[13 August 2014]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
“Folks talk about morality like it’s black and white. Or maybe they think they’re smarter, or they’re at a cocktail party acting all pretentious, and then they say it’s grey. But you know what it really is? It’s a damn strobe, flashing back and forth and back and forth all the time. All we can do? All we can do is try to figure out how to see straight enough to keep from getting our heads bashed in. Isn’t that right?”
—Joe Geddes (Lennie James) in Low Winter Sun
“Labels ultimately become chains.”
Beyond any of its own faults, Low Winter Sun suffered from a fate that, arguably, could have ensured its doom even if it was as good as AMC claimed it was going to be. Understandable though it was on the network’s part to attempt to find a new venue for dark, anti-hero drama while Breaking Bad counted down its final episodes, in scheduling Low Winter Sun after that most hallowed of television dramas, it guaranteed that audiences would be prejudiced against it. As it turns out, audience interests aren’t purely transitive, and as a result, merely scheduling one bleak anti-hero drama (with a bald protagonist, no less) right after another, was anything but a solution to the ending of Breaking Bad.
Unsurprisingly, then, Low Winter Sun met its end after its ten-episode debut season. (This does, however, make it somewhat truer to its source material, a British miniseries that ran in two parts.) With the show now seeing a three-disc Complete Series DVD release—and Breaking Bad having ended for good almost a year ago—now is as good a time as any to give it a watching untainted by its reputable predecessors.
Low Winter Sun is rooted in a knotty and enticing premise: Frank Agnew (Mark Strong, reprising his role from the original miniseries), a straight-laced Detroit cop, gets involved with the murder of a crooked cop in his department. Joe Geddes (Lennie James), the cop who gets Agnew to commit the murder with him, does so on the basis that the guy genuinely is crooked; however, Geddes himself has one foot on the right side of the law and another toeing the line of criminality—a trait almost everyone in Low Winter Sun‘s Detroit shares. The two pull off the murder without a hitch, but then comes the kicker: when the dirty cop’s body is found in the river (the plan wasn’t so perfect after all), Commander Dawson (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) assigns Agnew to investigate the murder.
Meanwhile, there are rumblings in Detroit’s underground. Damon Callis (James Ransone, notable for his turn as Ziggy in The Wire‘s second season) and his wife Maya (Sprague Grayden) are trying to make deep in-roads into Detroit’s crime scene by building up their own drug and prostitution racket. They are met with opposition by Skelos (Alon Moni Aboutboul), a classic mob figure, as well as a competing drug ring that owns most of the territory in Detroit.
Though there are connections between this plotline and the primary one involving Agnew—the murdered cop was supplying drugs to Damon’s crew—on the whole this branch of the story is utterly dull. By the end of the series, it’s hard to find any reason to care for these people, as their plight feels tacked on to what is a far more interesting story, presumably for the sake of adding “depth” to the narrative.
As tantalizing as the premise of a cop investigating a murder he committed is, Low Winter Sun, in the end, commits one mortal storytelling sin: it gets too caught up trying to be a Very Serious Television Drama, rather than an intriguing story told well. Everything about this program, from its bald antihero to its tracking shots of a Detroit in shambles, serves as a visual equivalent to Amazon’s “If You Bought The Wire, The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad, You’ll Love…”
Paradoxically, however, even though Low Winter Sun attempts to stand out as a new take on the cop drama formula, it’s also obsessed with the programs that it knows audiences are bound to compare it to. The show wants to be itself and everyone else simultaneously, and as a result it becomes a mishmash of been-there, done-thats. In this way, Low Winter Sun becomes the crystallizing case of how the Very Serious TV Drama is losing its power as a title, and is instead becoming a brand for networks to clone ad nauseam.
Low Winter Sun‘s casting also furthers this point, as several characters are played by actors from other Very Serious Television Dramas; the program is literally comprised of a hodgepodge of its influences. Ransone, who here looks like a young Frank Zappa, does his best to exude confidence in this role following his turn as an underling in The Wire, but his storyline is given such short service by the writers that it’s difficult to root for him.
Character actor extraordinare David Costabile, memorable for his turn as Gayle in Breaking Bad, here plays Simon Boyd, an Internal Affairs officer who complicates Agnew and Geddes’ near-successful murder and cover-up by getting involved with the investigation. His quirks and off-beat humor are the closest thing to comedic respite this overly dreary show has; following one tense conversation with a homicide detective (Athena Karkanis), he says, “Bon soir”, and walks away. As far as humor goes, it’s bone-dry, but it goes a long way in what is a pretty miserable existence these characters face.
