The Harder They Come: Reflections on FX’s Snowfall

(These are my accumulated episodic notes on FX’s completed summer series Snowfall. If you haven’t seen, I originally tried to stick to general impressions, but spoilers are definitely, increasingly, extant, culminating in the outright dangerous. Snowfall was my favorite show of the summer, followed by USA’s Shooter and Queen of the South and SyFy’s Killjoys and grindhouse mash-up Blood Drive.)

“Like the Earth, she cools down until she hardens.

Thus creation is born.”

— Swim (RZA), Snowfall, Episode 7, “Cracking”

I CIA Connection: Unknown / II Whose Street?

I watched two episodes—the Pilot, “Make Them Birds Fly”—this morning of executive producer John Singleton’s—along with co-creators Eric Amadio and Dave Andron (Justified)—FX series Snowfall about the cocaine explosion in South Los Angeles in the early 1980s. So far, the CIA connection, Logan Miller (Eric Mitro, Or Die Trying webseries) is not well known. He overdosed during a sex party in the pilot episode but left a stack of bricks behind at a modernist Hollywood Hills retreat with views. His partner is a Contra rep, Alejandro Usteves (Juan Javier Cardenas), who explains to the new CIA liaison, Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson)—a disgraced agent who persuades his handler, James Ballard (Swindon, England’s Nic Bishop, Covert Affairs, Body of Proof) to continue the operation under a shroud of plausible deniability with a promise of an illicit weapons field day for the counterrevolutionaries—that the Contras are assembled but starving and in poor shape. Alejandro complains that the Americans are always inconsistent and have abandoned them. He is using a Latino supply connection—crime family kids Pedro Nava (Lisbon native Filipe Valle Costa) and Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn: The Series, True Detective, The Bridge) and fallen Lucha libre wrestler turned strongman Gustavo “El Oso” Zapata (Madrid native Sergio-Peris Mencheta)—as well as an eccentric playboy Israeli, Avi Drexler (the acclaimed Alon Aboutball, Legends, Low Winter Sun) who may be ex-intelligence. A decent and intelligent African-American youth, Franklin Saint (London native Damson Idris, Megan Leavey, City of Tiny Lights) seizes an opportunity to cash in with Avi to sell in his neighborhood, but so far gets the cash from his second and third bricks stolen from his ever-present backpack along with his newly acquired motorbike during an ambush outside an underground Black club run by an overlord madame, Claudia Crane (veteran character actress Judith Scott), he distributes to. It’s interesting, well acted, and somewhat addicting.

III Wall Street to Main / Another Gear

In episode 3 of Snowfall, “Slow Hand,” Franklin’s wide-eyed and freewheeling entrepreneurial skills are put to the test by the realities of urban street life. These, after all, are not so much different than those in the capital boardrooms with the glass windows and scenic, panoramic views over the years, decades, and into the present day, in which the enforcement of territorial monopolies runs counter to the inalienable rights of capital competition and can be enforced by the most raw and infantile personal maldevelopment—not just speaking of the current American president and monopoly capitalist—and savage violence. In business, whether in the capital exchanges or in the street, weakness is just not tolerated and can be a sure bellwether of pending losses and financial doom. The episode pivots on Franklin’s character development, and not just on the lesson of whether one must swim with sharks in order to keep from being eaten.

His “softness,” along with childhood best friend Leon’s (Isaiah John), is characterized by street-gang enforcer Karvel (Sheaun McKinney, Vice Principals, upcoming NBC series Great News) as of the “soft-serve ice-cream ass…” variety, but Franklin is not just being adverse to having to enforce violence to sustain his threatened enterprise, but because of practicality. The throttle goes into another gear on his reaction to Karvel’s astonishing assault on Saint’s rival Lenny (Craig Tate, Aquarius, Ravenswood, 12 Years a Slave). When Franklin peers in the door as Lenny lay beaten on his bed tied and striped on his stomach, the gaze he receives back is not one of defiance, but something like reconciliation. Franklin’s single-minded anger at Lenny and determination to avenge him for jumping, beating, and robbing him morphs into empathy, as Franklin perhaps sees himself in Lenny’ gaze, with the understanding that Lenny is just like him: a burgeoning entrepreneur whose territory—and livelihood—he unknowingly trampled upon. Franklin realizes he is not in this alone, but that there are competitors around him who may share his like-minded dreamz of self-betterment. The story arc has nowhere to go but to see at what cost he is willing to go to sustain them, and just how much he and others around him may suffer from it.

