Tonight’s Terriers was co-written by Phoef Sutton and Jon Worley, the guys previously credited with “Change Partners” and “Fustercluck,” respectively; and it was directed by John Dahl, a veteran crime-pic helmer best known for the ‘90s neo-noirs Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. So it’s fair to say that Terriers had an A-team in place for “Agua Caliente,” and outside of one minor complaint, I’d say the A-team stepped up.
“Agua Caliente” has more of a unified storyline than the last couple of episodes, and though it’s bound together by a strong theme, it’s not as blunt about expressing it as “Ring-A-Ding-Ding” or “Missing Persons.” This episode was all about exploring the partnership of Hank and Britt, by pulling them apart.
The guys start out in the same place: on a golf course, where Hank is putting like a pro and Britt’s duffing it up. They’re there to serve legal papers to one of the club’s members, but when their prey sees the document in Britt’s hand, he flees. It’s up to Hank to give chase through the fancy clubhouse to the grubby underground cart-shed (a nifty visual metaphor for Terriers itself). When Hank finishes the job, he emerges from the dank and finds Britt’s cell phone laying on the ground, with no Britt in sight and only a patch of burnt tire-rubber on the pavement as a clue.
So to find his new partner, Hank has to call on his old one: Detective Mark Gustafson, who gets more screen-time in this episode than he has before, and is put to excellent use. I don’t know whether the credit’s due to Rockmond Dunbar (who plays Gustafson), or to Dahl, or to Sutton and Worley, or to Terriers’ editors, but much of what’s really going on in “Agua Caliente” is conveyed in Gustafson’s muttered asides and reactions. It’s in the way Gustafson studies Hank’s face while Hank’s telling another cop what he knows about Britt’s past, to see if Hank’s lying. And it’s in the way that—after they find out Britt was grabbed by a Mexican drug cartel and taken to Tijuana—Gustafson is swayed by Hank’s enthusiastic entreaty, “Come with me, Mark, the kid’s in trouble,” and the allure of being able to do what he thinks is right for once without worrying about its legality.
Meanwhile, across the border, Britt comes to and realizes that the man responsible for his predicament is his old partner Ray, who lost some of the cartel’s product and has promised the scary gun-toting drug men that there’s not a vault in Mexico that Britt can’t break into, nor any swag Britt can’t grab. One problem: this particular swag is sitting in the evidence room of the local PD. An even bigger problem: the cartel has a man tailing Britt’s not-yet-fiancée Katie back in Ocean Beach, and will kill her unless he gets a call by 6 saying that Britt’s come through.
And so we get a classic Terriers plan. Britt picks a fight with Ray in a bar to get them both arrested, then Ray shits out a condom full of lockpicks. (Britt: “You wash that?” Ray: “It was in a rubber!”) While Britt’s doing his always-cool-looking skulking-about move and locating the detergent boxes full of drugs he’s meant to snatch, Ray punches out a cop, steals his uniform, and perp-walks Britt out the door with the stash. What follows is a classic Terriers complication. When they get back to the warehouse hideout, Britt and Ray find that the bad guys have been pinned down by their scary gun-toting drug bosses. And before the boys can walk in and give back the missing product and get the cartel’s enforcer called off of Katie, the bosses shoot everybody in the room, effectively crushing Britt’s chances to save his girl.
Except that Britt is Britt—persistent and fearless. One of the things I love about this show is that the writers have a great feel for their characters’ defining traits, and as I’ve noted week after week, Britt’s not one for elaborate ruses if he can avoid them. Sometimes this works against him, as it did at the golf course, when his insufficient sneakiness tipped off the mark. But sometimes his courage is staggering, and effective. Here he walks up to the druglords, hands them their detergent, and asks if he can take a cell phone from one of the dead guys. The boss weighs the situation and then agrees, laughing, “His minutes have expired.”
Britt has trouble getting through to Katie—for reasons I’ll get to in a moment—but he is able to reconnect with Hank, who has found out from the TJ cops that Britt was brought in and that he escaped. Hank tells Britt to hop into Gustafson’s trunk for the run back across the border. (“You like living in America, don’t you?” he says to a skeptical Britt.) And in another of those reaction-shots-that-tells-the-untold-story moments I was referring to before, as the boys are pulling out, Gustafson sees Ray in the back of a patrol car—Ray, whose potential arrest and extradition Hank had dangled in front of Gustafson as a reason to take this trip in the first place. Now they’re leaving Ray behind, because Hank has his own defining character trait: manipulating his friends into doing what Hank wants.
My one complaint about “Agua Caliente”—again, a minor one—is that it resolves a little too neatly, especially in comparison to the similarly tense “Fustercluck.” But up until the finish, the episode draws its web tighter and tighter, with sublime fustercluckery. While Katie’s being watched by the cartel, she’s also taking her final exam in the class taught by the professor she drunkenly slept with a couple of weeks ago. Britt can’t reach her because she accidentally leaves her phone in class, and when she gets home, she doesn’t have time to check the machine or answer the home-phone because she hears Winston barking… at the cartel enforcer, who’s waiting for her. And then everything converges: the professor arrives to bring her phone back, and gets taken hostage. The uniformed officers that Gustafson had sent over to watch Katie show up, followed shortly afterward by Hank and Britt, who suss out the situation quickly. Inside the apartment, Katie tries and fails to disarm the intruder with a pair of scissors she palmed while he was distracted, but Hank has better luck when he sneaks in the back while Britt comes in the front. In the end, Hank gets shot, but Katie’s safe, the professor gets a warning from Hank to leave Katie alone, and Britt ends the episode happy, still blissfully unaware that his girl cheated on him.
I said up top that “Agua Caliente” was about the relationship between Hank and Britt, even though they spend most of the episode apart. I was thinking while I was watching the episode that I don’t know many other shows that would spend a minute of screentime on a scene as trifling or adorable as the moment where Hank and Britt find each other in the streets of Tijuana by guiding each other via cell phone. And yet that scene says so much about who these guys are: seat-of-the-pants, moment-to-moment, and often deluded into thinking that they’re more in sync than they actually are.
As Hank’s getting loaded into an ambulance, Britt stops Gustafson to throw back in his face something he said in “Dog And Pony,” about how Hank will eventually let him down. “I never said he wouldn’t have his moments,” Gustafson shrugs. And as Gustafson’s walking away, Britt gushes, “We don’t deserve him, Mark, either of us.” And the detective delivers a terse, fed-up line that sums up what his face has been silently saying all day:
-I promised I'd tell y’all when the theme song was available on iTunes, and, well… here you go. Worth a buck, for sure.
-Was that a Big Lebowski reference when Britt says to Hank, “Dude, I didn’t know you were a bowler” on the golf course?
-I liked all the Britt/Hank debate about the proper thing to say when serving the papers. Britt likes, “You got served,” but Hank complains that this is “not an urban dance competition.” Later, when they’re going over the script for what they’re going to do, Hank asks him why he didn’t say his line. Britt mutters, “I don’t want to wear it out.”
-Maggie, on the current location of her baby: “At home with his father, dreaming and shitting.” I’m really starting to love Maggie.
-Hank makes a casual comparison to an investigator asking an abused child to “show me where the bad man touched you,” which makes Gustafson do a double-take and grumble, “You’re really sick, you know that?”
-Hank, admiring Gustafson’s telephone demeanor: “I miss that voice: that talking-to-a-girl voice.”
-Hank won’t accept morphine from the doctors because it’ll mess up his sobriety.
-Katie has my exact cell phone model. I kinda hate that phone, I have to confess.
-“You guys have water-spots on your ceiling.”