‘Black Bird’ Miniseries Episode-Two Recap

Black Bird

We Are Coming, Father Abraham

Season 1

Episode 2

Editor’s Rating

4 stars

Photo: Alfonso Bresciani/Apple TV+

“Dogs of Lust,” by the, blares from a stereo somewhere on a college campus in Indiana. A young woman walks through the hubbub and onto a deserted street with lamps that evoke Magritte’s Empire of Light. And all the while, a van has been following her. The van pulls up a bit ahead of her until it’s lost to the camera, tracking the girl’s walk. Eventually, she reaches the van, which has parked. The camera keeps on moving; the girl is gone.

It’s smart cinematic business, using the constant, steady movement of the camera to show us that the woman we’ve been following isn’t there to follow anymore. You feel the shock of her absence in the belly. And it’s just one trick up the sleeve of Black Bird‘s second episode. Shrewd writing, expert filmmaking, powerful but understated acting — if you want it, you’ve got it.

It has to be said that the star of the episode is Paul Walter Hauser as is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-serial-killer Larry Hall. It starts with his voice, a high-pitched wheeze that sounds more like simple exhalation than regular speech. It’s in his eyes, which wander and gaze seemingly at random, making it seem as if he is speaking with interlocutors only he can see. It’s in his ridiculous facial hair, too, a sign that the man is most at home in a fantasy about a dead era.

In an impromptu interview with an FBI polygraph expert, Larry paints a picture of himself as a man lost in a liminal zone between sleep and wakefulness, dreams and reality, a man whose loneliness is so profound that even the times he has killed living human beings have failed to pierce the veil. Watch actors Greg Kinnear and Sepideh Moafi as investigators Miller and McCauley, respectively, and I swear you’ll see the admiration in their eyes mixed with the shock of their characters’.

Kinnear and Moafi do yeoman’s work here. Kinnear’s sheriff, Brian Miller, is every kindly small-town cop you’ve ever seen on TV — a potentially noxious and bogus archetype, to be sure, but a sturdy one. Moafi’s FBI agent, Lauren McCauley, is a profane, no-bullshit type, magnetic in her ability to puncture the alpha-male stylings of her erstwhile colleague, convict Jimmy Keene; the chemistry between them crackles even as she instructs him to deliberately play it up to make his fellow prisoners believe she’s his girlfriend.

His fellow prisoners — there’s the rub. As of the conclusion of this episode, Jimmy is nestled in the same maximum-security prison as Hall, whose confessions were enough to land him behind bars but potentially not enough to keep him there after the appeals process (hence the newfound urgency behind Jimmy’s mission ). All brashness and brio when he is around McCauley, Jimmy has a moment’s cold feet when his van full of US Marshals pulls up to the prison; what gets him to go through with it has less to do with any argument the Marshals make and more to do with the simple peer pressure of not wanting to look like a pussy (in McCauley’s words) in front of other alpha males. As I said, this is some shrewd writing. (I mean, come on — it’s Dennis Lehane. Of course it is.)

Jimmy and Larry don’t meet in this episode. Not exactly, anyway: They catch each other’s eye through the bars of their prison cells after lights out. What kind of chemistry these two characters, these two actors, will have is still anyone’s guess, but based on our experience so far, I’m bullish.

I’m bullish on the show in general, to be honest. For instance, let’s look at Larry’s big confession scene. It has so much going for it, even beyond Hauser’s breathy portrayal of a killer who doesn’t seem capable of raising his voice above a whisper. It’s in the show’s choice to have him issue his confession not to Miller or McCauley, who watch from an observation room, but to a completely random character who just happened to be there.

Then the scene turns into a race against time to get Larry to sign a confession before any lawyers can get involved (dirty pool, that). Immediately, we can see the problem: He writes his name in block letters instead of an actual signature, and his typed-out name just below the signature is “Daniels” rather than “Hall.” Almost immediately, I thought, Well, that’s not going to hold up in court, and, sure enough, these anomalies are enough to throw his entire conviction into question later in the episode. We’re not beaten over the head with these details, but they’re there if you’re paying attention.

On the flip side, we have Jimmy and his easy rapport with those Marshals. On the plane ride to his new digs, he gets into a debate over the comparative historical authenticity of the Scottish biopics Braveheart and Rob Roy; Jimmy is no stickler for accuracy, hence his preference for Mel Gibson’s outing over Liam Neeson’s. (You can’t help but wonder if there’s a message here for fans of “true” crime.) You learn so much about this guy just from seeing whom he feels at home with — other hard-charging men, pretty much. It reinforces an earlier scene in which McCauley mercilessly grills him about what he likes about women, asking over and over again until she gets an answer beyond “They’re hot, and they make me feel good about myself.”

As a side note, there is also a deeply poignant sequence involving Jimmy’s father, Jim, played by Ray Liotta. On his final phone call with Jimmy before the transfer, Jim hems and haws and stammers his way through a description of the symptoms of his stroke. Jimmy can see through the smoke screen and, in a moment that surprised me, credits his dad’s girlfriend, Sammy (Robyn Malcolm), to whom he’d been casually cruel in the previous episode, with having his best interests at heart. Maybe it’s Liotta’s always-piercing eyes doing the work, but he comes across as a man absolutely incensed with his reduced state; Sammy laughs, because what else can you do?

At any rate, now that the show’s two-part season premiere is over, we can look forward to what promises to be the main action: Jimmy and Larry alone together. Based on these episodes, with these performances, that’s a lot to look forward to.

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