The fifth season of FX’s Snowfall kicks off in 1986 at the University of Maryland. A few young men are partying in their dorm room, and one of them in particular is indulging in every line of coke he can find. If you’re a sports fan or have seen some historical documentaries, you know what’s about to happen. Len Bias, the second overall pick by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA draft, is about to have a heart attack and die, cutting his promising NBA career short before it could even begin.
It’s an appropriate way to begin the season, as it places Franklin (Damson Idris) and his growing, CIA-backed empire within a larger cultural context. Gone are the days of Franklin being someone trying to get on top of the game, navigating the market for this new drug and doing so mostly within his own community. He’s made it, he’s on top, and cocaine is about as ubiquitous as an illegal drug can get. The thing is, that means the game is changing. Bias’ death shines a light on the consequences of cocaine use, and with the product more popular than ever, Franklin’s crew is no longer the only one able to bring in the goods. The market is saturated, and that means the profits aren’t the same.
The fifth season pivots nicely around these points of contention, as much of the focus of the first four episodes involves Franklin trying to navigate a new normal. He’s been flying high (quite literally) since we last saw him. He flies his own private plane, has a massive house near the beach, and is running a real estate development company with his pregnant girlfriend. Jumping ahead and giving Franklin everything he ever wanted right out of the gate is a smart choice to kickstart the action of this season. We’ve seen enough of his empire building in past seasons, so we don’t need to spend any more time on the intricacies of the business. At this point it’s more exciting to see how Franklin handles the pressure of running his empire; “heavy is the head that wears the crown,” muses one character early on.
Pressure is exactly what Franklin and his people are getting. Throughout the first few episodes, Teddy (Carter Hudson) manages to weasel his way back into the operation, dancing around the truth about the fate of Franklin’s father and attempting to drive a wedge between Franklin, Louie (Angela Lewis), and Jerome (Amin Joseph). Then there’s Skully (De’Aundre Bonds), who managed to survive the hospital shootout and is still running things like a madman; his tight ties to Louie and Jerome create some tension between them and Franklin, who’s not too high on how they’re running their side of things.
On top of all that, Franklin is trying to build a clean, legal business. He wants his focus to be on real estate development, to create something stable for his girlfriend and his unborn child. He’s eager to rid himself of the drama and uncertainty of the cocaine business in order to protect his family and his future. And hey, haven’t we heard that before? Sure, these are well-worn tropes within the genre—the drug dealer who wants to get clean but keeps getting sucked back into the life. We’ve seen it a hundred times before. But sometimes tropes are there for a reason, and Snowfall deploys them to ratchet up the tension throughout season five. The show uses our knowledge of both the crime drama and these specific characters to tease a collision course of forces.
All that’s to say that, at least at the outset, this has the setup to be the show’s best season yet. It’s always been good, but the fourth season showed a little strain as it tried to squeeze some more juice out of a few tired storylines that had been losing their intrigue. Now, with season five, the show seems to be taking some steps forward—maturing, resetting some relationships and setting up some difficult moral choices for these characters as the season rolls on. Snowfall just feels different this time around, as it shifts gears and focuses not on getting power, but how one might hold on to it when the whole landscape is changing.