The most telling bit of casting with regards to Low Winter Sun‘s failures is Billy Lush, who plays the role of Nick Paflas, a military veteran looking to make inroads to Damon’s drug empire. Lush was one of the four leads in the short-lived NBC drama series The Black Donnellys, which, like Low Winter Sun, basked in its own unrelenting darkness for its sole season. But while The Black Donnellys was, to some extent, exactly what its critics called it—“Dawson’s Creek for psychopaths”—its preposterousness at least made it entertaining. The premise of a mob battle between twenty-somethings is ludicrous, but its impassioned cast and humorous narrator cut much of the unrelenting malevolence.
Low Winter Sun, by contrast, rarely bothers itself with humor. The showrunners and writers take the story far too seriously, which results in a troubling moral universe. In one telling scene, Agnew asks Boyle, “Why do you trust me?”, to which Boyle replies: “I distrust you the least.” Moral judgments in this show can only feasibly be expressed as marginal degrees of gradient wrongness, and even these ring hollow most of the time.
Many of the great Very Serious Television Dramas are noteworthy for their examination of the moral gray areas in life; or, in the case of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, how one could feasibly attempt to be good in an existence that is morally problematic at its core. In the case of Low Winter Sun, in contrast, it would be a stretch to call it an examination of morality’s gray areas, for the only thing resembling a moral calculus in the show’s universe is a blackhearted utilitarianism.
In the second episode, Agnew brutally beats Geddes, trying to find out the whereabouts of Katia. He puts a gun to his head. Upon getting as close to a satisfactory answer as he can get, Agnew tells him to “get his ass up.” By the next episode, the two are back to trying to cover up their own tracks, as if that whole beating had never happened. Agnew’s assault, even in the mind of his victim, was a necessary action in pursuit of (something resembling) justice.
The repeated insistence throughout the show that Agnew is a “good guy” with a sterling police record ultimately amounts to nothing more than an assertion. The pilot tries to depict Agnew as an upright detective pushed into a reprehensible action, but as the series slogs towards its finale, his backstory begins to unfold, revealing exactly just how much of a sociopath he is. The one glimmer of Agnew’s past the audience gets to see is his relationship with a prostitute, Katia. Though she haunts his memory, when he finally catches up with her, it’s revealed that they didn’t have much of anything at all, which completely discredits the longingly shot flashback scenes of the two in bed, and thus Agnew’s credibility. In the penultimate episode, when Agnew forces himself into his ex-wife’s house (she has a restraining order against him), he nearly commits suicide right in front of her.
Like the entirety of Low Winter Sun itself, Agnew isn’t a troubled man in the hopes of something better; he’s just troubled. The notion that Agnew is the show’s moral center, much like Agnew’s idea of what his and Katia’s relationship is, is nothing more than an idea, one given no substantiation by the actual events of the narrative.
In the end, Agnew and Geddes are found out. When the police commander tries to explain to Agnew why he wants to cover it all up, saying that the revelation would destroy the department’s credibility, Agnew growls, “Maybe it needs to burn.” This question is stunning; it’s one the viewer will probably ask herself of the entire show after only a few episodes. Low Winter Sun‘s obsession with the supposedly “gray” side of morality ultimately amounts to a noxious, unrepentant darkness, a one-note trick that tries to sell itself as nuanced.
Internal Affairs officer Boyd, of course, knows this about Agnew and his fellow detectives. Though Costabile gets little screen time as Boyd, his few appearances are a breath of fresh air. He is the first one to posit that Agnew and Geddes committed the murder; while he lacks substantial evidence, it’s easy for the audience to sympathize with him, given how outrightly terrible most of these characters are. How Boyd comes to find this out is never really shown on screen, but it doesn’t matter; by that point in the season, the only thing one will want to see happen, borrowing Agnew’s words, is for it all to burn.
In the final episode, Boyd presents his thesis to the mayor and the homicide department—with Agnew and Geddes present—they dismiss him, citing insufficient evidence. As they all leave the room, he repeats, “You know I’m right.” He repeats this until it builds to a scream. He smashes his briefcase on the table. Agnew stares and broods.
Boyd’s fit of rage ultimately encapsulates all that can be said about Low Winter Sun. No, Agnew and Geddes don’t know he is right. Neither of them know the meaning of the word.
Included in the DVD release of Low Winter Sun are deleted scenes, several featurettes, and a behind-the-scenes look at the show, all of which will appeal to diehard fans of the show alone.