December 1st, 2010
In plotting the first season of Terriers, Shawn Ryan and Ted Griffin made two key decisions which shaped the series into one of the year’s finest.
The first was their willingness to resist creating a season-long arc: after the first four or five episodes seemed to be towards some larger conspiracy, the show risked frustrating viewers by pulling up before things became too complicated. In an age where hyper-serialization is highly valued, the decision seemed strange until we saw the result. The residual energy from the near-miss mythology lingered in the subsequent standalones, as unfinished business meant a constant threat of its return – when it did return in “Asunder,” there were more pieces to the puzzle, and the re-entry was surprisingly elegant.
The second was that, throughout the various ups and downs, the show never concretely positioned its heroes within any definitive morality. While we could argue that Hank and Britt are inherently good men, their willingness to do petty, despicable, and reckless things has been refreshing. Hank’s jealousy has never been romanticized, and Britt’s violent outbursts have never been pitched as heroic; while we understand why they do the things they do, we are never asked to agree with them, and the result is two characters who we can relate to even when we don’t want to. They’re characters we like even in their darkest moments, but characters that we don’t necessarily forgive after the fact. They are characters that feel real, and thus characters that we become connected with.
“Hail Mary,” coming off of the rollercoast that was “Quid Pro Quo,” is hopelessly hopeful. Following the earlier pattern, it concludes stories without actually concluding them, leaving threads of story that can be picked up at a later date. It provides a sense of future that it must subsequently tear away, reunions that are either years or weeks too late. While you could technically argue that this is a happy ending, a sort of scrappy P.I. Casablanca, in truth the ending is as the season was: an exercise in dynamic delay, a true marvel of narrative form.
And a show that simply cannot be allowed to ride off into the sunset.
The moment when Laura Ross stands on Hank’s lawn as he prepares to move on from the house that jealousy and regret purchased struck me. In that moment, Laura asks Hank how he can live with it, and for a brief moment it seemed like Laura was asking Hank about the death of his loan officer (the one he inadvertently killed in getting the mortgage), or the death of Gretchen’s fiance Jason, or any of the other innocent people he may have been somewhat responsible for hurting over the course of this season. In reality, of course, she was asking how she could handle the idea that the evil mastermind is getting away with it, and Hank emphasizes that the war is not yet over.
The war can’t be over for Hank. The moment the war is over, Hank has to stop and realize just what he’s done. It’s the reason he threw himself into the P.I. business after being dumped from the force and by his wife: if he didn’t keep going, he would have been lost. Hank and Britt’s relationship works, regardless of their faults, because they hold one another up – the flashback indicated the ways in which they fell into one another’s life at just the right time, and the season has successfully broken down Gustafson’s claim that Hank will at some point abuse his relationship with Britt. For all of the situations that Hank created which Britt could have gotten put in jail for, it was Britt’s own jealousy which landed him a prison sentence, which means that their fates may be connected but they are not forever intertwined. I love the way Hank, after barely escaping from his life in his fight with Bryce, notes that they shouldn’t split up anymore, just as I love that Britt presumes they have been in worse situations but can’t actually name one. These two have history, and despite the season’s ups and downs that history has been what kept Hank (in particular) grounded.
“Hail Mary” successfully told the stories it needed to tell, and did so within what is sort of an epilogue. Now, this doesn’t mean that nothing happened: Hank nearly gets killed, they have their first showdown with “the man,” and Britt makes some pretty huge decisions. But a lot of the episode is about coming to terms with what has already happened, of connecting the dots and dotting the Is. In fact, while I question where I should go this far, I’d say that it was downright Wire-esque: Hank is certainly developing something approaching a McNulty complex, and the penultimate episode shootout coupled with the civilized meeting is very much in line with the way Wire finales would summarize the action while looking towards the future. Even the idea that the answer Hank sought has been sitting in his house for the entire season, or that the person who could help them discover it was one of the first characters they met, fit into the detail-oriented storytelling that The Wire was so fond of.
While, similar to The Wire, Terriers is fairly male-dominated, I thought that both Laura Allen and Kimberly Quinn got some strong moments here, the latter most notably. Gretchen has always been an odd character: while Katie fit into a certain rhythm with the guys, Gretchen felt like a relic of the past in ways which made her presence someone more challenging from the narrative perspective. Jason’s death thrust her back into the story, and she did a bangup job expressing both the intense grief in “Quid Pro Quo” and the sort of quiet resentment we saw here. That scene in jail, as we discover that Hank chose to talk to Gretchen and not his lawyer in order to set the record straight, said more about their relationship than the show has said all season. This is the reconciliation they needed to have back before Jason, the moment when they are faced with a considerable challenge and she knows unequivocally that he didn’t do it. Unfortunately, the “it” is the death of her new husband, and so that ship has sailed: the thing he most loved about that house is gone, and Logue and Quinn really nailed that dynamic here. Allen got a similar beat with Katie, as she falls back in love with Britt a few weeks too late to keep him from being sent to jail, but it didn’t quite have the same history (and the teacher thing was perhaps the weakest point in the season, if we’re being critical).
I don’t have time to delve into every single bit of praise I have for the show – Logue and Michael Raymond-James were consistently fantastic throughout, the writing was sharp from day one, and there was never a point at which the series felt as though it was slipping away from what made it work. “Hail Mary” does nothing to change the prevailing wisdom that despite its low ratings, Terriers is the kind of show that needs to survive for reason of quality. In a comment on Cory Barker’s post from earlier, where he wondered whether the show would be more fondly remembered as an amazing one-season wonder than as a show that was saved only to die a quiet death the following year, I noted that this isn’t analogous to a show like Firefly. While we did love those characters, and those situations, the real shame of Firefly is that Whedon had grand ideas that he never got to execute, a mythology that never had a chance to emerge.
With Terriers, there is no mythology here: yes, we want to see Neal McDonough get what is coming to him, and we certainly want to know what direction Hank and Britt drive at episode’s end, but to continue is not to fulfill some sort of untapped potential. Rather, the show deserves to continue in a concrete fashion, having earned itself a spot in every metric but the one that some would argue matters most. It is on a network that is willing to let a show air its entire first season, on a network where we have some semblance of hope that the numbers show enough of a trend upwards that those in charge will be willing to take the chance.
I won’t soil this review with empty speculation – it will either be renewed or be canceled, and nothing I do or say can truly change that decision. All I will say is that if FX tries to claim that Terriers was a failure, they are either lying or spectacularly ignorant.
And I like to think they are neither.
- Michael Gaston being revealed as a lackey is honestly perfect – love the actor, and so to see Zeitland shift from this scary antagonist to this bullied middle management figure was immensely satisfying, and just a little bit sad.
- Similarly, liked the return of Zeitland’s (now former) employee as Britt figures out she might be able to she some light – the show will only get better as it accumulates these figures, as is evidenced by the delightful Lone Gunmen of sorts (I’ve forgotten their names), so there’s something that would be great to see expanded in the future.
- Most things are better set to classical music, but really liked the role that played in lightly playing through a few scenes. It’s sometimes the details that count, and Terriers was very good with that.
- Karina Logue for series regular – start the petition.
- If I was writing a letter to Santa trying to avoid being put on the naughty list, I’d apologize for not covering Terriers more often.