If I made this review as brutally to the point as this episode was, I’d simply say this:
Cheo Coker wrote a beautiful, kick-ass script and Guy Norman Bee directed the f**k out of it, while Ben McKenzie turned in a devastatingly primal & raw performance.
But there’s so much more to say.
I’ll start with the obvious: this was one of SouthLAnd‘s strongest episodes. It was stripped back to the bleached bones of the L.A. landscape, and the most primal elements of the characters’ souls. It was beautiful in its simplicity, its refusal to waste time or words. As Cooper said in his final scene, “that simple?” To which his sponsor Lamar replied: “Yeah. All the hard things are.”
That stark sense of truth began with Coker’s script, which was one of his best. If his other script this season, Underwater, was a crazy block party, full of overflowing life and violence and jokes and energy, God’s Work was the head-pounding contemplation the next day.
It pumped out killer lines like bullets from an endlessly reloading shotgun, one after another after another (most of which came to Shawn Hatosy, who swung for the fences and knocked every single one easily out of the park with absolute style). It had Coker’s unique and fiery old-school soulfulness. And it thumped like a booming hip hop beat when it had to.
But it submerged all that in a deep, quiet calm, the serenity to accept the things we cannot change… a zen purity of purpose. We glided across the waters of this one, all the way to the perfect storm at the end, when the Kraken woke. This was like some classic Greek shit. Everyone contained the seeds of their own destruction and salvation, and the only question was what choice each character would make, which path they would take.
This was all great drama is supposed to be, and what so little drama actually is. It’s what SouthLAnd does better than any other show: forcing characters to confront their deepest flaws or fears, sending mack trucks juggernauting into their moral schemes and belief systems. It’s a show that will utterly demolish everything its characters believe in, because it’s about how we react when everything is on the line. Stakes are sky high. Officer Ben Sherman was on the receiving end of this treatment last season when the truth about his mother’s assault was revealed. And Sherman had to face the darkness again in God’s Work, and somehow keep his soul.
This was the finest work of Ben McKenzie’s career to date, which is saying something, because he’s a damn great actor. SouthLAnd is about raising the bar with every episode, every act, every beat. McKenzie was there all the way, showing us a man whose soul is being ravaged by his own inner darkness, the rage that he’s always keeping buried. It was a haunting and raw performance, as Sherman couldn’t stop, maybe didn’t even try to stop, himself from descending into hell.
Coker’s script took him there, along with the astonishing direction of Guy Norman Bee, a former steadicam operator on ER who has since gone on to direct Veronica Mars, The Secret Circle, The Nine Lives Of Chloe King, and, most regularly, Supernatural.
He brought an incredibly detailed and quietly unobtrusive eye to this episode. It was stark and architectural in its complex yet dynamic visual style. This was Michael Mann-level directing. Bee’s eye for the complexity of lines in the composition of the shot made every frame fascinating and kinetic, but in the most subliminal of ways, subsumed into the flow of the story (just like in the script). The descending concentric circles of the parking lot when Lydia looked down at “the splat.” The angles of the stairwell playing against the lines of Sherman and Bryant holding their guns going up the stairs in the squatter house. The frames and windows of the offices where Tang had her interview. It was all beautifully done, creating a stark, rotating landscape for the tense drama to play out against.
Bee was backed up by lighting maestro Dana Gonzales, who brought a haunting glow to the rough, over-saturated streets of L.A. The opening scene, as Cooper and Lamar talk, was simply gorgeous, as early morning light hung in a hazy gauze over the skyscrapers, and a thousand little lens flares rippled up from the lake. From there it got darker and starker, all the way to the primally lit scene at the end, when Bryant lays it all down for Sherman. It was eerie, spine tingling: the two men sat in deep shadow and the coldest, barest lines of light just lit their edges. Shawn Hatosy gave a stunning, Brando-esque reading of those great, classic lines: “you’re my partner…. I’ll back you up, punch for punch…”
It was f**king poetry on every level, like everything in this episode, from the largest moment to the smallest. As Cooper contemplated his own intense set of options in his briefer scenes, Michael Cudlitz brought the gravitas like a true master, finding the highest level of impact through the smallest of gestures and motions, making us feel the soul-shaking implications of his future choices. In his short scene, Tommy Howell brought a sinewy soulfulness to “Uncle Dewey”‘s meaningful and moving scene with Tang. And let’s take a moment to praise Jamie McShane, who always brings grit and steel to the role of watch commander Sgt. Hill, even in the space of a line or two. His ability to bring such presence to brief moments in some ways sums up the show: it’s all in the power of the details.
No review would be complete without a callout to the day players, including The Wire‘s Lawrence Gilliard Jr playing Lamar with a poetic, fresh rhythm; Oz Zehavi doing fine work in his first U.S. TV role as Eric Hanson; and Kelly Wolf as Cheryl Hanson, wringing huge emotions from the briefest of moments. They — and all the others — were great, bringing soul and heartbreak to the surface in perfectly fragmented, naturalistic ways.
SouthLAnd‘s toughest challenge is often to explode the traditional narrative, fragment it until the shards are still touching and connected, but just barely. It went above and beyond in this regard with God’s Work. Every scene flowed deep into all the others, but never in a contrived way. It was a masterclass in script DNA.
It’s getting harder to review this show, to be honest, because it keeps getting better, and it rarely misses a step. Remember how it seemed like it exploded out of the gate with the pilot episode, Unknown Trouble? Well, it did, and it was fantastic… but it’s undeniable, and kind of mind-blowing: it’s operating on a much higher level now.
It keeps finding extra gears, and it’s pretty clear at this point: it’s just going to keep finding more. Season Five seems all but assured when the show is rolling so hard. As Cudlitz likes to say, with this show, you have to expect the unexpected. But there’s one thing we can always expect, and we always get: greatness.