The thought has been in the back of my mind ever since the première, but it didn’t hit me until tonight that next week may bring the last episode of Southland. If that’s the case, there are a lot of threads to tie up, but knowing how a typical season leaves some things resolved and others open-ended—which lines up with the quotidian depiction of police life throughout the series—I’m not expecting much closure. Still, if next week is the end, then at least Southland goes out with its strongest season, and its strongest consecutive run of episodes.
There’s never been an episode of Southland as breathlessly terrifying as “Chaos,” which departs from the usual string-of-vignettes structure, instead circling all the major characters around one harrowing incident. It eschews the very thing that singles out Southland as unique from most other cop shows, but the exhausting tunnel vision makes this episode stand out as a special episode of the season. There is no overarching moral quandary to be solved. This episode strips all of that complexity away to one innate desire: survive.
At the beginning of the episode, I wasn’t so sure I would like where it goes with Cooper and Lucero. After Lucero makes yet another homophobic remark, Cooper asks him if he’d like to get a beer, then takes him to a gay bar and ambushes Lucero with the truth: Cooper is gay, so stop saying homophobic bullshit. Lucero pulls the notoriously erroneous “I was just joking,” excuse, but his true feelings emerge when he tries to fight Cooper outside the bar after some more drinks, loses, then calls Cooper a faggot. That makes the list of things we know about Henry Lucero:
- lying about his family stability,
- unable to mask his homophobia.
But the next morning while on silent patrol, Lucero and Cooper respond to a mysterious call in a large abandoned building, where they find an addled man rummaging around. Lucero gets sloppy, and a second meth head hits him in the face with the butt of a rifle, and the two crazies strip the officers, handcuff them, throw them in their truck, and drive out of the city to their dusty and beaten-down house.
“Chaos” reminds me of one of the saddest and most disturbing early episodes of Breaking Bad: “Peekaboo,” when two meth addicts turn the captor/captive tables on Jesse while trying to break into an ATM. But “Chaos” conveys much more immediate danger for Cooper and Lucero. They have no uniforms, no equipment, and no knowledge of their location—wonderfully shot in a 30-second long take in the back of the truck as they arrive at the house. And worst of all, they are at the whim of two drug-addled, paranoid monsters with no idea what they’re doing.
Michael Cudlitz has earned his fair share of shouting lines and lengthy monologues, but in “Chaos” he shows a more muted and physical acting prowess, always attempting to placate, protect, and bolster Lucero’s resolve, even after a lengthy torture sequence with a blowtorch. In these moments, the conflict of the previous night disappears immediately, as Cooper fiercely struggles to hold onto hope, trying to keep Lucero’s spirits up in the face of tremendous pain.
And even as Lydia and Ruben race to track down a location, following police-issue clothes on a homeless man to a dumpster to security footage to a license plate, it still yields incorrect information. All seems lost, but it’s a theoretical hopelessness, as it seems like so many other dire situations on Southland. Somehow, someway, the officers and detectives will thwart the happenstance abductors.
Then in one character flip, everything changes from potential to realized terror. The misdirection of the loudmouth abductor should be easy to suss out, but that doesn’t make it any less shocking when the buzzcut pipsqueak makes the rash decision to shoot Lucero in the head. And once the murder occurs, the meth-head mastermind, who had been going crazy with rage throughout the day, suddenly starts whimpering and wants to bail on the whole situation. He does, leaving Cooper with the chance to escape after digging a shallow grave intended for him and Lucero to share. I’ll be honest, I never connected much with Nate Moretta, and though his death came as a shock so early in a season and after so much dedicated to the Sammy/Nate partnership, I felt more for Lucero not a half hour after a disgusting display of homophobia. Lucero giving up, crying, mumbling prayers as Cooper tries in vain to save them, only ushering in Lucero’s doom faster—that is the saddest, most grotesque rug-pull of a scene scene Southland has ever achieved.
The only thing that brings the episode down just a tad is the disconnected Sam/Ben story. After Ben’s drastic actions last week, he’s now concerned with keeping everything covered up, but Sammy isn’t interested in leaving the investigation to the assigned detectives. That’s going to make things much more difficult for Ben, who’s dealing with his painter girlfriend’s brother pulling other jobs, wearing Sammy’s leather jacket, and demanding help in keeping him out of jail for other crimes. Add to that Ben’s now ex-girlfriend Brooke, who calls him incessantly, then shows up at the station threating to “suck all the cocks in Alvarado division,” and it’s very hard to feel any sympathy for poor corrupt Ben Sherman juggling multiple girls and trying to keep his partner from realizing he put his son in danger—especially when Cooper has to run for his life to a closed gas station in the same episode.
Sammy slowly picks up the breadcrumbs leading back to Ben’s involvement, but when they reach Strokeface, the leader of the gang whose signs were painted on Sammy’s walls, the guy makes the mistake of fleeing from the scene, then running through a construction site, ending in a gruesome fall onto some exposed rebar. This is darkly fortuitous for Ben, but Sammy doesn’t seem satisfied to just let this one go with an accidental death.
As far as setup for a capstone, Cooper now has an incredibly compelling reason to join his old FTO in retirement, the most brutal physical and emotional trauma of any officer on Southland not killed in the line of duty. His back has been reinjured, his mind will be haunted by the fact that his attempts to escape and save Lucero ultimately contributed to his partner’s murder. Why the captors took out their anger on Lucero exclusively is just one of those things that can’t be answered—perhaps Lucero started it all with another visceral reaction to the suggestion of homosexuality, but in any case it’s an exceedingly sad and visceral episode of television. This season has been John Cooper’s story, and after the personal high of reconnecting with his ex-wife and planning to raise a child, Southland dug deep for a cavernous low point, illustrating once again how the good and bad go hand in hand for the LAPD.
I cannot accurately express how much I want Southland to continue, but considering the way the episodic “day in the life” narrative structure, there will never be a satisfying end point for these characters unless they leave the force. Watching each and every one of them up to that point would be fine by me.
- HSMotW: There are only two choices: blowtorch or headshot. Take your pick, either one made me feel like curling into a ball. Did anyone else need to walk around and take a breather?
- This is the second episode of the season written by Zack Whedon. It feels like a knee-jerk reaction at this point, but he may be able to lay claim to the two best-written episodes of the series.
- After all the times Cooper has saved Dewey’s ass, it was nice to see him wigging out at the thought of Cooper in worse danger than he’d ever been in before.
- There’s hope for Sammy the reformed ladies’ man yet.
- My reaction to Brooke’s threat to Ben: Yeah, that’ll show him what he’s missing! You do that! Children are the future!
- The only moment for Ruben or Lydia outside of searching for Cooper comes right at the beginning, as Lydia introduces Russell to her son. Something more is going on there.