the consequences of his actions and perhaps unprepared for the rest of his shift. But then comes the tensest scene of the season so far—and it’ll be hard to top this—as they respond to a shots-fired call at an adult learning facility. The suspense ratchets up with each move, as Sammy and Ben progress into the building, passed by a running victim covered in blood. They follow the gunshot sounds down a dark stairway, into a gym, past more bodies and horrific carnage. And in the vulnerable, large open space, Ben gets close to the shooter, who unloads another shotgun round right next to Ben’s ear. Sammy returns fire to send the guy running, but Ben’s ear bleeds profusely—either karmic punishment for talking on the phone earlier or a physical representation of the Babel theme, as the timeline matches with the opening flash-forward. As happens so often on Southland, I didn’t realize until it was over that I was holding my breath the entire time.

Cooper starts the day telling his commanding officer that he no longer wants to train new officers, and he’s paired with Lucero for the time being, another senior officer with a comedic philosophy and the ability to give as good as he gets from Cooper. They have some great runners and vignettes—the poisoned, hallucinogenic lemonade stand is a particular highlight—but it all comes together when Cooper joins Dewey for a party with other old timers on a boat at night. Cooper’s old TO tells him that eventually the generational rift it too wide, that TOs can’t get through to the new recruits, and that’s a sign to retire. But Cooper is clearly still so committed to his job and the work he can do as an officer, he’s just disillusioned with why new officers join force, since it’s more of a paycheck and less of a calling.

Once again, the Lydia plotline gets the short shrift, and it’s starting to become a real problem that Regina King isn’t getting more fleshed-out plotlines. She and Ruben investigate the shooting death of a young college kid; tragically, the victim’s mother has now lost all three of her children to shooting deaths. Like last season, when Lydia took on several cases that mirrored her pregnancy, this resonates with her new motherhood. So does the scene of Ruben trading baby pictures with another detective. But Lydia also gets her Babel moment, when the wife of her son’s father shows up in the police-station parking lot to confront her. Given the end of the episode, it’s not clear whether Lydia tells the truth. Sure, she makes a crying phone call from the bathroom, and she does take a picture of her and her son, but she plants the seeds of doubt in this other woman that her husband is cheating with someone else. Given how Sammy rides the edge of trustworthiness in this episode, it’s not a stretch to think that Lydia is capable of the same duality.

Each example flares out like a spoke to illustrate the difficulty the LAPD faces when communicating with anyone, be it citizens or fellow officers. As a theme episode, this is Southland almost reaching its full potential. If the Lydia plot picks up, then a truly great episode is possible, but for now, the show strings together an array of stunning sequences with only a few minor disappointments along the way.

Stray observations:

  • My two favorite bits of humor: Sammy and Ben acting out the puppet show for the elementary-school class and reading the script off the back of their set, and Lydia’s aunt leaving the baby (with an obviously full diaper) and getting out without a word.
  • I’ve got more than few college friends who I know laughed heartily at all the “Deez nuts” throwaway lines.
  • Another great runner: Cooper and Lucero find a deaf, homeless addict who’s getting peed on by some young idiots. They take the guy home, and he turns out to be a prominent former crack kingpin. Quite the mix-up for the cops to help find and rescue the guy, especially when his sister looks mighty displeased that he’s back in her orbit.
  • HSMotW: Though the entire school shooting sequence is harrowing, I’ll pick the shot of Ben with his ears ringing as the shooter comes into focus, holding his gun. That’s a jaw-dropping shot, and the camerawork in the last 15 minutes of this episode is stellar.
  • “When you pay Tammy’s legal fees, then we can go to Intelligentsia.”

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