One of the most critically celebrated cop shows of the last decade, Southland confronted the realities of policing in a hard-to-watch final season that not even loyal fans understood at first.
The last new episode of Southland, "Reckoning", aired in mid-April 2013. Like "Code 4", the notorious season three episode that saw the death of Det. Nate Moretta, the show's finalé asked much of its loyal viewers. I sat stunned in my living room as the episode ended, cursing what was either a stroke of genius or the worst possible betrayal of the show's fans.
As soon as the credits rolled, tweets and emails from my dedicated cohort of Southland fans started arriving. Each of us seemed to be asking the others, What did we do to deserve that? I tried to reassure my friends that this ending mattered; that it's work in the world was more important than our hurt feelings. It was a hard sale.
With the fifth season of Southland now out on DVD, home viewers will have a chance to watch (or re-watch) these ten "provocative" episodes and decide whether or not they do the rest of the show justice. Whatever your reaction to the show's finalé, it's without question that Southland has a point to make in its last season: the policing system affects everyone who participates in it, no matter their position.
This is the End
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Nowhere are the effects of policing clearer than in the storylines of John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) and Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie). At the top of the first episode, we see an aerial shot of a drunken stripper standing on a garbage can and firing shots at a police helicopter. As the camera changes to a street-level perspective, we see Officers Sherman and Mendoza (Chad Michael Murray) yelling at the stripper to get down. Sherman's gun is missing from his holster. It's just the first in a long series of missteps for the young officer, who has grown increasingly cocky and reckless over the past two seasons.
At times, it seems absurd that no one in an official role at the police department catches up with Sherman's bad decisions. While he and partner Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) eventually have a falling out, the only real consequence for his actions is his isolation from his fellow officers and friends. By the time the camera tracks Sherman stalking away from Bryant with fast, quick steps at the end of the season, we've watched him go from an over-confident officer to the corrupt cop for which the LAPD is so notorious.
Cooper's story isn't about corruption, but it's very much about what happens to cops as time passes. In the second episode, Cooper and his new trainee, Gary Steele (Derek Ray), are called to a golf course. An old man has gotten confused and driven his car onto the course. In the exchange that ensues, the man asks the two cops how he'll survive if he doesn't have his car. He pleads that he served in the military; can't they cut him a break? In a preceding scene, Cooper explains the idea of discretion to Steele. A veteran himself, Steele immediately seizes on the idea that now is a good time to exercise discretion.
But Cooper says no. He tells Steele that they can't put public safety at risk because they feel bad for the man. At the end of the episode, the pair are called to another crime scene. They walk into a home to find that the old man has committed suicide. On their way back to the station, the pair are involved in a shootout on the street, but Steele crouches helplessly behind the car. He quits, telling Cooper that the job is too risky for a family man.
The other characters on Southland also struggle with the collision of their private lives and their professions. Detective Lydia Adams (Regina King) is at her finest in the final season as a new mother whose ambivalence about her own baby is clear to everyone around her. Her partner Ruben (Dorian Missick) confronts this ambivalence head-on, and it's a good thing he does. Otherwise Adams would become a character with whom viewers can't sympathize.
Anthony Ruivivar joins the cast as Officer Hank Lucero, who is partnered with Cooper when the latter decides to quit training new officers. Lucero's character helps to move the show's long-standing concern about how gay officers are treated forward by playfully antagonizing Cooper, who he doesn't know is gay until the pair visits a gay bar. Biderman's concern about representing the reality of policing is realized in a brief scene outside the bar where Lucero calls Cooper a "faggot" and walks away.
Cut to the next day, when Cooper and Lucero respond to a routine call and are kidnapped by two drug addicts who drive them into one of the run-down desert communities east of the city. Visually, it's a terrifying ordeal for the viewer: the lighting is minimal inside the home where the two officers are taken and a sheen of yellow-brown dirt covers everything. Badly beaten up and handcuffed together, Cooper and Lucero are terrorized by the meth addicts until Lucero is shot. Cooper is left handcuffed to his dead partner while the kidnappers attend to other business.
While Cooper manages to escape, the viewer begins to realize that to survive isn't the same thing as to live. The ordeal has changed him; he can't get back into the flow of policing. Here the writing actually seems inconsistent with Cooper's mythology. Of all the show's characters, he seems like the one that might be able to bounce back from the kidnapping. One of the most brilliant moments in the show's last season is that the viewer actually doesn't see that he can't bounce back at first.
In the season's fourth episode, Cooper finds himself talking to a man who botched his own suicide. The man tells Cooper that he can't stand the silence in his house since his wife left him. Because Cooper's long-time boyfriend left him at the beginning of the season, it's obvious that this move is foreshadowing some sort of change in Cooper's life.
He's been helping his former training officer, Hicks (Gerald McRaney), who is struggling with alcoholism and depression in the wake of his retirement and the death of his wife. Again and again, the show's writers remind viewers of Cooper's existential concerns by placing him in situations where he must interact with elderly people who have no one to care for them.
A Great Betrayal?
Now we've got to talk about that scene. Yes, that one. Nothing would make me happier than to tell you that the final scene of "Reckoning" is a terrible affront to Southland fans everywhere. But the truth is… it's an essential scene. It's the show at it's best. Series creator Ann Biderman and the show's writers never strayed from portraying basic realities of policing. One of these realities, unfortunately, is that mental health problems can spiral out of control given the daily stresses of being a cop.
It's not insignificant that the thing that finally pushes Cooper over the edge is small. It's just the disrespectful neighbors making noise again. In the face of everything that's happened this season, though, there can be no normal confrontation between Cooper and the neighbor. He has been driven to the edge of his sanity. Many shows would have let Coop pull himself out of the mire, a better man than he was before. It wouldn't be reality, but it would be nicer than watching one of our favorite characters shot dozens of times by fellow LAPD officers.
What had started as a minor altercation suddenly has implications that no one predicted. The show almost forces us to practice cognitive distance as we want to insist that what we see on the screen can't possibly be happening. We know that this isn't who Cooper is. The greatest affront of all for loyal fans is that Cooper's name might be sullied by the show's finalé. While it's tough to watch, I don't think it's meant to undermine our affection for Coop.
While we watch this gut-wrenching scene, we are forced to understand that policing alters everyone caught up in it at an essential level. Cooper isn’t immune to the effects of the policing system just because he's an officer. Southland teaches us that what we perceive as privileged subject positions carry their own set of contradictions and dangers. We see it this season with Sammy, who is engaged in a bitter custody battle for his son and takes some heat from internal affairs, and with McKenzie, who can't parlay his early promise into a corruption-free career.
In its finalé more than ever, Southland demonstrates that the police procedural is inestimably more effective when it blurs ethical lines instead of simply glorifying corruption.
The DVD box set of Southland: The Fifth and Final Season includes minimal special features. Unaired scenes are available for the majority of the episodes. These deleted scenes are enjoyable because they give us an insider's view of the show's editing process. However, the remaining "Shooting in Progress" feauturette is a standard behind-the-scenes look at the show that doesn't impress. This feauturette is a lot like other behind-the-scenes looks at the show that have appeared on DVD box sets for previous seasons.
It's disappointing that there isn't a retrospective look at the show or lengthier interviews with the actors here. Faithful Southland fans can only dream about an extended "Cudlitz's Corner" special feature, the one extra that would have been especially meaningful for those who've followed the show since its pilot.