Southland Season Finale Review: The End, Probably

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Southland S05E10: "Reckoning"

It can be tough watching an episode that might be a series' last. There are no guarantees in the television industry, but these days it feels like networks and studios generally give shows more of a heads up than they used to; you usually know when you're going out. Officially, we don't yet know Southland's fate. The ratings in this fifth season weren't very good, but TNT can't help but like having such a critically beloved show on its roster and all of the network's other winter shows pretty much tanked as well. However, three of the four series stars have booked pilot gigs, and Ben McKenzie's is even with a Warner Bros. show, the same studio that owns Southland. Things aren't looking good. 

As a result, I imagine that there might be fans of the show who didn't particularly like "Reckoning," the Season 5 finale. There will be people who suggest that it didn't provide enough tangible resolution, or that it left the story on an important cliffhanger. Although I understand that perspective, I get the impression that the production team saw the writing on the wall while they were crafting this season and particularly these last few episodes. This is probably the end, and "Reckoning" was a pretty solid way to go out. 

I wouldn't say that the events of the penultimate episode were out of the show's typical purview, but the thrilling, horrific and powerful kidnapping of Cooper and Lucero last week certainly undercut the series' typical day-in-the-life check-ins and snapshots. "Chaos" was probably one of the two or three best episodes the show has ever done, and Michael Cudlitz was tremendous throughout every second, but it also turned the show away from its typical narrative framework and toward more singular, forward-moving stories. That shift mostly dominated this episode as well, though not to the same degree as we saw last week. I'm not criticizing the show; "Chaos" was wonderful, and "Reckoning" provided the perfect mix of resolution and ambiguity. But with that said, it felt a little weird to see so much attention paid to catching two particular killers, and to see characters like Cooper and Lydia interact. It was Southland, but not Southland, and yet also still great.

Where "Reckoning" really succeeded was in the way it managed to wrap up most of this season's stories without ever feeling too much like a finale. There's always going to be enough to work with if TNT and Warner Bros. want to continue, but in the very likely chance they do not, this episode gave all four lead characters (and really five, if you count Ruben) important moments of temporary stasis. Southland isn't a show about sweeping stories that require the kind of grandiose storytelling we often see in finales, be they season or series. Most of these characters are going to keep on living, and they will likely keep on doing this job. They might hate it when they wake up, they might hate it when they're out on the street, but it's going to tough for them to quit.

For Lydia, it's always been about the work-personal life balance. It's a rote story we've seen hundreds of times, but the writers and Regina King did a masterful job of really showing us a woman who is both committed to and excellent at her chosen career, but not some sort of cold or disconnected harpie. Lydia wants to find the balance, she just can't turn off her skills and instincts. The interesting thing about her little story in this episode was that she finally had one of those moments where she completely chose her personal life over her work. Right in the middle of one of the biggest investigations of her career, she got pulled away because of a medical emergency with her son and without even thinking, she went. Unfortunately, it kind of took her mother dying for her to recognize that she needed to be a more regular part of her child's life, and now with her former partner/maybe something else back in the picture, there's a little family unit there, with two people who understand one another—and who understand the job. 

With Ben and Sammy, the last third of the season had been building to the moment where Sammy found out that Ben orchestrated the break-in on Sammy's house. We knew that was coming; Southland isn't a show about secret-keeping, and these things eventually come out. But really, the tension between the two had been bubbling throughout the entire season. What's really fascinating about both Sammy and Ben is how they're simultaneously bleeding hearts and cold-blooded assholes. The series does a great job of representing the dualities someone might need to have to work a job like this, in a place like this. Sammy's been a little jealous of Ben's rising career from the beginning and Ben can be a raging, selfish dick. Yet, we also get the sense that Ben, having learned from his experience with Cooper, truly cares for Sammy and wanted to have his back until the end.

As a result, by the time Sammy discovered Ben's shoddy cover job and ultimately figured out that he planned the home invasion, it wasn't just an argument about the home invasion, and most impressively, they were both right and wrong. Sammy was about to flake on Ben and Ben took action—terrible action, but action. There's a code, they both broke it in their own ways, and the partnership is probably fractured forever. But it was always headed that way. Sammy's out there trying to teach, but he's also not able to emotionally separate himself from any given situation. He takes things very, very personally and I can't imagine him wanting to ride with Ben anymore. 

Of course, they're both still going to be cops. And Lydia will still be a detective. Maybe Sammy and Lydia will cut back on their hours and recommit to their respective children. Maybe Ben will decide to stop having sex with all the women and thinking he's invincible. But probably not. At least Lydia can sit on that beach, or Sammy can talk to Nate; they're convincing themselves that it's going to be different and it probably won't be. But that is their life.

For Cooper, though, there was no way he'd have been able to not change after what happened to him out in the desert. He saw too many things and experienced too many more. He busted up his back again, meaning he was just as broken physically as he was mentally. And despite his insistence that everything was on its way back to normal, "Reckoning" did a wonderful job of showing how each time he moved outside of a comfort zone, everything came crashing down. He was fine at breakfast, he was fine at roll, and he was even fine talking to Lucero's wife about the possibility of the two of them being gay lovers. But as soon as someone wanted to get into the details, it was all over. Cooper couldn't even be happy about the sobriety of his mentor Hicks, because there was immediately a discussion about why he gave up his gun. 

Even though it was 18 days later, this event showed Cooper that at a certain point, there's nothing we can do. Horrible things happen. Even when you try to move on, people's sympathy or patronizing questions only make it worse. And for a man who was already so internally broken and angry to find out that there was no possibility of a baby in his future—he didn't have much left to care about. Retirement or disability would take him down the same road Hicks just left. Staying on the job would mean listening to more crap from peers for months, finally getting a weapon back, and then just waiting for the other shoe to drop eventually anyway. Unfortunately, in the moment that Cooper got into an altercation with some neighbors, he had very little left to live for and a whole lot rage inside him. That's not a good combination, and he knew where he was headed. He didn't care. There's still a chance the show comes back and Cooper survives being shot multiple times by his fellow officers. But that would just be more misery for a man who's had a lot of it lately. It's not necessarily a fitting ending for Cooper, but it's a powerful one. And it's a powerful one for Southland

If this is it, I'll miss Southland. Season 5 was probably the show's most consistent and dramatically engaging one yet. But "Reckoning" offered a very nice conclusion. Full resolution isn't necessary. Life goes on, and then it doesn't. 


NOTES

– Great sequence with Lydia and Ruben chasing the meth heads down in their car after setting up the makeshift sting. Gruesome conclusion. The show was very violent in the last few episodes.

– It was also great for Ruben to get his little moment in the sun at the press conference. He wasn't the most developed character, but his willingness to go to the mat for Lydia worked throughout the last two seasons. The tension with the homicide detectives was probably a little overwrought, though.

– Brooke the teacher ended up to be quite the scorned ex, huh? Ben Sherman really knows how to pick 'em. 

– If this is the end, I will regret not getting another scene with Ben and Cooper. I thought it was coming last week and it didn't happen, and then there was no real opportunity here. Bummer.