The intense power of Southland and the brilliance of Michael Cudlitz

I watch a lot of TV whilst on the train to work, mainly because if I didn’t use that 40 minute journey I would always be in constant danger of falling far behind on shows.  So I imagine my fellow commuters probably catch a glimpse of me every so often and wonder what the hell has happened.  There has been a few times (OK many times) when I’ve held back the tears usually when watching an episode of Parks and Recreation, sometimes I’ve tried not to laugh out loud especially when watching Happy Endings. Then there are the times when my jaw has dropped and I am speechless. This happens pretty much on a weekly basis with Southland.

Just last week there was the attack on Sammy’s home which was shocking enough quickly followed by the revelation that Ben had been involved. Other instances include the death of Nate in S3 and Cooper getting attacked zombie style in S4. This week’s episode though possibly tops all of these incidents.

From the press release I knew that John Cooper and Hank Lucero were going to be kidnapped and that all the main characters would work on the case, something rare in the world of Southland which usually separates the pairings into their own storylines.  So things were clearly going to be brutal but ‘Chaos‘ was more than that, it was an episode that was so intense that afterwards I had to immediately watch a comedy to try and get back to a happier place.

Michael Cudlitz has been bringing it to every episode of Southland since S1, his performance as John Cooper is not only consistently good but elevates the entire show to a whole new level. There is a subtly in his work, it’s not like Cooper is this intense menacing psychopath like Walter White in Breaking Bad, nor is he struggling with a duel life like Brody in Homeland. Cooper is the kind of cop you would want by your side if something awful had just happened to you.  He is firm but fair to the criminals and reassuring to the victims. His scene in ‘Bleed Out’ where the girl was trapped under the bus is a fine example of how he deals with dangerous and intense situations.

The thing is about Cooper is that he is also gay, something that has been part of the show since the beginning but never overly explored not because they are scared to go there but because it is just what he is, he doesn’t let his sexuality define him and doesn’t want others to either. That is because Cooper is a very private person and yes he listens to his partners go on about their personal lives but doesn’t feel the need to share his.

This week though after weeks of Lucero making gay jokes Cooper finally decides to share who he is with his partner. The scene in the gay bar is at first awkward, Lucero thinks Cooper is just messing with him and then realises he isn’t and doesn’t really know how to act. The next scene however is the two leaving the bar and joking around and everything seems ok. Until it’s not. They start messing around and play wrestling in that way that men like to do but it goes on just a little too much and Lucero freaks out and shouts a homophobic slur at Cooper. It’s not completely out of character but like many moments in Southland it takes a fun harmless moment and suddenly jolts it into a something darker and tense. The look on Cooper’s face says it all.

The next day they are riding around once again but unlike their usual shifts together there is silence between the pair. Then they get a call to check out a abandoned building and the tension eases a little, they joke about the dumb meth head they caught in the act. It’s a routine call, until it’s not. Until Lucero is knocked out and the pair of them are kidnapped.

What follows is brutal and horrible, from the confusion they face handcuffed together in just their underwear in the back of the van, to the realisation that the men who have kidnapped them may be dumb but may also actually cause them harm.  Lucero getting dragged into the bathroom only to emerged bloodied and beaten, his constant screaming and near hysterical state is contrasted with Cooper’s near silence. Cooper is trying to keep it together, trying to be dependable like he always is and trying not to freak out. It nearly works. They nearly get the phone and call for help. They nearly get out of it alive.

Until the quieter seemingly out of it kidnapper suddenly shows his true colours and shoots Lucero dead. Wham Bam. Another Southland shocker.

Southland has always struggled with its ratings and this season could very well be its last and so when Lucero was killed all I could think of was “Cooper could be next”. Unlike other shows where you know the main characters will never get harmed or in the case of Supernatural will be killed only to be revived again and again, Southland opened up the possibility that one of its main characters might not make it out alive.  Which made the remaining minutes of ‘Chaos‘ incredibly hard to watch.  Cooper is forced to dig a grave then drag his partner’s body into it before being pushed into the ground. His time could very well be up, especially as only last week he was attempting to find some kind of happiness by having a child with his ex-wife. We all know what happens when someone tries to get their happy ending.

Thankfully though Cooper lives another day, at the last minute the other kidnapper realising just how much trouble they are in  bolts and his partner chases after him. We see Cooper drag himself out of the grave, stumble across the barren land and find himself at a gas station where he pounds on the glass asking the attendant for help. As he falls to the ground holding onto the badge of his partner, he finally breaks down.  It isn’t an over the top performance, there is no screaming and smashing things.  Cudlitz plays it how he always does, subtle, heartbreaking and beautiful.

Next week is the season and possible series finale of the show and no doubt there is more pain on the horizon for all of the characters the show follows, but if this is the last time we get to see them it is going to be a real shame to lose Cooper. Cudlitz and indeed the whole cast are a pleasure to watch and I don’t want to say goodbye to one of TV’s greatest cop shows and with John Cooper one of the best characters.

Southland’s season 5 finale airs Wednesday 17 April 10/9C

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