And so, with a building, searing intensity, the final episode of SouthLAnd‘s season three roared to its emotionally explosive conclusion.
Such a bittersweet moment for fans and presumably creators alike. As the opening voiceover reminded us, sometimes you just have to make that leap. Throughout its two year, three season, 23 episode history, SouthLAnd has been fearless and unflinching, never hesitating as it ran over the rooftops of network and cable drama, fast, fitter, harder than the rest.
With Graduation Day, the show delivered astonishingly, beautifully, heartbreakingly, poetically and ball-bustingly on all the narrative arcs it had set up and laid down in the previous 22 episodes. Such relentless emotional follow-through is rare in TV drama. Comparing the events of the episode to the original pilot script, broadcast as Unknown Trouble, it’s an intense and moving experience to see how the show has so powerfully come into its own. It’s followed Ben Sherman from that terrifying first day, full of the unknown trouble of the title, through to his, and the show’s, graduation. Although Sherman has often been a quiet presence, SouthLAnd has always been powered by his story. Both Sherman and the show now stand on the edge of a new era in their existence. SouthLAnd has done a phenomenal job of maintaining its core truths while aggressively evolving within its world. Season three has seen the show expand, despite the budgetary hardships of the move to cable — it feels bigger than ever, and that is a testament to the extraordinary creative team, working harder and smarter than ever to deliver the best cop show of all time, and one of the undisputed, heavyweight greatest TV dramas I’ve ever seen.
What an episode it was. Part graduation, part commencement speech for the future. And lots of running. With a story by Heather Zuhkle, teleplay by John Wells, direction from Christopher Chulack, and eerie, beautiful, raw and hypnotic lighting from Jimmy Muro, Graduation Day was a full court press from start to finish. This season has showcased great and powerful writing and directing from Cheo Coker, Chitra Sampath, Allison Anders, Muro, and many, many others. But you have to bow down to the showrunners, the OGs: when John Wells and Christopher Chulack step up to the plate, they don’t f**k around. The pedal goes to the metal and stays there.
Whether it was bringing a season’s worth of crackling tension to an explosive conclusion as Lydia sparred against Josie about dating her son, or fulfilling the promise of the first season by having Sammy finally become a father (in messed up circumstances to be sure, but it’s him and Tammi, it couldn’t be any other way), Graduation Day handled its storylines and emotional arcs perfectly. It was great to watch Regina King play Lydia’s happy yet complex arc in this episode, creating one of the most enjoyable storylines of the show to date.
Most cathartic and showstopping of all of the narratives was the inevitable, long-awaited showdown between Sherman and Cooper, as Sherman finally, monumentally lost it on his disintegrating training officer. McKenzie and Cudlitz unloaded both barrels on each other for this scene, tearing the scene apart with their bare hands. McKenzie had some work to do. Following on from his bare knuckle rooftop fight with his suspect (one of the most painfully raw, real, intense and prolonged fight scenes we’ve seen on TV), McKenzie had to raise his game to take on the mighty presence of Cudlitz, formidable even when he has to play someone barely holding on. It was a great, classic scene, resonating with all the force of its two-year build-up.
Michael Cudlitz laid it down in this episode, anchoring the entire show with the craggy, iconic power of his performance. His acting ranged from intensely physical (his truly heartbreaking attempts to climb the ladder), to painfully intense (“I did f**king chase after you!”), to devastatingly quiet and detailed (saying “thank you” to Sherman; checking himself into rehab). Cudlitz stepped up to the plate and batted 1000. McKenzie delivered too: after three seasons of mostly having to repress his impulses, he finally got to explode with full force and authority, literally tearing Cudlitz up from the street and laying into him: “you’re a f**king goddamn useless training officer.” It was great f**king television.
It was a hell of a season for Sammy Bryant. Throughout it, Shawn Hatosy prowled like De Niro, tore it up like Sean Penn, and brought a restless, relentless energy to the role. He had some gruelling, raw scenes, and he gave them everything. Hatosy had a powerful, extraordinary season. This episode captured all of it. From the scenes in the delivery room, to the catharsis of seeing Nate’s killer die (“Nate Moretta, motherf**ker”), to the revelation that his newborn son was called Nathaniel, to his desperate look at the photo of himself and Nate, Hatosy took the outstanding scenes and beats given to him by John Wells and brought them to life with beautiful authenticity. It was heartbreaking. And it made his final scenes all the more bad-ass: as he walked out in uniform with his new partner, the one and only Ben Sherman, Hatosy showed us just how damn awesome season four is going to be as they trade the quirky streets of Hollywood for the tougher world of Alvarado.
In this final scene, we also discovered that Sherman has graduated nicknames, from Boot to Pup. Although Sherman must have felt like he was back at the start in some ways, that wry smile on McKenzie’s face in the final shot said it all: this shit is only going to get better.
As the show heads into its seemingly inevitable season four, one thing needs to be made clear: we need more Michael McGrady, C. Thomas Howell and Arija Bareikis! McGrady brought his customary presence and gravitas, backing it up this week with some heartfelt emotion, anchoring the scene with Sammy at the end with fatherly concern and genuine worry. Howell and Bareikis are great together, with snappy chemistry and a natural rhythm.
It’s important to take a moment here to acknowledge that this was the season Jimmy Muro came into his own, and brought the entire show with him. As director of photography, Muro did extraordinary things with light on this season, taking the show’s raw, kinetic aesthetic, and imbuing it with the otherworldly sheen of an ethereal sci-fi dream. And as director of two episodes (Cheo Coker’s Cop Or Not and Chitra Sampath’s Failure Drill), Muro unleashed his vision, creating haunting, complex visual textures that recalled Blade Runner and Star Trek with their deep ambient quality and mesmerizing lens flare. Muro is the master of that legendary Los Angeles light: dealing with it head-on in the show’s signature bleached-out, oversaturated glare, bringing in new visual grace notes by reflecting magic hour light on the downtown skyscrapers. Muro brought vital extra dimensions to SouthLAnd, creating yet another way in which the show effortlessly, quietly, almost imperceptibly differentiated itself from its peers.
At the time of writing, no announcement has been made by TNT about the show’s future. Renewal seems highly likely with the steady increase in ratings (Graduation Day being the highest rated of the season), and the sheer bench strength of the entire cast and crew. This is a brutally high quality production, and it deserves a long future. Finally, the awards have started coming to the show: Regina King recently and deservedly won the NAACP award for Outstanding Actress In A Drama Series — this must surely only be the beginning of a wave of writing, acting and technical awards for this peerless show.
All that remains is for me to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone involved in bringing this amazing show to our screens. It’s had a huge impact on me, on my writing and my life. It’s been an extraordinary ride so far, and all the elements are in place for SouthLAnd to take it to the next level in season four.
Until then, I’ll leave you with John Cooper’s words of wisdom:
“Look sharp, act sharp, be sharp.”