IV Poetics

Darkness intensifies in Snowfall episode 4, “Trauma.” The foreboding opening title sequence, with a spotlight perceptively illuminating the silver bejewel-encrusted 3D main title, reminiscent of David Lynch’s Inland Empire in both style and effect, becomes impactful. It’s also just one of the portentous symbolic manifestations of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy that is suddenly transparent and imbued in this episode, nevermind actual action and complication. That escalation moves on Franklin’s and Leon’s kidnapping and botched execution of Karvel in the unforgiving terrain of the Mojave, always a reliable film and television trope. Franklin’s consuming obsession in reclaiming his now twice-stolen money is betrayed by the stark whiteness of his determined eyes as he aims a gun at Karvel. If Karvel’s half-buried-alive body epitomizes Saint’s humanist hesitation as his general approach, his friend’s finishing Karvel off to loud, off-screen effect at sundown shows we are firmly within the grip of Aristotle’s Poetics.

As the episode shifts to a shady Contra camp inside Honduras, when Teddy announces to Alejandro they’re not prepared to fly the Central American cocaine into Hawthorne Municipal Airport, a sprawling airfield that intersects Crenshaw Boulevard off the 105 Freeway to LAX, it definitively brings home the CIA/Contra/South Los Angeles connection, so long considered an urban legend even after Gary Webb’s definitive series in the San Jose Mercury News. When the CIA point man, whose omnipresent Kansas City Royals baseball cap betrays his eccentric, fish-out-of-water character, becomes a sort of father figure to an impetuous young contra boy, Popeye (Marcel Ruiz, upcoming Netflix reboot One Day at a Time), the personal really hits home for the private and professional misfit when he unintentionally outs the boy as an FSLN plant and the boy’s swift retribution at the hands of matter-of-fact camp forewoman Elena (Zabryna Guevara, The Get Down, Gotham) brings back memories of the loss of his own son. Popeye’s outing also confirms the legitimacy of the FSLN that the adventurous young boy is actually on the right side. Emmy-winning Jeff Russo’s (Fargo, Bull, The Night Of) loud bass & drum and eerie keyboards bring home the episode’s theme, as does Avi’s colorful description that body disposal is a professional prerequisite, so what do we make of Saint’s surprise response, “I’m out”?

V Dark Side of the Moon

Snowfall episode 5, “Seven-Four,” is all about the state of the nation as defined on its birthday. It’s not so pretty: A Latin crime family enjoys a luxury indoor/outdoor house party, an African-American block party is interrupted by police, and the CIA’s reckless and hapless attempts to subvert sovereign democracy are cast in stark tragicomic relief. The episode opens rather stunningly with Teddy ranting and raving to himself and an unconscious Alejandro, slumped in the cockpit of the pair’s four-seat, single-engine plane, stranded amid the burning expanse of the Mexican desert running out of water with 75 kilos of cocaine from Peru. The scene is a stage for Hudson’s bravura acting, and demonstrates the show’s admirable dependence on several relatively unknown and inexperienced actors, who all, nonetheless, decidedly come through. In case we’re not aware of the theme of the episode, Teddy even shows off his history skills in a monologue on casualties at Lexington and Concord.

Lucia insists on bringing Gustavo to Pedro’s father Ramiro’s (veteran Honduran-born dramatic television presence José Zúñiga, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) holiday cocktail gathering, and the lowly former luchador must prove his trust and loyalty in an understated tête-à-tête out by the horse stables. Franklin informs his mother, Cissy (terrific Birmingham-born Jamaican television veteran Michael Hyatt, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Ray Donovan, True Detective), he’s quit his job as a liquor store clerk and promises her he’ll help take care of their needs, in addition to the income from her contentious position evicting low-income tenants. Franklin’s Uncle, Jerome (Bronx-born rising star Amin Joseph, Baywatch, Sister Code) and plucky Aunt Louie (Angela Lewis) decide to go forth with their annual Fourth of July front-yard BBQ, but like so many assertions of African-American independence, it nearly ends in tragedy. As the smell of marijuana wafts densely in the air and day turns to night, Jerome sets the roof afire with a misjudged fireworks launch by light of the moon and the boisterous perimeter is penetrated by two officers emerging from a squad car. Franklin mouths off and is put in a severe chokehold. Needless to say, for Saint, the liquor store can wait and it’s back to the cocaine. That’s the promise he made.

