'Terriers' - 'Hail Mary': The big finish
Underdog private eye drama ends its superb first season on a high note
And so the first - and hopefully not only - season of "Terriers" has come to an end. (And if you missed the creative team's thank-you letter to fans, it's here.) My review of the finale coming up just as soon as there's a PB&J out on me...
"Ah, we've been in worse situations. I can't think of any off the top of my head, but they're there." -Britt
"You're remarkable in a funny way. Or funny in a remarkable way." -Laura
I want to leave the future of the show aside for the most part in this review. This was a fantastic season of television, which received ratings that are roughly the opposite of fantastic. As Ted Griffin said in an interview yesterday, if FX doesn't renew it, it won't be an unreasonable decision, and if they do, it will be almost entirely out of love. And one way or another, we should have a decision pretty soon (maybe as early as next week).
But I bring it up the show's uncertain, shaky fate only to point out that if this is the end, that last scene will be an absolutely perfect final note: the two partners, together one more time (as
Britt Hank hilariously noted while staring at Burke's corpse, they've spent a lot of time apart in these last few episodes), sitting in the truck that's their agency's only real asset, bantering and testifying about their friendship, staring at a traffic light that's never going to change. If it changes, they have to make a decision about going straight to Britt's prison sentence (and dealing with the ramifications of a second season, since Britt would never actually run out on Katie and the baby) or turning left to Mexico and going on "the vacation that never ends" (one of the kinder ways you could describe cancellation). So long as Britt doesn't answer Hank's question when the light changes, Hank and Britt are there, and they're perfect, and the show is pretty damn close to that, and we can watch and rewatch these 13 episodes. If Britt answers, maybe they get to go straight and our story continues, or maybe that's all she wrote.
But I don't want this to be the end, and the brilliance of "Hail Mary" (directed by Ted Griffin, and co-written by him and his brother Nicholas) was yet another reminder of why.
When I came to the end of last week's "Quid Pro Quo," I worried that there was far too much for the show to wrap up in a standard-length finale. Even if the plan was to leave some loose ends for a hypothetical season two, the plot seemed too complicated, the bad guys too powerful, for Hank and Britt to close the case and also get closure on their various personal story arcs.
But "Hail Mary" somehow pulled that off. It never felt cluttered - had, in fact, time for small "Terriers"-ish moments like the final conversation in the truck, or the juxtaposition of Hank with his gun and the surfer worried about getting shot - and the resolution to the Zeitlin/Lindus/Mickey story didn't feel like a cheat or a shortcut. There was somehow time to explain everything, to give just punishment to some of the bad guys (Zeitlin goes to jail, Burke winds up in the trash) while leaving others (Neal McDonough's pedophile land developer) in the wind to maybe face justice in the future, to give Hank a chance to finally acknowledge that Gretchen is lost to him, to give Britt the opportunity to plead his case to Katie, etc., etc. It was an episode that had room for nearly every significant character of the season to come back and be helpful, whether it was Convoy sweeping for the bugs(*), Laura hiding out with Steph or Eleanor Gosney pointing Hank to the crucial piece of evidence. (Even the box of Mickey's stuff, which once upon a time just seemed to be a symbol of where Hank's life could have headed had he kept drinking, turned out to have plot value.) Short of a walk-on for Michaela the hooker or Britt and Katie's "teabagging, flatulent, incontinent dog" from the second episode, I can't imagine who they could've brought back whom I'd care about.
But it wasn't just that there was room for so much plot and appearances by so many characters. It's that "Hail Mary" was so packed with great moment after great moment, featuring that usual "Terriers" mix of the comic, the tragic, the thrilling and the heartbreaking.
There were the usual bits of wordplay, like the suggestion that if the guys stay in Ocean Beach, they'd have a "life expectancy somewhere between a fly and a fly with a heart condition." There was the pathos of Hank secretly saying goodbye to both Britt and Gretchen (who sort of figured it out), and then just as we were prepared for Hank's big suicide mission against Zeitlin, the plot zigged instead of zagging and Gustafson showed up to casually talk Hank out of it. (And Mark saved the day again when Hank was stuck in the squad car with the assassins, and was karmically rewarded by getting his job back and attaboys for nailing Zeitlin.) There were comic moments both small, like Steph playing chess against herself (an old gag, but well-played by Karina Logue and the extra sitting opposite her), and big, like Britt's fists of fury during the interrogation of Zeitlin. ("I nodded!" "I know. That was just on general principle.") There was that poignant scene where Gretchen told Hank she knew he couldn't have killed Jason and pleaded with him to stop the people who did, and then the softer one where Hank and Laura talked about how they didn't predictably become a couple. And Neal McDonough(**) turned up for all of one scene and established the right level of power, charm, danger and self-loathing to make his power broker character work.
(**) McDonough was doing a favor for Ted Griffin, who had written the script for 1999's "Ravenous," in which McDonough played a supporting role. That's definitely the sort of role where you see the producers call in an old friend; had McDonough not been available, I imagine it'd have been Jay Karnes, or maybe one of the guys from "The Unit."
The resolution to everything was just about right. Hank and Britt get a win, but not a clean one. Jason's still dead, and though Gretchen doesn't blame Hank, that's always going to complicate their relationship going forward. Britt's still going to jail, which even he admits he deserves. Zeitlin's in jail, but Cutshaw is still out in the open (and it's a mark of the characters' low-tech ethos that a show in 2010 could pull off a story about swapping incriminating photos without anyone worrying about a digital copy). Of our heroes, one seems likely to get the girl, but he'll have to do a year in jail and may come home to a baby who looks more like Professor Owen than him. But whatever happens with the outside world, Hank and Britt have come through the trial in their own relationship, and they once again have each other's backs, now and for always.
That's what the show should be. These guys can succeed, but only by the seat of their pants, and never by as much as they should. (How much of the bearer bond money is left by this point?) They're scrappers and survivors, but they're not big time and they never should be.
And that's "Terriers" from the outside, in a way. If it doesn't get renewed, we at least got these 13 fantastic episodes that we'll be able to revisit whenever we want, and the show will be talked about in hushed, reverent tones the same way "Freaks and Geeks" is, and maybe a decade from now, the 2020 equivalent of me will be introducing his or her readers (assuming people still read in 2020, rather than having content beamed directly into their brains) to the genius of this show. And if it does, it will be by the skin of its teeth, by the beneficence of FX, and with us going into a second season all knowing how narrow the margin will be between success and failure.
I could write a more general ode to the show's brilliance - about the acting and the writing and the Ocean Beach atmosphere and all the rest - but I sort of did that a few weeks ago, and besides, I don't want to be writing what reads like a premature obituary. Let's just enjoy the finale, and the season, for now, and when the time comes to start punching people in the mouth on general principle, or taking target practice just south of the curl, then that's what we'll do.
Right now, though, let's just leave Hank and Britt at that traffic light, with the marvelous existential question:
"So what do you say, partner: which way will it be?"
What did everybody else think?
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