Tuesday, August 9, 2016

REVIEW: 'Animal Kingdom' - J Chooses Between His Family and the Police in 'What Have You Done?'

TNT's Animal Kingdom - Episode 1.10 "What Have You Done?"

Puzzled by Catherine's disappearance, Baz hunts down all leads. With J caught in the middle, the cops close in on the Codys and threaten to take them all down.

In looking back on Animal Kingdom's first season, it has felt very similar to some of Jonathan Lisco and John Wells' other recent TV work - AMC's Halt and Catch Fire and Showtime's Shameless. Both of those series had solid and distinctive first seasons. And yet, fans of those shows won't cite those seasons as the years where they truly took off and became great series. That's the same kind of critical adoration I have for Animal Kingdom. This season was fairly good and competent. It built a solid foundation for all of the characters and this universe. It just feels like there is still so much room for the show to grow and expand. It's capable of producing greatness. Now, it's just a question of if the show will reach that next level in future seasons. This creative team has done it before. So, I have high hopes that all of the complications set up in "What Have You Done?" will provide ample stories in the second season - set to debut in 2017.

This season was ultimately about J accepting his family as something he wants to be a part of. After his mother died, he was all alone. Smurf took him in. But the Cody household was very alienating to him. It's an atmosphere unlike anything he has previously experienced. He doesn't come from a rich criminal world. His mother was a drug addict and he knows how to handle himself in that world. But he wasn't sure that he could be a part of his family's criminal antics. He would go out on jobs with them. He would do his part to make sure the various jobs would go according to plan. And yet, he doesn't fully commit to the family until the finale. He has felt the pull away from them because of his connection with his teacher. She was able to comfort him in his darkest moments of his family's manipulations. It just turned out she was manipulating him as well. Everything in this world is manipulation for one's own benefit. It took J a long time to accept that as the game that everyone is playing in order to get ahead in this world.

That's the perspective the show ultimately takes with J's character arc over the season. This year was about him learning the game and deciding to become an active part of it. It would be an easy decision for him to fall into the fantasy of a happy life with Alexa. He could turn his family in to Detective Yates and be done with them forever. He would no longer need to compromise himself any further than he already has. But even that fantasy is twisted and complicated. His happiness with Alexa is technically illegal. It's statutory rape. He's still just 17-years-old. She's his teacher and she's taking advantage of him. It's all for the ulterior purpose of getting to the Cody family and making them pay for their crimes. But it all eventually boils down to J needing to make a choice. It's not particularly surprising that he chooses to side with his family. That's the answer that an ongoing series needs to produce in order to keep the foundation strong and steady heading into Season 2. But it's a significant moment as well. J shows that he can be just as manipulative and cold-hearted as his family and the detectives. He uses Alexa to turn the tables against Yates. He warns Smurf in time for the family to hide all of the money and make sure the police won't be coming around again anytime soon. It's him doing his part to protect the family.

And yet, the motivation for this decision does seem a little wonky. It's the culmination of his entire character arc this season. He has been pushed both towards and away from his family for many different reasons. But the reason he ultimately decides not to work with Yates is because he suddenly remembers that Yates tried to work his mother too and was unsuccessful for many years. That's information that adds so much texture and nuance to this dynamic. And yet, it's important for a second and that's it. There's no big reason why J suddenly remembers that now. It just serves as a reminder that despite the tension amongst the family, they always have each other's backs. Julia refused to turn on Smurf and Smurf always paid the rent for Julia's apartment. It's a connection J makes at the end of the season. It shows how much he has truly relied on Smurf all his life. But it's much more exciting when the focus shifts to the future. Everything about the past still feels a little too awkward and forced. But Smurf telling J he has some brass balls and gives him a gun is an exciting tease for their future relationship. He may be a quality missing in this family's dynamic. Now that he's made his decision, he could become a much more active character in the family business.

While all of this is happening, Baz is essentially sidelined because he is too overwhelmed by grief over what has happened to Catherine. Their relationship was never all that special to begin with though. He was a much more interesting character when he was plotting jobs for the family to do. That's where he truly came alive. His romances were always problematic. But here, he becomes such a passive and reactive character. It really doesn't work at all. He correctly believes that something has happened to her. He doesn't believe she would just run away and not take Lena with her. That's a very understandable conclusion to draw considering she has done more of the parenting than anyone else. But this story is all about plot contrivances trying to put forth an explanation Baz can accept. It really struggles to move on from the dark and lethal moment between Pope and Catherine last week. The uncertainty over what happened to her should be important to Baz. It's just an awkward story beat to include in the finale - especially considering the job the family just pulled off and the police closing in on them. It's weird that Baz is completely absent from that entire story here. It's not for anything meaningful either. Smurf tells him Vin is responsible for Catherine disappearing. So, Baz just spends the hour torturing the guy for information. He has always been a thorn in Pope's side this season. But now, it seems perfectly clear that Vin only existed in order to be blamed for this crime that Pope committed against his brother. Even that though isn't able to have a nice and easy explanation. It still feels like things are left too ambiguously with nothing completely driving the story forward in an exciting way.

In fact, this story is much more about Pope and Smurf than it is about Baz. They are the ones who change the most because of this plot. They are the ones who have the big emotional reactions and declarations. By being killing Catherine, Pope realizes that he is the one who always has to do Smurf's dirty work for her. She wants it done and he's crazed enough to do it for her. And now, he has accepted that makes her even crazier than he is. She's the one making all of these rules for the family. She justifies them by saying it's her way of protecting all of them. She's not afraid to take action to protect what she has. She's a badass who is just as capable of violence as the rest of her family is. But what happened with Catherine is enough for Pope to see how toxic this environment is. He wants to put some distance in between him and the rest of the family. Meanwhile, Pope calling Smurf out on her own twisted nature is enough to finally give her the courage to kill the man who killed her mother all those years ago. The show purposefully left the resolution to that story ambiguous heading into this final stretch of episodes. It's a moment that actually happens onscreen in order to show the audience the shift in Smurf at the end of the season. She's now more willing to act and break her own rules. That could be very dangerous moving forward. The family has changed in so many ways this season. Her kingdom is expanding. But that just creates more opportunities for things to go wrong.

Some more thoughts:
  • "What Have You Done?" was written by Jonathan Lisco and directed by John Wells.
  • Smurf hides all of the money from the recent job in the pool. It's a hiding spot that goes completely unnoticed by the police squad. And yet, why did no one think to look there? They had a search warrant for the house and were able to toss the whole place completely over. But they found absolutely nothing. That's somewhat puzzling.
  • So apparently, Nicky and Craig are a thing now. That's just weird. It's a way to keep Nicky a main part of the show. But it doesn't completely feel natural. It just sets up a confrontational dynamic between Craig and J. It also suggests that Nicky wants to be a part of this family. That could be interesting but not enough was done with her this season to know if she'll be able to successfully make that transition.
  • With Lena around the house moving forward, everyone is going to have to be even more careful with what they do there. Things will have to be more secretive with the drugs, the plans, the money and the guns.
  • It's surprising that the gun J hid early on in the season never came up again. He didn't need to use it in order to get what he wanted. Plus, he's rewarded for that decisive action with a gun. One that his family now knows he has.
  • The big action moment of the finale is when Craig and Deran go to retrieve the money from the truck. It becomes increasingly tense once they are trapped in the back end while the driver goes back on the highway. And yet, stuffing the driver in a barrel and abandoning the truck could be a big complication for the family next season.
  • Also, weren't Craig and Deran suppose to call someone once the money started moving? That way the rest of the family would know that it would be arriving at the house shortly?