VI Prophesy

As the title suggests, in Snowfall episode 6, “A Long Time Coming,” Franklin Saint, or Youngblood as he’s called on two separate occasions by two different people, gets schooled in the recent history of the street. Claudia, Jerome, and Jerome’s old friend, Knees (special-guest star Bokeem Woodbine, Underground, Fargo) all provide crucial lessons and cautionary tales that evoke prophecy, especially on turning to cocaine for personal profit. A colorful meeting with Knees in his warehouse office is particularly contextual: The Korean soap seller lays down a crucial history of African-American street life from the 1950s forward to the “crazy kids nowadays,” but Franklin is barely intrigued. He’s much more interested in the locus of the Mexican-American street gang where he may unload the two kilos from Avi rejected by Claudia, who assumed only one, because as the madame repeats, she’s “a purveyor of entertainment, not a drug dealer.” If Franklin is somewhat tone deaf to the wisdom of the previous generation, at least he’s not a total fool, as Leon and third musketeer Kevin’s (Malcolm Mays, Rebel) brusque immaturity is given a graphic tongue-lashing by Claudia, and the duo later prove too sophomoric to equitably partner in Franklin’s disciplined routine. By the time Saint reunites with Cissy, it’s apparent this fine supporting African-American cast is typically emblematic.

The lessons hit home in reality in two separate ways that illustrate just how precious individual life is on a typical African-American urban street: Lenny’s scoping out of Franklin’s home from his car, gun in hand, with less resolute associate Ray Ray (Markice Moore, Shots Fired, Rectify) as the musketeers walk home in broad daylight, and Saint’s harrowing escape—with the aid of Gustavo, who’s there under similar purport—from the racist machismo of the Latino street gang whose neighborhood he penetrates for his own profit. Selling in the upscale White neighborhoods of the Valley would be easiest, but as Jerome counseled, that’s the surest ticket to prison, but how ‘bout to an early grave? After some more deft acting from Hudson, the episode concludes on the posting of a missing persons flyer on a utility pole that has grave consequences for Alejandro and the entire operation: Seems a young woman, Victoria (Justine Lupe, Mr. Mercedes, Madam Secretary), is taking a keen interest in one of the girls who “disappeared” the night of the former CIA liaison’s sex party, all to the tune of the Temptations’ essential “Smiling Faces Sometimes.” The episode also manifests the depth of Snowfall’s three parallel storylines.

VII The Base / All of It

Snowfall episode 7, “Cracking,” is a stunning depiction of the stark origins of rock cocaine on the West Coast. After again stringing along Cissy, this time over the broken window of her car upon his narrow escape from the previous episode, Franklin and the other musketeers take a drive to Oakland in Kevin’s rickety car to pursue a distribution opportunity with Kevin’s cousin, Devon. The trio arrive at an underground club where the party’s going all nite, and a nervous, fish-out-water Franklin—so (in)conspicuous with his serious demeanor and ubiquitous strapped-on backpack, departs toward his own much more adventurous all-nighter. Walking down a deserted alley, alone, with two kilos stashed away upon him, Franklin runs into a shabby building that he realizes is the former Black Panther Party headquarters his now homeless, outsider father took him to as a young boy. Down a dilapidated hallway and into a decrepit room, he finds a wrecked flower child (Abby Miller, The Sinner, Aquarius) who looks like she’s permanently strayed from her English studies at UC Berkeley. After much mutual flirting, she takes Saint to her street dealer who, in turn, accepts a big pile of cash to take Franklin, intoxicated by witnessing the girl’s cheap, quick high and the dealer’s returning customers, to “meet the Wizard.” Turns out the Wizard is named Swim (Brooklyn-born special-guest star RZA, Mr. Right, Gang Related) who, with his clandestine lab and maestro mixologist Angel (Anthony Rutowicz), is to Oakland’s drug underground what Lewis and Clark were to the Pacific Northwest. If Franklin didn’t necessarily appreciate the brief history of South Los Angeles African-American men from episode six, he is positively wide-eyed in hearing Swim’s take on what in Peru is called “la base,” the ultrapotent, when treated, bottom-barrel paste residue left over from the manufacture of cocaine, and how his scientists came upon freeing the base from the powder with ether like ice from the snow. There is more than one way to get high, and Franklin’s gaze at the process is so crystalline that by the time he reunites with his friends at sunrise with a large clear plastic bag of large rocks instead of the two packed kilos of powder his pupils have turned to dollar signs like crosses in the devil’s.

