Monday, February 22, 2021

Your Honor

Creator: Peter Moffat
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Hunter Doohan, Hope Davis, Sofia Black-D'Elia, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Michael Stuhlbarg, Carmen Ejogo, Lilli Kay, Amy Landecker, Tony Curran, Lamar Johnson, Benjamin Flores Jr., Jimi Stanton, Chet Hanks, Andrene Ward-Hammond, David Maldonado, Melanie Nicholls-King, Lorraine Toussaint, Margo Martindale, Maura Tierney
Original Airdate: 2020

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

When Breaking Bad ended its run in 2013, all this speculation followed as to what Bryan Cranston would do next. Or, in other words, how do you top THAT? Of course, the answer is that you can't, nor is it necessary to. The freedom and clout to do whatever he wanted led him to dabble in a little bit of everything, resulting in a successful case study in how to build off an enormous once-in-a-lifetime  career juggernaut. A character actor long before that series came along, he'd pick up where he left off, albeit with much better projects and collaborators from which to choose. Having done some TV, feature films and Broadway, even winning a Tony for playing LBJ in All the Way (a role he'd reprise in the HBO adaptation), he definitely hasn't been hurting for quality work, enjoying the benefits of  effortlessly slipping in and out of supporting and lead roles without viewers thinking twice, even now. 

While Cranston would probably be the first to say there are far worse things than forever being linked to one of the greatest roles ever written for an actor, his inspired, ecelectic choices since have strayed pretty far from it. Until Now. Showtime's limited series Your Honor (loosely adapted from the Israeli series, Kvodo) not only marks Cranston's return to long-form episodic TV drama, but the first part since his seminal series wrapped that screams, "WALTER WHITE." If the similarities between the chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin and this put-upon judicial protagonist are undeniable, Cranston (also sharing executive producing credits and directing the finale) and showrunner Peter Moffat wisely don't avoid them, ironically helping to cement the character and series as uniquely its own despite a "parent covers kid's crime" plot that's kind of become a television trope of late.

Though Cranston's big screen work as a desserting husband in 2017's unfairly overlooked Wakefield still ranks way up there, this is arguably his strongest post-Breaking Bad project and performance, returning him to the kind of desperate, flailing do-gooder he's a master at playing. Like his most famous role, the character begins with noble intentions and as an upstanding citizen attempting to do the right thing. Then something happens and a single lie turns into a bigger one, and into an even bigger one still, and before long, he's breaking the very law he took an oath to uphold. You could actually argue he's relatively well-intentioned until about half-way through these ten episodes, when the lies start becoming more elaborate and immoral, affecting lives far beyond those directly involved. 

Even with all its dizzying twists and turns, this remains Cranston's show and we get the feeling his character's actions could easily enter Walt territory if the series continued past its limited number of episodes. By the end, he's almost already there, stuck squarely in the middle of a dangerous cat-and-mouse game where his survival depends on staying multiple steps ahead as the walls close in. And that alone should make many Breaking Bad fans feel right at home.     

On the one year anniversary of his wife's murder, respected New Orleans judge Michael Desiato (Cranston) is placed in an impossible situation when his 17 year-old college-bound son Adam (Hunter Doohan) accidentally runs down and kills another teen in a hit-and-run. Panicked and in the throes of a full-blown asthma attack, he initially tries to resucitate him, attempting to call to 911 before fleeing the scene in shock and fear. After confessing to his father, Michael's plans to have Adam turn himself in are derailed when it becomes apparent the victim is Rocco Baxter (Benjamin Wadsworth), son of organized crime kingpin, Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his cutthroat wife Gina (Hope Davis). 

Fearing certain retaliation if Adam's crime is exposed, Michael's priorities shift to covering up his son's actions by calling in some favors and covering their tracks. He starts with best friend and politician Charlie (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), whose crime connections could help make the vehicle disappear.  He'll also have to control and manipulate the involvement of suspicious detective Nancy Costello (Amy Landecker) and former protégé and lawyer, Lee Delamere (Carmen Ejogo), both of whom Michael called immediately following the accident, much to his regret. 

With Michael's cover-up triggering consequences devastating enough to escalate an already raging gang war within the city, the Baxters reign over the corrupt NOPD with every resource at their disposal, ensuring it isn't long before they find out what really happened to Rocco. Further fueling their vengeance is that their eldest son, Carlo (Jimi Stanton) is incarcerated while spunky teen daughter Fia (Lilli Kay) is rebelling against her Catholic upbringing in the wake of their brother's tragic death. 

The biggest hole in Michael's convoluted plans just might be the moroseful, introspective Adam, who hasn't yet recovered from his mother's death long enough to truly process what he's done. While an ongoing illicit affair with his photography teacher, Frannie (Sofia Black-D'Elia) only compounds this anxiety, it's the overwhelming guilt surrounding the accident that's breaking him, and may unintentionally unravel his dad's schemes to prevent Jimmy Baxter from uncovering the truth, and killing them both. 

Everything keeps coming back to the car, as Michael either directly or indirectly involves nearly half of New Orleans' population in his plans to dispose of the vehicle, only to have it come right back and bite him at the worst possible moments. But what's so impressive about Cranston's performance is that we believe this is a man who overthinks every detail to the point that he's almost outthinking himself in a frantic bid to make sure every base is covered. As a result, he gets sloppy, overcovering his tracks to the point of micromanagement, too often drawing unecessary attention in all the wrong ways. 

