Occasionally those passions explode: Southland, Punching Water

“Start with the truth.”

So screamed Shawn Hatosy ‘s Sammy Bryant, handily summing up the show’s mantra in the opening scenes of this week’s Southland, the thrilling, brutal, blistering and frequently hilarious second episode of the show’s new season. Phenomenally written by Cheo Hodari Coker, and directed by Christopher Chulack with an even surer eye for movement, detail, light and Los Angeles locations than usual, Punching Water was the series’ high point to date, eclipsing past career best eps like Phase Three and What Makes Sammy Run?, raising the bar even higher for the show, and for TV drama.

What made this episode special was the heightening of the show’s fundamental elements, and the way they were combined with such sure control. Every element was punched up: the tight narrative style, the dry humor, the raw treatment of violence, and making small moments count for everything. Impressively, considering the budgetary restraints faced by the show this season, the episode not only featured all of the main cast (Lydia, Nate, Sammy, Sal, Cooper, Sherman, Chickie and Dewey), but even managed to bring all of them together in one superbly written, acted and shot, highly charged scene that also delivered one of the series’ greatest moments to date: the sight of Lydia slapping down Dewey. This was the flash forward that opened the episode, with the accompanying voiceover describing what happens when you bring together a bunch of cops passionate about their jobs: “Occasionally those passions explode.”

Despite being driven by a brutal sequence of multiple retaliatory murders across the MLK weekend, this episode also managed to be the funniest in the show’s history. There were many comic moments: Nate and Sammy’s back and forth (“playa, playa”), the other cops’ jibes about Sherman’s new lady friend, or, my personal favorite, Cooper screaming off in the patrol car with Sherman, leaving Dewey behind with a none-too-thrilled Chickie. Throughout, Punching Water ducked and dived with the confidence and sure step of a pro, like Ali, knowing when to hit you hard, and when to dance around.

The theme that drives Southland is what it means to be a cop, and Punching Water advanced this further, with awesome levels of gravitas courtesy of Michael McGrady, in a welcome return to the show as Detective “Sal” Salinger. He rallied the troops to get out to the streets to find the killer of a four year old, the latest victim in the wave of murders. Coker wrote a great speech, and McGrady completely nailed it. In doing so, he anchored the scene, the episode, and likely the season as well. He also initiated a first for the show: a montage sequence, which also marked the first time (more or less) the show has used a soundtrack since it ended the pilot episode Unknown Trouble with The National’s Fake Empire (which I talked about here). It was a departure, but it worked perfectly.

Although everyone in the cast did classy work in this episode, it was McGrady that landed the killer punch.

And that’s what the show ended with: a devastating emotional killer punch that concluded the show’s underlying theme this week, as summed up by Sherman: “love’s a bitch.” Love or lack of it was the catalyst of everything that happened in the episode, and the final scene was the perfect example of how this show can devastate you in seconds. Like a high performance car, this thing can shift gears seamlessly and quietly. You don’t even know it’s happening until it’s too late, the tears rolling down your face. This episode was a full court press throughout, saving its best shot for last.

Damn, this show is good.