VIII Like Dow Jones / Creatures in the Morning Sun

I would moralize here about Franklin Saint’s clear-eyed decision to procure and distribute such a devastating street drug at the expense of the people in his own neighborhood and only to the benefit of himself and his mother, who would clearly disapprove—otherwise why would he be hiding it from her?—but I’m not Immanuel Kant or Søren Kierkegaard, so I won’t. Such discourse is probably best left to the individual. Franklin certainly believes so; if he chooses to win, and others to lose, it is what it is, and in life, there are always winners, and always losers. Perhaps capitalism is the most appropriate economic—and moral—philosophy for us, after all.

Needless to say, in Snowfall episode 8, “Baby Teeth,” Saint and associates have the people reeled in. Franklin again becomes intoxicated himself, though in a different way, upon Kevin‘s euphoria after pleading to try out the new high himself: “We gonna make bank!” Like all great entrepreneurs before him who have dropped out of school to pursue their dream in business, Franklin creates a new market for the perfect product, establishes the right price point, declines to extend credit to his avid new customers, and watches the magic of street econ 101 come to fruition. It’s all actualized by posting Leon and Kevin at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in the morning sun, hooking those curious unemployed folks looking for a new high with free samples, and reeling them in the next day when they come back for more at $10 a bag; hook, line, sinker. J.P. Morgan, Ray Kroc, Steve Jobs and the Republican Party could be so proud, but establishing a new business always comes with consequences: Leon the Peon and Stingy Saint get into a struggle over the value of the means of production, and in the aftermath, tragedy strikes at Franklin’s front door. As Leon lies gasping and bleeding away, Franklin scrambles to ditch his backpack in the closet of his next-door neighbor’s, Melody’s (Reign Edwards, The Bold and the Beautiful) bedroom, before the authorities, whom he alerted, arrive. They do, the screen fades to black and credits roll to the sounds of the sirens, open and closing vehicle doors, and dispatch radios. Breathless.

IX Apart

Snowfall episode 9, “Story of a Scar,” is a masterwork in dramatic episodic television that, from the writing to the directing to the ensemble acting, should be shown in every film and television school. From one dramatic interior scene to the next, it was the most impressive hour I saw on television this summer, and if its writers—co-executive producer Leonard Chang (Justified, Awake) and Jerome Hairston (Game of Silence, Deception) don’t receive an Emmy nod for it—and they won’t—it’s a serious slight. From Franklin with Cissy, to Teddy with Alejandro, to Gustavo with Lucia, to Franklin with Melody, to Cissy with Aunt Louie, to Franklin with Leon, to Franklin with Claudia, to Gustavo and Latin street-gang padrone Stomper (Tony Sancho, Hulu’s East Los High), to Franklin with Louie, to Saint with Ray Ray in a diner à la Moonlight, it’s just one tour-de-force scene after another.

The episode occurs in the aftermath of losses sustained in all three storylines—Leon’s harrowing front-doorstep shooting, the Sandinistas’ immobilizing attack on the Contra base across the Honduran border, and Gustavo’s personal and operational ouster from Ramiro’s crime family. It begins—and ends—symbolically, with the extended shadow of Franklin’s footsteps as he walks dejectedly to Melody’s at night and the passing of Lucia’s serene and philosophic father, Mauricio (Salvadorean Carlos Linares), a foreboding event that presages the potential explosiveness to come. With the entrance to Melody’s home barred, the prodigal son decides to return home for a crucial face-to-face with Cissy, incredulous at the ease with which Franklin is able “to look me in the eye and lie your ass off.” After just a partial coming clean, Franklin states simply he “had to step up and get something going.” The next day he walks Melody home from the vocational center she attends but only to reveal his more pressing agenda is to retrieve his backpack, which earns him a quick boot and a scolding with words that could be emblematic of the entire series, “I thought you actually cared about me, but you can’t see anything else besides what’s in that &^%^&#$ bag.”

