Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Southland: “Risk”

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Three weeks ago, after “Integrity Check” was over, I was upset that the preview for the next episode showed John Cooper completely fine except for a bandage. The final shots of the episode showed Tang pushing around a cameraman who continued to film instead of help Cooper while a man bit his neck, which bled profusely as Cooper struggled to breathe. It sucked all the tension out of that moment, but perhaps Southland and TNT learned their lesson: There’s no such teaser of Sammy’s fate and the end of “Integrity Check.” After spinning away from gun blasts and swerving to a halt, and a pause that feels like an eternity, another car T-bones the driver’s side door, crunching Sammy and rendering his airbag essentially useless. I didn’t notice until the screen went black that I hadn’t taken a breath for about a full minute, and both my hands were over my mouth in shock.

This show has a penchant for knockout final scenes that kick viewers off a cliff even after a mediocre hour—most of the time alternating with very quiet, mundane moments of quotidian action—but that tendency isn’t necessarily bad style. I can’t count the number of truly incredible final moments of Southland that leave a lasting impression. (For example: Nate’s death; Cooper scrambling for pills in the desert; the shootout in the station; the documentary crew long take.) The one detail that sticks in my mind from the scene a few weeks ago is that Cooper was conscious, however bloody the incident was, when the episode cut to black. Sammy is unconscious in the driver’s seat, completely immobile, unresponsive, and as Ben staggers out of the car, there’s no sign of life in Sammy’s body. He’s been crushed, and the weight of that consequence falls squarely on Ben’s shoulders.

In addition to being a compelling action scene, the final moment of “Integrity Check” with Cooper, Tang, and the documentary crew was so powerful because it also suggested some relevant points about reality television and voyeuristic media. There aren’t the same kinds of real-world parallels for Sammy’s fate in the car crash, but instead there are some strong connections within the narrative of the show. The hooker that Ben took such an interest in last week is back on the street, but her daughter has run away from the house where social services placed her, and the pimp Ben laid out is nowhere to be found. Sammy dragged Ben off the guy before he could do something truly drastic, and he doles out some tough but sage advice to Ben this week: don’t get emotionally involved. It’s something Sammy knows all too well, as I’ve brought up again and again when questioning Sammy’s attitude the past few weeks.

Ben seems to take to that lesson, refusing Amber’s requests for money a few times, saying he’ll buy her daughter a bus ticket back to their home in Corpus Christi—but the lingering threat of the pimp is still out there. After some routine calls—a pervert recording and broadcasting bathroom footage in a coffee shop; calming down a fight between Dewey’s favorite sushi chef and the guy’s bookie—the pimp comes out of nowhere, firing at the cops from his car. It’s all to easy to say that if Ben had never taken an undue interest in Amber’s case, or not flown off the handle so viciously, his partner wouldn’t be in what appears to at least be critical condition. It’s even sadder to say that if Sammy had come forth with that advice sooner, perhaps he could have unknowingly saved himself.

It’s a wild reference, but this episode reminded me a lot of the competition episodes on Glee. It gives some great conclusions to plotlines that had felt misguided, scattered, and ungrounded through the middle of the season. Threads came together so nicely that it almost made me forget how Ben could get so attached out of nowhere; Sammy could conveniently forget to make the speech of how he’s been too emotionally involved for a few weeks; Cooper could lie in wait, gradually seething more and more as Tang denied what he knew in his gut and got promoted instead of punished; Lydia could continually hide the identity of her child’s father and refuse to confront a decision about continuing pregnancy. All of those flaws disappeared for a little while. It doesn’t make any of the past episodes better (this isn’t a “rising tide lifts all boats” scenario), but it leaves me optimistic for the finale, and confident that should Southland get a fifth season to work with—and I don’t know what the consistent dip below a 2 rating will do—there is still enough to do with these characters to keep their shifting stories compelling.

Cooper underwent the most dramatic personality change this season, becoming a much brighter man for the first half of the season when his partnership with Tang grew stronger than his relationship with trainee Ben. But that’s shifted significantly in the past few weeks, as Cooper sits brooding on the sidelines with his suspicions about what Tang did with the orange safety cap on the toy gun that belonged to the kid she accidentally shot. Now the kid has stabilized and the breathing tube is out, so he can testify that he left the orange tip intact, a fact which Tang directly disputes to internal affairs. Not only are Cooper’s suspicions causing him to struggle with his addiction and seek out his sponsor, but he now has to watch as Tang is promoted to Sergeant. After the first half of the season held such optimism and hope for Cooper to take a new outlook on life, the incident with Michael the suicidal teen and now Tang exploiting the “her word against his” system to leaves Cooper even more jaded than before. It just wouldn’t be Cooper if he didn’t confront her more directly in the finale, but this progression has been truly disheartening, even as Michael Cudlitz and Lucy Liu both sell their roles better than anyone else this season.


Finally, Lydia and Rueben don’t have a case that somehow tries to comment on Lydia’s pregnancy situation. No struggling single parents, no privileged child throwing an oversized tantrum, just a new gang announcing their arrival by shooting a rival who kept crossing out their graffiti tags. In a deft bit of interrogation that showed off the wit Lydia had in previous seasons, she and Rueben arrest some members of the gang responsible for the murder, then she takes the youngest member out for a burger. When he won’t give up any information, she writes out a letter saying she will not arrest the kid or any of his fellow gang members. Once the kid gives up all the information, including the remote location of the murder weapon, she tells Rueben to cuff him, and slyly tells the kid she never promised anyone else wouldn’t arrest them. At the boarded up house, Rueben and two other cops chase a fleeing suspect as Lydia pushes her way into a dark space, only to get attacked by another suspect almost immediately. He stabs Lydia in the stomach with an icepick, but the bulletproof vest protects her. Rueben gets there just in time to kick the guy square in the stomach and make up for foolishly running off, but Lydia has had enough. She finally admits that she’s pregnant, lifting a great weight that has dragged down the entire season. Now we know just how close a brush with death Lydia needed to tell the truth and give up on working a case.

I always like when I can tie the episode title into each partnership nicely with some resonance, and “Risk” does not disappoint. Lydia going into that house alone, Ben getting too involved in Amber’s case and beating up her pimp, and Tang removing the orange tip of the toy gun are all different kinds of risks, and all have varying levels of consequence. Tang gets rewarded, which infuriates the silent-for-now Cooper; Lydia risks her life and the life of her child, and that unidentified fluid on her shirt in the doctor’s office could signal more trouble ahead (I didn’t think it was just amniotic fluid, and it didn’t appear to be blood); and Ben’s supercop ways finally backfire horribly, but he doesn’t bear the brunt of the retribution—his partner does. Now he has to carry the guilt of causing a tragedy, but that’s the risk of putting on the uniform.


Stray observations:

  • [POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT… except not really since the actor tweeted about it]: Lou Diamond Phillips returns next week, and it looks like he’s teaming up with Ben, which goes along with the idea that Sammy being totally unconscious and bleeding all over the place after that crash is a bad, bad sign.
  • The golf-ball guy, after being told Tang got a promotion while Cooper slaps handcuffs on him: “Is she your boss now?” Not quite the scene where Cooper lets an assault victim punch his attacker, but still priceless.
  • Also amazing: the domestic abuse couple arguing after a bad bout of rough sex. Cooper tells the woman to strangle her boyfriend back and make him pass out, to see how much he likes it.
  • Nice to see Dewey’s outfit on his day off. Very appropriate.