Last week I mentioned that having your name above the credits grants you the lion’s share of good plot lines. This is great for actors. It gives them a chance to stretch, fully explore the emotional range of a character, and usually earn a higher paycheck while they’re at it. It’s great. For the actor. Unfortunately in episodic television, placing most of your story’s action on one character isn’t always the most effective use of an episode. It’s one note for the audience. It’s overwhelming for the character. It’s, unfortunately, a stumbling block that Aquarius trips over hard tonight.
If I were to give the production team the benefit of the doubt, I would say that this episode’s fixation on tying every one of tonight’s plot lines directly to Hodiak is meant to create a feeling of emotional tension. That as each event successively falls on Sam’s shoulders, the pressure on him builds, creating the frustration and tension necessary to motivate his attack on Manson. If this were a show where our villain was at all ambiguous, or if we were at all in doubt as to Manson’s narcissistic, violent and manipulative behaviors, or the murders that will ultimately result, I may even say we need to see a greater motivation for Hodiak’s attack. The problem is we don’t.
Every show is unique, and as such, every show comes with unique challenges and gifts. One of the gifts Aquarius has is that it doesn’t need to protect it’s villain. The audience knows Manson’s bad. So having another character treat him poorly isn’t going to suddenly make us sympathetic towards him or unsympathetic to that character. We’re not going to root for Manson in a fight. We may not instantly root against him, but we’re not going to naturally feel that Hodiak is in the wrong.
The bigger sin in this may be that there was a fight (or pummeling) between Manson and Hodiak at all. Obviously as an audience we want to see our hero face off against the villain. The problem here is it’s becoming an occurrence once or even twice in an episode. It took a lot of tension out of the show the first time they meet, and I question the value of having these two central figures meet so early in the season. I question it, but trust that there is some strategy in this. Still, with every successive meeting, it becomes less and less tense when Manson and Hodiak face off. This may be a conceit the production team has decided to live with. It’s hard to create tension in a historical drama, where we know what the outcome will likely be. It just feels a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater to give up on creating tension between the two primary antagonists quite so soon. It seems that by trying to “make it personal”, we’re losing most of the structural tension that having two such characters creates.
Overall last night’s episode was still a good effort from a good show, but it’s the first time while watching Aquarius that I feel like my time my have been wasted. Much of the plot reads like filler. Many characters like Emma and Shafe were one-dimensional at best. Bunchy suffers from this in the extreme tonight; making a complicated political movement read a bit like a bad punch line. And each of tonight’s story arcs, while certainly fertile ground for creating dramatic tension, felt relatively pointless. Hopefully we’re looking at a case of an episode being used to set up future plot points, but I can’t help feeling there could have been a better-structured, more character-motivated way to do this. A way that wouldn’t make me feel like I just spent an hour (yes, I’m including commercials) watching heartbreak after heartbreak get pilled on David Duchovny resulting in a rather fruitless fist fight.
Looking for a bright spot? I’ve got two. First, I definitely laughed out loud when the music shifted to menacing at the Susan Atkins name drop. I have to wonder if viewers less familiar with the Manson family felt like they were missing something monumental there. If not, it may have read like some kind of melodrama event horizon.
And finally, Walt’s return to explain the situation in Cambodia and Hodiak’s inability to understand the difference between doing the “right” thing and the right thing was truly heartbreaking. It was a perfect example of the difference between these two generations struggling to understand each other. From now on if a character deserts the military on moral grounds, I’m calling it going AWALT. Sure I might get funny looks from readers on the street, but we’ll all know what I’m talking about. Right?
Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based freelance writer and director and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website, or follow her on Twitter.