The episode’s acute dialogue continues across the street at Jerome’s, when Cissy steps over for another disintegrating confrontation with Louie over responsibility for Franklin’s dawning delinquency. Louie deflects and directs, telling Mrs. Saint, regretful that she allowed her son to drop out of school and “throw away all the advantages I gave him,” that it’s her “who should be thinkin’ real hard about her own choices.” “Look at what Franklin sees—you, kissing to some crack-ass slumlord.” Cissy responds with several saucy one-ups. “You better watch your *&^$(^% mouth. I will not stand by and watch you try to drag my son into that gutter your stank ass come from. You hear me?” Needless to say, Louie’s conciliatory offer of coffee will once again not come close to being realized. “I am goddamn sick and tired of your condescending, hypocritical, siddity ass bullshit. Yeah, get the *(%$ up out of my house, you Stepin Fetchit *&%(#.

Franklin’s visit to a rehabilitating Leon finds the subordinate contemplating Godfather-style vengeance as he lay stretched out on the couch with a bandaged knee. “You gotta let *^$&^# know right here, right now, that we official, ’cause if you don’t, *&^%$#*&^$#*@ are always gonna be comin’ at us.”

In their stark, stealth warehouse where they previously had been painstakingly taking the serial numbers off an arsenal of automatic weapons, Alejandro informs Teddy of the necessity of a new Colombian connection since Peru was dismantled. Ramiro, Lucia, and Pedro arrive later to confirm the logistics of acquisition and distribution. In Gustavo’s tense but eventually agreeable confrontation with Stomper, he seems to be playing both sides, but when the padrone takes him to show off a clandestine cache of automatics in a chest, there appears little room for sentimentality. Teddy, whom Hudson continues to play with effective, taciturn eccentricity, walks into another crisis when Victoria shows him photos of Alejandro, the “Latin Freddie Mercury,” at a niteclub conversing with her sister Kristen’s (Taylor Kowald) companion, Jess (Catherine Chen), who also later “disappeared” the night of Logan Miller’s sex soirée. During a scene with the lovely Scott involving Claudia and her new prize possession, Shayla, Franklin arranges a sit-down with Ray Ray. “And get this sad brother some Henney, Goddamn!” the bossy proprietor pleads to her bartender. “That’s how it’s going down? You a snitch, &^%$*($#@*%$?” Ray Ray lashes out at Franklin at the meet. “If you’re looking for some type of truce, you’re in the wrong place.” “No, no, no, no. No truce. We gonna talk business. Because that’s what it’s about, right? Money?” If Saint’s new “business” involves invoking Kant and Kierkegaard for moral clarity, at least we know he’s the Barack Obama of shot-callers—gracious, peaceable, and quietly efficient.

X Rise / Godfather

Given the sustained excellence of episode 9, the show comes back to earth in Snowfall episode 10, “The Rubicon,” but the season finale, directed by Singleton, then deepens, building to a crescendo that includes a good handful of downright breathless scenes and a cathartic cinematic climax so well-played by Idris that he almost deserves an Emmy for the scene alone. The episode soon finds Jerome counting stacks of bills on his living-room table as of he were a banker; there’s plenty more of that to come. Once quit reluctant to join the snow campaign even while steering his nephew away, he’s now in for 25 percent. Franklin comes home to discover Cissy is jobless after confronting her boss about a lost promotion on the Westside. Franklin says not to worry and hands her a roll of bills, which the mother rejects. When he leaves, he silently leaves the cash for her on the table. As in episode 9, a visit to Leon sees John deliver another fine performance, imploring Saint that when he “pulls that trigger, I want you to think about taking care of your people,” and not blink.

When Gustavo visits Stomper at the gang ‘s home—which appears to be in Highland Park or vicinity where The Avenues were ascendant—Peris-Mencheta again proves there’s no actor better at looking another in the eye without blinking however tense the situation or however much his character is compromised. We already know that Rios photographs extremely well on close-up, and here she again asserts that she could be the talented ensemble’s best actress. Bitter at her perceived secondhand status as a woman that intensifies with her uncle’s plans to bring on someone else to do the family’s books, