Chaos was outstanding.
Simply put, it was one of the great episodes of this series. With Zack Whedon scripting and Chris Chulack directing, we were in the hands of two masters, who brought us one of the most focused, tense, terrifying and shocking episodes of SouthLAnd we’ve ever seen.
This is what happens when a show is made by such a phenomenal cast and crew: they can refine and redefine their format and still end up with a stunningly powerful piece of drama. With Chaos, they took the show’s prime directive — existing in the moment — and expanded one situation to fill the entire episode, pulling all of the characters into its vortex, and taking it to its most existential and horrifying extreme.
The episode was loosely inspired by the Onion Field event of 1963, in which two LAPD cops were kidnapped while on patrol; only one made it back alive. Of course, the writers room incorporated some of the elements of the real case, and changed/added many others. From here on out, there will be spoilers. Although it’s no spoiler to say that this episode was the most stripped back, brutally raw and head-spinning episode that SouthLAnd has ever produced.
Zack Whedon, who delivered an extraordinary SouthLAnd debut script with Off-Duty earlier in the season, returned to deliver a script that demonstrated extraordinary mastery of the form. The opening freeze -frame narration and action hit hard. The first few scenes did a tremendous job establishing a depth and complexity to Cooper and Lucero’s relationship, with Cooper finally getting sick of Lucero’s homophobia, and dealing with it by inviting him to a gay bar. The arc of awkwardness seemed to be heading into a new understanding between them, until Lucero’s true feelings exploded, demolishing the goodwill between them. The next day, when they respond to an unknown trouble call (has SouthLAnd‘s M.O., unknown trouble — the title of the pilot — ever been more vividly expressed than in this episode? I think not) involving a couple of whacked out junkies who look like they just escaped from the set of Deliverance, they’re not talking to each other.
And then they get taken.
Their belts and uniforms removed.
Handcuffed to each other in the back of a pickup truck headed somewhere unknown.
Whedon set this up perfectly and executed it flawlessly, launching us into the rest of the episode, as Cooper and Lucero get taken into hell.
Taking characters into hell just happens to be SouthLAnd‘s specialty; all drama attempts it — SouthLAnd masters it. So it’s surprising for me to be able to say that with Chaos, Whedon supersized this tendency. I don’t think anyone on the show has been through as much as Cooper and Lucero. And Whedon’s script just kept turning the screw, tighter and tighter, until tension was at an all-time, fever-scream high; the atmosphere more taut and terrifying than it has ever been on this show. By the time one of the rednecks casually executes Lucero, our nerves were already shredded and screaming; that shot to the head tipped us over the edge.
Chris Chulack directed; I’m not sure any of the show’s other directors could have done it. Just as the script was savagely to the point, so the direction was ferocious and visceral. Painfully, unbearably so. Chulack went hard at this episode, finding new angles and a new level of immediacy; given that the show is the most immediate, in the moment show on television, this is a remarkable achievement. Chulack effectively handcuffed us to Cooper and Lucero, and didn’t let us escape. Bastard. It was breathless, horribly raw TV. So much shouting, so much screaming, so much pain, and it was all directed with nerves-flayed-bare minimalism by Chulack. When the rednecks drag off Lucero to cut off his tattoo (yep), Lucero’s screams were godawful. Chulack’s camera followed them down the hall and into the bathroom, showing just enough of what they were about to do, before the door shut and the camera went back to Cooper, giving us his reactions to the terrible screaming from the bathroom. This is highest level directing.
Even given the brilliance of the writing and directing, the episode couldn’t have worked, and was really all about, two men: Michael Cudlitz and Anthony Ruivivar.
As Lucero, Ruivivar had a very difficult job to do in the episode; taking his character through some difficult social situations and unpleasant behavior, before making us empathize with the extreme torture and breakdown that he ends up enduring. Ruivivar was exemplary here, in all those scenes, finding the humanity in Lucero, and the soul in his portrayal of a man facing death. It was a bravura, intense and exhausting performance, played with compassion and depth throughout. He’s been a great addition to the show, bringing a new energy to it, and being a great acting partner for Cudlitz; their dynamic was always entertaining and interesting.
Speaking of… Okay, it’s true that Cooper didn’t get shot in the head. But DAMN SON. He is having the WORST season. It’s been a long, cruel, devastating nine episodes for him. He’s faced darkness, stared into the abyss. He’s faced terrible cruelty and violence and sadness. He’d just found himself in a more stable place, having made some key decisions in the previous episode, decisions that should have set him on a path to a more comfortable, fulfilling life.
Then Whedon and the writers room really f**ked his shit up. Cooper will not escape the effects of this episode lightly. Being cuffed to man when that man gets shot in the head by insane junkies is impossible to recover from. This really has been the season of Michael Cudlitz. He has portrayed Cooper with towering empathy, compassion, intensity and presence. He’s given us Cooper’s pain, knowledge, power, vulnerability, warmth, sarcasm and wit with extreme gravitas. And with this latest episode, which ended with Cooper crushed, broken, destroyed, curled up on the cold nighttime concrete of a gas station forecourt, disintegrating into debilitating sobs, Cudlitz must, SURELY, have guaranteed himself an Emmy. Throughout the ordeal, Cudlitz portrayed something that must be incredibly difficult to do: balancing Cooper’s heroism and relentless determination to survive, with the gut-churning, all-consuming horror and fear that kept exploding. Incredible.
Even with the singular focus of the episode, the script still found time to nudge the Sammy/Sherman partnership closer to its inevitable apocalypse. Sherman’s horror when he saw his girlfriend’s brother wearing Sammy’s jacket (stolen when the guy broke into Sammy’s place last episode) was a great moment. Especially since Sammy was standing right outside the house. And the way that their chase of Stroke-Face ended with the gangbanger falling from several floors up in a construction site and getting grotesquely impaled was a violent reminder of the increasing intensity of the consequences of Sherman’s actions. The final episode of the season (THE SEASON NOT THE SERIES) promises much: the end play of Sherman vs. Bryant, and the massive, citywide manhunt for Cooper’s kidnappers.
The show hasn’t punched its full weight 100% of the time this season, but it is ROCKETING to an extraordinary conclusion. And in many ways, it is far stronger in its fifth season than ever before. Very few shows can remain so powerful after five seasons; SouthLAnd is one of the few, and it has made it very clear: season six will be insanely great.
Random Witness Statements:
- Zack Whedon has earned his stripes in record time this season.
- How incendiary is the Sherman/Bryant showdown going to be?
- Cudlitz. Emmy. Now.
- Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy are such fantastic actors. They have been more on the periphery this season, but you wouldn’t know it from their intensity, presence and powerhouse performances.
- Lydia and Russell FTW.