Every character that Southland has followed since its premiere in spring 2009 resides in a moral gray area. John Cooper has his struggle with and addiction to painkillers, Sammy Bryant kidnapped a gang member and left him in the desert, Dewey Dudek got drunk on the job all the time, and Lydia Adams refused to do anything but ignore her pregnancy and abstain from talking about it with anyone. Even the smaller characters or ones that haven’t been on the show for every season — Russell, Chickie, Sal, Tang, and others — are never portrayed as one-sided, all good or all evil. Southland creates good characters because they are complicated and struggle with strengths and weaknesses. There are a number of exceptions, such as the whitewashed, upstanding Nate Morreta, or any number of Lydia’s interim partners who never stuck around long enough to become fully realized characters, but the well-rounded characterization is my favorite bit of authenticity on Southland.
But for all of that careful calculation, I can’t figure out what in the world sent Ben McKenzie’s character flying off the handle in tonight’s episode. It’s so uncharacteristic of the way Southland typically builds up to this kind of outburst that I was taken completely by surprise. When we’ve seen previous moral failings, they have been shocking. Sal had an affair with a news reporter, Tom Everett Scott’s physically handicapped and financially broke Russell Clarke sold cell phone pictures of a crime scene to pay his debts, and Dewey flipped a police car along the LA River with Chickie locked in the backseat. But all of those incidents had motivation, whether they were out of boredom or desperation. Ben tracking down and pummeling a pimp who beat up one of his hookers for talking to the cops comes out of nowhere.
Ben has been fiercely defensive about those he cares about, forcing his distant father away from his mother, blowing off his sister’s oblivious and privileged friends. But when he and Sammy search a house for squatters and discover a bunch of hookers, including one woman with her 13-year-old daughter, Ben starts to care just a little bit too much with every passing hour. First he yells at social services, then he keeps haranguing the mother to keep her daughter in line, even though the pimp is the girl’s father. It’s never clear as to why Ben chooses this day, this case, this woman to draw a line in the sand, but something sets him off. It’s fine to see him get a little darker, less of the golden boy in a way that doesn’t involve bedding countless anonymous women like a jackass, but with absolutely no justification, Ben’s sudden rash of violence, and Sammy’s fortunate intervention, feels unearned.
Sammy’s speech to Ben in the police locker room - that he has Ben’s back no matter what during their shift, but he won’t risk his pension or freedom off the clock — is an interesting parallel to Cooper’s attitude. Cooper seems very able to hit the pavement and forget about work, except for one child abduction and abuse case a few seasons ago. But now, facing strong suspicions that Tang did something wrong after accidentally shooting a teenager, he keeps meeting with his sobriety sponsor to talk things out. He can’t prove anything, only able to report what he saw, but now that the kid has woken up, and Tang is gunning for a promotion to sergeant, it’s clear that the issue won’t be dying away before the end of the season. The way Tang brings up the shooting as a way of strengthening her qualifications is particularly indicative that she isn’t as much like Cooper as it would seem. In fact, she’s more like Dewey, who basically tells her that as long as she can live with herself actions the day is over, then she shouldn’t care what anyone else thinks.
After all the silent buildup, seven weeks of putting off any sort of discussion, Lydia’s mom just pulls back the curtain on the identity of the father. It’s a married man named Terrell, and Lydia doesn’t want to get him involved — in yet another convenient mirroring of one way to piece together Lydia and Rueben’s investigation. Whether her actions are intended to keep from ruining this man’s family, or a way to keep the attention on her, as Lydia’s mother suggests, there isn’t a lot of information to be able to make an interpretation. Southland often plays so close to the vest, doling out tiny scruples of information until it can’t hold everything together and all of the on-the-nose conversations and feeling-dumps come out in one hour.
“God’s Work” is a surprisingly low stakes episode, where previous issues continue to drag on with only slight complication. Details of Lydia’s pregnancy and what caused it are coming out, Tang is trying to move on quickly, John is trying to keep from slipping into old habits, but for the most part this was just another hour that elongated the questions that were introduced early on in the season. I started out wondering after the first couple episodes whether or not there would be a season arc to the characters are there had been in previous season, but unlike what I would now call the superior third season, these eight episodes have moved each of the central four characters - John, Sammy, Ben, and Lydia — through fractured arcs, never moving all of them along at once. It’s a slow progression, and one that may be more realistic and true to life, but it’s been a disservice to the dramatic structure Southland was just starting to get consistently right.
- Messed Up Moment of the Week: It has to go to the white woman who panics and shoots a black man who was following her out of a store and into a parking lot. After Cooper searches around for about a minute, he finds the woman’s car keys, which the man was trying to give back to her. That was some succinctly heavy stuff.
- Tang tells the woman that it’s very important to tell the detectives everything, and answer as truthfully as possible. The way John looks over at her while she says this communicates everything we need to know about their broken partnership.
- Lydia and Rueben investigate the death of a nanny in a parking structure. The woman is pregnant, and they initially suspect the father of the kids killed the nanny to keep the baby a secret, but that turns out to be a false lead. However, the baby is left unexplained — which must be why Lydia’s baby finally got an explanation.