I had a plan to introduce what is most likely the series finale of Southland, but tonight’s ending throws everything off. That final camera push in on Cooper’s body, with multiple bleeding gunshot wounds in his chest, is a monster of a cliffhanger. The most tense of the three—ahead of Sammy and Ben’s violent confrontation and Lydia’s increasingly romantic reconciliation with disgraced former detective partner Russell. But Southland began in media res and continued to do so in every subsequent episode, so it’s fitting for its finale to end with three unfinished plot lines, suggesting multiple endings, but cutting off at the end of the day like it always does.
Southland has always attempted to show a wide breadth of experiences within the LAPD, from boots to veterans, from polished perfectionists to beat cops like Dewey barely keeping it together. But just as last season focused on Lydia’s unplanned pregnancy with a married man while shuffling through Ben’s shift away from ethical police work, the demise of Sammy’s marriage, and Cooper’s rocky partnership with Officer Tang, this season focused on John Cooper coming to grips with the end of his career and his legacy outside the LAPD. Season-long arcs progressed for the other characters—we’ll get to Ben Sherman’s just desserts in a bit—but for the past ten episodes, Southland starred Michael Cudlitz before anyone else.
So, what is John Cooper’s ultimate fate? What finally causes him to snap? Last season’s ride-along documentary episode ended with Cooper lying on the ground, bleeding profusely from his neck, but this ends far more seriously, with multiple gunshot wounds from other cops. Cooper beats one man, takes his gun, then beats another man unconscious—perhaps to death—with it, before the red and blue lights flicker in the distance. Whether Cooper notices those lights immediately or is lost in his rage is left unclear, and whether he chooses to stand up and get shot with the gun still in his hand is another vague conclusion left open to interpretation.
Cooper could just want it all to end, after losing his partner in a grisly murder, suffering the pitying looks of his fellow officers, working behind a desk, carrying a rubber gun, fielding questions from his old FTO, and getting rejected as a potential parent by his ex-wife. That pile of emotional baggage weighs heavy on Cooper, but he’s always been able to withstand it. Perhaps after a long career of saving others and realizing he didn’t have anything for himself to show for it, he couldn’t take it anymore. I want more than anything to be on board with that conclusion, because of the horror Cooper saw when kidnapped, but he rejects any real psychological help for himself, like so many cops on so many other shows, and considering the amount of terror he’s put up with in his career, the final straw to break him still feels unbelievable.
The finale’s biggest fault—and this episode is far from perfect—is that every scene with Cooper emphasizes just how broken he is after Lucero’s death, and not because of any personal connection to the guy. He feels guilt for what happened—walking away from Gerald McRaney when he asks why they gave up their guns proves that better than anything else—and yet he just doesn’t know what else to do but be a cop. Taken on their own as individual scenes, they’re supremely affecting—even Cooper’s short conversation with Lucero’s widow, which complicates the bar scene from last week—and Cooper’s confrontation with his captain, who recently lost his son, is the strongest two-person scene in the episode without any punches to the face.
When Cooper went back to his ex-wife to tell her he wants to have a baby, she embraced him, and I took that as a positive sign, but tonight, we find out that she hasn't given him a straightforward answer about it yet. In the most heartbreaking moment of the finale, she tells him she doesn’t want a child, reinforcing that she doesn’t want one with “him, not anymore.” That removes the last shred of hope for Cooper’s lasting legacy.
The next most heartbreaking moment is an obvious yet still effective bit of editing, cutting from Cooper alone in his bed, still at his ex-wife’s house, to Sammy, sipping a beer, giving a monologue to his son. It’s what Cooper will never have, and though poured on a bit thick with the smash cuts and leading audio track of Sammy’s speech over Cooper silently lying in bed alone, it’s still effective.
At some point, Sammy had to figure out that Ben was responsible for the robbery at his house, endangering his son. Ben gets ample opportunity to cover his tracks, but ultimately, it’s his own decision to force the impounding of his girlfriend’s brother’s car that gets caught in Sammy’s exhaustive personal investigation. It takes until their final scene together—after Sammy survives a scary helicopter shift that overlaps with Lydia and Ruben tracking the tweaker, who shoots at the copter, puncturing the fuel tank—but someone of consequence finally figures out just how despicable Ben Sherman has become.
And then, to further shirk responsibility for his actions, Ben tries to put the blame back on Sammy, for wavering in his commitment to lying in the Internal Affairs investigation. He says Sammy “beat the shit out of” his ex-wife—I’ve already been over how I think the scene was shot in such a way to blame both parties, but it’s open to interpretation, and Ben’s motive is to paint Sammy as the guilty party. But this is all smoke and mirrors, an attempt to explain away guilt and recast himself as the victim. Ben’s sterling reputation with the department is on the line, so he’ll go to any dark lengths in order to protect it. Their final fight releases a season’s worth of tension, leaving the exact outcome unknown, but at the very least, Sammy and Ben won’t be partners any longer, and at worst, Ben goes down as an officer who committed a crime against his own.
