Over the freeze frame of the flame of gunfire came the theme of Failure Drill: “To protect and to serve, that’s the LAPD motto… But as most cops’ll tell ya, sometimes you’re lucky if you can just survive.”
And this was an episode all about trying to survive, trying to make it through the day, trying to just stay upright and awake, trying not to lose it, trying not to die, and, often, trying not to laugh so damn hard. The signature SouthLAnd blend.
Written by Chitra Elizabeth Sampath, Failure Drill was her first script for the show, although you would never know it: the episode was classic season three SouthLAnd, one of the best-written this season. It was an assured and playful script that did what SouthLAnd does best, being full of smart turns, sharp dialogue, jaw-droppingly “no that just didn’t happen” humor, swift and surprising reversals, and a clear line of sight right to the emotional heart of the show. She advanced major storylines, threw in great, thrilling and truthful character moments, and wove it all together in a fast-moving, never-stopping express train.
The show opened with Lydia being trained in the titular failure drill. This referred to a police shooting technique: shoot the attacker twice in the chest to see if they’re wearing a vest. If they don’t go down, shoot once more to the head. This is exactly what SouthLAnd does emotionally, and it proved to be a great metaphor for the episode that followed.
Sampath showed us Lydia at her absolute best, and Regina King took full advantage of the huge range that Lydia got to explore. Whether it was her masterful handling of the husband who murdered his wife, her empathy with their son, her deep struggle with whether to let herself relax and open up to the possibility of dating Morales, or her all-out action hero scenes at the end, King threw herself body and soul into all of it.
Shawn Hatosy had some great scenes too, showing us how he’s at the very top of his game, crackling with energy, rage and authority. Hatosy’s best scene was his priceless reaction to the staggering next level of Tammi’s insanity, which literally came out of nowhere in a fantastically perfect interchange, one of Sampath’s finest in the episode. A heavily pregnant Tammi showed up unexpectedly, interrupting Sammy’s questioning of a suspect. “How the hell did you find me?” Sammy asked her. “I put a Find My Friends app on your phone,” she replied. Hatosy’s reaction shot was f**king brilliant — Sammy could barely process this: “I’m a gang detective,” he manfully forced out in utter disbelief, “I can’t have a f**king Find My Friends app on my phone.” Tammi struck back with, “are we having this baby together, or not?” Her mission to completely f*ck with Sammy’s head continues successfully.
The main event in this episode, though, was John Cooper’s steady, seemingly unstoppable descent into hell, via his painkiller addiction. Sampath handled this with great subtlety and style, choreographing Ben and John’s scenes with finesse. Their “off the record” conversation was heartbreaking, but artfully messed up, in true SouthLAnd style. Ben McKenzie and Michael Cudlitz both gave the scene, and the episode, all the intensity they had, and it was great. Their arc also showed Sampath’s real strength: delivering character development and raw emotion on the fly and deep beneath the surface of fast-moving, brutal dialogue. All of which is frequently broken up by absolute jewels of brilliant comedy, like Sherman demonstrating the child car seats, or Adams discovering who Morales was related to — surely one of the most awesome surprises ever thrown at us by the show.
There’s no doubt that with this episode, Sampath executed her own failure drill on all the other cop shows out there, dropping them in three.
But as wonderfully written as this episode was, it’s now time to hail the relatively unsung hero of SouthLAnd, the master of light and motion, the man who turns the lens into an emotional perspective and makes everything look harshly beautiful, making LA look simultaneously just like it is, and like we’ve never seen it before: the one and only Jimmy Muro. Failure Drill was the best looking SouthLAnd episode of all three seasons. Muro, usually the director of photography on the show, directed this one, proving himself (not that it needed proving) to be the grand master of the show’s aesthetic.
He lit and shot the shit out of the show this week. Using hypnotic lens flare, brutal oversaturation, and great visual textures (from the golden light of the Hollywood day to the deep blue of dusk in downtown LA), Muro elevated the show to new visual heights, relentlessly pursuing a futuristic aesthetic that enhanced the emotional bullet-like precision of the show. As Lydia prowled the levels of the factory towards the end of the show, searching for the shooter who had massacred many of the workers, Muro lit the scenes like the end of Blade Runner, bringing a haunting art deco depth and future-retro timelessness to the atmosphere. He followed this up by lighting the final scene with Ben and Cooper like it was shot in an alien city many years from now, all shining blue-white flare and futuristic light. It was mesmerizing, compelling and remarkable.
Failure Drill was the perfect set up for the season finale, Graduation Day. As the fans await news of renewal (and maybe a blu-ray box set), we have the prospect of an awesome finale to look forward to. This is the show that keeps surviving, because it’s just so damn good.