There’s a great moment in the first-season finale of Sneaky Pete that encapsulates much of the feel of the show: As Marius Josipovic (Giovanni Ribisi) believes he’s finally free of his scam as Pete Murphy and all the lying and stealing and keeping secrets that comes with it, he’s kidnapped by two men. They tell him that they know he’s Pete Murphy, that he robbed a gun range a while back, and that he and his mother are hiding $11 million somewhere. In that moment, every bit of freedom Marius imagined slips away. Ribisi, whose work on Sneaky Pete is anchored by an ever-shifting collection of evocative facial expressions, allows an exhausted look to come across Marius’ face. After everything he’s been through, staying ahead of the game and saving his brother while also keeping up his ruse as Pete to the rest of the Bernhardt family, he can’t just go quietly into the night. He’s stuck living this lie, and there’s no end in sight.
The second season picks up right after that moment, as Marius, mistaken as Pete, is given 72 hours to find his mother if he doesn’t want the Bernhardt farm, along with the family, burned to the ground. Out of that ultimatum, Sneaky Pete branches out to tell a number of stories that build off of the first season’s events. Audrey (Margo Martindale), having accidentally killed a cop that was on to Marius, is fretting about the cover-up initiated by Taylor (Shane McRae). Carly (Libe Barer), still shaken from her interactions with that same cop, continues to dig deeper into the potential connection between Marius and the man she knows as Pete. Taylor’s cover-up is tested when an investigator from the NYPD rolls into town to check the small-town police department’s work. The list goes on. Where Marius was the lone agent of chaos throughout the first season, he’s got a lot of company now. He roped an entire family into his mess—though they don’t know it yet—and now the lies and secrets are piling up at everybody’s feet.
The second season of Sneaky Pete boasts a lot of similar strengths to the first. The show crafts elaborate, complex stories of mistaken identity, bold con jobs, and potent family drama while mostly avoiding overstuffing episodes with twists and reveals. There’s a balancing act going on that’s rather remarkable, as various writers—including Justified’s Graham Yost, who once again pens a few episodes—have to find a way to keep Marius’ identity hidden from the Bernhardts while also making sure that his actions don’t allow us to turn against him. Marius isn’t exactly a sympathetic figure, but he’s a compelling, complicated one.
The moral murkiness of Marius’ actions drive a lot of the personal drama in the first half of the season. This is a man on the run that we want to root for, and who was easy to root for last season. But now, as his web of lies necessarily expands to the point of being out of his control, there’s suddenly a lot of collateral damage. An early-season death, caused by Marius’ recklessness, signals a potential shift in tone for the show. The con man is no longer just a charming antihero; he’s a man who brings violence to the doorstep of innocent, or at least relatively innocent, people. There’s great potential in that kind of moral reckoning as Marius is forced again and again to see how his actions affect those around him.
If there’s a stumbling block in the second season, it’s that the show never explores that moral reckoning in a way that feels all that meaningful. The collateral damage brought on by Marius’ continued con—in the first few episodes he scrambles to get the $11 million for himself, even convincing Marjorie (Alison Wright) to come out of retirement to lend him a hand, despite the looming threat of a mobster who makes his enemies drink acid—is used more as a way to suggest a depth of character, rather than actively being a way to challenge everything he’s done and continues to do. It’s frustrating because the show clearly wades into that territory, asking for Marius’ moral outlook to be questioned, and yet, at least in the early going, there’s hardly anything deeper.
Still, that lack of emotional depth aside, the second season is largely a success because it doesn’t shift the formula too much, instead building on it to include even more intense scenes that use the audience’s knowledge against them. Sneaky Pete is so cleverly plotted that even the most obvious outcomes are imbued with tension. When, in the second episode, Marius and Marjorie attempt to swindle the deputy superintendent into letting Pete out of prison so that they can use him to track down the $11 million, it’s clear that there’s no path forward for the show that doesn’t involve Pete getting out. And yet, as Marius makes a frantic phone call, all while the authorities and his marks breathe down his neck, the tension is palpable.
Small moments like that, of incredible tension built around a bevy of secrets, are the show’s greatest asset. Sneaky Pete will never be the kind of drama that blows you away, but it’s a show that understands its strengths and plays to them. When Sneaky Pete is moving along at a breakneck clip, forcing the characters to shift their allegiances and tell new lies at every turn—all while Marius adopts one persona after another—it’s truly thrilling. The best of Sneaky Pete feels like an expertly plotted Elmore Leonard novel.
What stops the show from getting to that next level is the various plots that drag. Julia’s (Marin Ireland) continued ties to Lance (Jacob Pitts) provide some of the season’s dullest moments, as does Taylor’s fragile romance with Shannon (Justine Cotsonas). Every time the season starts to build some momentum, another plot comes along to derail the action. The second season, when focused simply on Marius’ attempts to find Pete’s money, and the various cover-ups happening within the Bernhardt family, is something truly unique, even in this crowded television landscape. Watching as Taylor tries to help his grandmother avoid punishment for an innocent crime, or Marius attempting to weasel his way into a town that welcomes psychics and mediums of all kind (I’m into kidding), is a rewarding experience built on the tension of knowing a truth the characters don’t. Season two doesn’t have enough of that to make it truly remarkable, but it’s got just enough to feed your marathon-watching needs.