Southland, “Code 4”

Here I am again, writing about Southland when I didn’t expect to. I tackled last week’s episode because it felt like the series’ best effort and was a particularly strong effort for Ben McKenzie and Michael Cudlitz’s characters. Honestly, I didn’t really think episodes of the series that focused on other characters aside from Sherman and Cooper could touch “Discretion,” but last night’s effort “Code 4” was almost as good — especially the ending.

Generally, I don’t like the in media res openings. Frankly, I hate them. But for whatever reason, the approach seems to work fairly well for Southland, even though it’s not a big part of the episodes or an important piece of the storytelling. Usually. This week, however, the look into the future gave us a major hint about what was to happen in the next 40 minutes of the episode: Someone very, very important was going to die. And I don’t know how any random viewer took in the episode, but because I had heard that Kevin Alejandro wouldn’t be a regular this season and because the season has been focusing intently on Shawn Hatosy’s Sammy Bryant anyway, it was pretty obvious that Alejandro’s character was going to die.

But even with that knowledge and the fact that the episode went out of its way to remind us of how great of a guy Nate is, the actual death of Nate is a tremendously moving, terrifying and excellent sequence. Southland is a series that prides itself on a more realistic look at law enforcement and in that respect, Nate’s death falls right in line. Instead of going heroically in the middle of a big shoot out where he saves a number of people, Nate gets clubbed in the back of the head with a baseball bat by a random gangster because he couldn’t just let their minor vandalism of his car go by the wayside. Watching Hatosy’s Sammy clutch Nate’s body while crying and trying to fight off a bunch of gang members with his firearm was gripping television. Great direction from Felix Alcala and particularly strong work from Hatosy, who looked legitimately terrified. This is one of those moments were the more “realistic” approach to cinematography and shooting totally adds to the scene.

Nate has definitely had less to do in the first three episodes of the season and now I’m glad that sort of makes sense. While it sort of undermines his death just a bit here because “Code 4” has to do some heavy lifting to remind us about his home situation, the sister-who-isn’t-a-sister-but-a-daughter and all that stuff, it puts all the consequences of Nate’s death on Sammy. Throughout most of this episode and really the season as a whole, Sammy has been a walking disaster making a mess of both his personal and professional lives. And again, I certainly appreciate Shawn Hatosy’s work, it just seemed odd to not use Alejandro as much if he wasn’t going to be a series regular anyway.

Of course, now that’s all explained and Sammy has a whole other mountain of problems and ideas to deal with. The drama with his wife has been slowly sucking the life out of him and without Nate there for support in the last few episodes, god knows what would have happened. But now that’s all gone and Sammy has to think about his future. He’s lost his wife, his home, his NFL satellite package and his best friend in a short span and for someone with an already explosive personality, I imagine it’s not going to be pretty. Therefore, because we have already spent a lot of time with Sammy this season, the pay-off and aftermath to Nate’s death should be that more affective. Even if the season spent more time with Nate and discarded Sammy a bit leading up to the former’s death, we wouldn’t be left with much when he was gone. Instead, we can revel in the fact that Sammy is about to get REALLY self-destructive! Good times.

Though this episode will surely be remembered for Nate’s death and the final five minutes, “Code 4” is a very strong effort throughout. As always, the sequences with Sherman and Cooper are top-notch and the two actors work really well together when their story actually has some narrative framing to it instead of the fun, but sometimes random pick-up calls. It is obviously inherently easy for me to root for a character played by Ben McKenzie, but Southland does a nice job of reminding us that amid his individual moments of heroics, Ben Sherman is still a youngster with an ego and a badge. That’s not a good combination and Cudlitz is fantastic in keeping his younger coworker in check.

Southland isn’t necessarily a series that needs shocking deaths or big moments to get people to tune in. I think at this point, the audience is the audience. In that sense I appreciate that there wasn’t much made about this episode in promos or spots leading up to it as if it were some sort of MAJOR TELEVISION EVENT OF THE YEAR. Of course, this is exactly what would have happened had the series still been airing on NBC. But the lack of context and true lead-up helps make Nate’s death a fully realistic move in the diegetic world the series has created. Kevin Alejandro will be missed, but it feels like that the moment we were given here and the possibilities of future greatness were enough of a trade-off.

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