With Lydia and Ruben’s plot, Southland gets at something that it used to do a lot more when it could afford a bigger cast on NBC: comment on the interdepartmental and inter-unit drama within the LAPD. Ruben and Lydia clash with an RHD detective (Robbery and Homicide Division) who withholds information and cryptically interrogates two fellow detectives, presumably to ensure that he’s the one who makes the arrest and gets the face time with the Chief of Police in front of the cameras. It’s a bureaucratic squabble that prevents either party from swiftly and intelligently conducting the investigation. And to stir more emotion, Dewey can’t control his anger that their division isn’t pounding the pavement more even weeks after the kidnapping and that those assigned to the case can’t seem to get the job done.
Dewey, Lydia, and Ruben are desperate—so desperate that they’re willing to resort to some blatantly unethical interrogation tactics along the LA River in order to nab the tweakers, who are still scoring drugs and hiding out around LA. They draw the two out, and then everything goes to shit. In the ensuing car chase, the surprise murderer turns his gun on his partner, then kicks the body out of the moving car, which careens into Ruben’s suspension, in order to get away. Lydia’s interviewing skill in conversation with Cooper yields the key bit of information, a strong sulfuric stench on the kidnappers, which leads Lydia and Ruben to the murderer in a field of chemical tanks.
But in the moment of crisis, with the airship and the S.W.A.T. team, Lydia gets called away to the hospital, where Russell is taking care of Christopher. Of all the roundabout plots or callbacks on Southland, this one feels the most tacked on and unnecessary. Sure, Lydia deserves happiness, but the show sweeps Russell’s departure under the rug without discussing how he left. Lydia takes him back with open arms, and while their relationship isn’t explicitly romantic, it’s certainly not professional, nor strictly friendly. She finally looks happy to be a mother, with someone beside her, satisfied enough to let Ruben have his moment in the spotlight for the both of them.
Southland was supposed to replace ER as the dramatic anchor to NBC’s Thursday night lineup in 2009. But as with pretty much everything else on NBC, that fell apart, and the show licked its wounds and carted itself over to TNT. But then a funny thing happened: It pared down the cast to the essentials, started to get good, and then reached for greatness. Last season nearly got there, and Lucy Liu’s season-long guest appearance upped the show’s game, with a handful of standout episodes—again, mostly focused on John Cooper. But this fifth season is without a doubt the show’s strongest statement, and it leaves a legacy of steady improvement, ending at a creative peak. This finale isn’t the strongest episode of the season, but it fits as the capstone of Southland’s best run.
TNT has not yet renewed Southland for a sixth season. Regina King, Shawn Hatosy, and Ben McKenzie have all signed on for pilots—in second position, meaning they would be committed should TNT order another season of Southland. Though the network’s head of programming Michael Wright apparently loves the show, the ratings leave the show with a very unlikely chance for renewal. I’ve gone on record a few times with significant doubts over the show’s survival. But this is a fitting end to a show that constantly fought to stay on the air, to get better, and ultimately to become the best police drama of recent memory.
When TV Club first started covering Southland, our fearless leader Josh Modell wrote that in its best moments, the show was roughly in the same league as NYPD Blue and The Wire—and I agree. After its two strongest seasons, I’d say it’s more than solidified its place next to those shows, The Shield, and Hill Street Blues. Southland has something different to say about police work, depicting oft-hilarious quotidian routines, epic struggles away from the job, and the decline of retired cops. Though I wouldn’t place the early seasons on par with what the fourth and fifth have achieved, there were certainly standout episodes, and put together, Southland is now an essential entry in the history of television police drama.
- One final HSMotW:I’m going with the tweaker’s body getting dragged along underneath Ruben’s car, made worse by the lingering shot on the mangled body a few minutes later.
- My gold standard for finales is The Shield, and this didn't come close to touching that final episode. In my mind this is somewhere around the Veronica Mars finale, especially with the sense that I really don't want this to be the end.
- “Thanks for running him over.”
- “Maybe for his birthday you can take him to the Dahmer house.” —The comedic bits of Southland remain its most underrated quality. This season had several big laughs.
- Sammy Bryant now officially back in the game, on a health kick to get his abs again.
- That’s actual LAPD Chief Charlie Beck making an announcement to the media toward the end of the episode, as Ruben properly gets the credit.
- A great little moment I didn’t find a way to bring in: Cooper retreats to the roof parking lot with his own radio listen to the End of Watch broadcast for Lucero.
- Brooke’s small arc this season ends in incredibly disappointing and regressive fashion: She’s just batshit crazy, and shows up at painter girl’s place after tracking Ben’s phone to throw hot coffee on him and generally go nuts. Not a progressive depiction, and one that doesn’t add anything to the season, only detracts from it with a disappointing character.
- If this indeed the end, and all signs point that way, then thanks for following along over the past two seasons. Southland has been a wonderful show to write about because it challenges the audience to hone a response that is as sophisticated and complex as the show itself, and it’s been so much fun trying to live up to that.