Michael's decision to go through all these channels to have the car "taken care of" temporarily gets Adam off the hook, but causes a chain reaction that essentially destroys the lives of Kofi Jones (Lamar Johnson) and his little brother Eugene Jones (Benjamin Flores Jr.), two young black kids running in the wrong circles. In a series full of senseless tragedies, what ends up happening with them is easily the most senseless and undeserved. And unfortunately for Adam, he'll never truly be off the hook.

What Michael has most in common with Walter White is his inventive responses to each new impossible obstacle put in his way, in turn opening the floodgates for another calamity that's usually twice as damaging. In some ways it's the toughest kind of episodic storytelling to write because there has to be an escalating tension based off events and actions that require a certain degree of sloppiness to get the story where it needs to go. Creative risks often accompany the manufacturing of these messy scenarios, and as far as over-the-top legal thrillers go, this does snuggly fit within that wheelhouse. 

The amount of sympathy and understanding we have for the Desiatos start at a high point, gradually descending the further their big lie extends, even while acknowledging few would have the courage to do what's most obviously the right thing from the start and confess. But is it? Michael's clearly correct in assessing the ruthless Jimmy Baxter wouldn't hesitate to off Adam if he ever found out he killed his son, however accidental it was. As viewers, we're instinctively protective of a kid who made a snap bad judgment in a scary scenario while having an asthma attack. So even while conceding that both his immediate and long-term actions afterward are wrong, the criminal threat of the victim's family muddies already murky ethical waters. 

We reach a point where the mildly justifiable becomes indefensible, most especially as it relates to Michael. Adam, on the other hand, seems to be behaving in such a way that he wants to get caught. Either that, or the writing has holes big enough to drive a truck through. There's just no other way to explain him returning to the scene of the crime, hanging around courts and prisons, blabbing to people in such a way that implicates himself, attending a public memorial for his victim, and in the grandaddy of them all, getting involved with Fia Baxter, a move that subsequently raises the stakes and tension. If the deck isn't already stacked enough against Adam, his affair with Frannie (which doesn't seem to come exclusively from a place of lust, ranking as almost tame compared to other illegalities on the show) could make the teacher more vulnerable than she even knows. The same could be said for his grandmother, and Michael's mother-in-law, Elizabeth (the great Margo Martindale), whose political position as a senator is yet another hurdle Michael must clear.

Jimmy Baxter hardly needs an excuse to commit heinous crimes, but now with something resembling an actual excuse to, and the means, the threat he poses is frighteningly real. Frequently unrecognizable from role to role, Michael Stuhlbarg is able to go incognito again with this subtly powerful performance, made all the more impactful that it's opposite Cranston. 

Just seeing these two acting titans go face-to-face is really what we're really here for and it doesn't disappoint, with Stuhlbarg playing the grieving Jimmy with a quiet sensitivity that's interspersed with sporadically violent fits of rage. It's inevitable he'll find out what Michael's up to as we wait for the other shoe to drop, but how that happens, and the adjustments he must make, is where all the surprises are found. 

The wildcard is Carlo, the eldest Baxter son who's doing time, but still a massive amount of damage from within his prison cell. Michael and Adam's very survival could depend on whether his dad can wield his judicial influence to help the thuggish, drug-dealing, murdering brute, and in the process potentially betraying everything and everyone he holds dear. This is where Cranston's performance kicks into the highest gear possible as Michael frantically scrambles to come up with solutions that could spare him and his son's life, if only even for just another day.

With a trial as its closing arc, this series disproves the theory that all legal thrillers need to be spend an inordinate amount of time in the courtroom bogged down by procedure and expository dialogue. Presiding over a case that has to go a certain way, Michael's in a position where he can't so obviously tip the scales as to draw attention to his own impropriety. Playing in a chess game rather than overseeing a trial, every single move counts and even the slightest ruling the wrong way could be catastrophic. He can control a lot, but not everything, and it becomes torturous fun watching all the curve balls thrown his way and how Cranston conveys Michael's flummoxed reactions. 

Fitting into a far larger discussion in how popular entertainment is choosing or not choosing to incorporate the pandemic into storylines, the assumption that these events were taking place prior to that are shattered when masks start showing up in the last quarter of the series. Well, kind of. There doesn't seem to be much consistency in their depiction, but give the writers credit for ingenuity and comic relief as Michael actually uses "social distancing" as an excuse to pull off one of his manipulative tactics during the trial.

Much like HBO's Treme, this dives far into the atmosphere of New Orleans, framing the city as important a character as the rogues gallery of corrupt law enforcement, nefarious politicians, lawmakers, family and gang members that put our protagonist in the worst of company. And there's still yet another side that exposes a sense of bustling community in the streets and an underlying and overriding sense of loyalty amongst its people to protect their own, making the betrayals that occur especially heartbreaking. 

The broken system Michael attempts to navigate proves impenetrable, even for someone with his standing. Its ending has been accurately compared to a Shakespearian tragedy, concluding on a note depressing enough to make Better Call Saul feel like a trip to Disney World. There's a mad dash to wrap it all up with many dangling threads, but it's an appropriately straightforward closer considering what got us there. It's easy to believe this was only intended as a limited series with no plans to go further. But if we've learned anything, it's always possible to continue, no matter how creatively inadvisable that may seem. The bigger question is why you'd bother when within its ten episodes Your Honor manages to jam more in than most series have in their entire extended runs.                                   

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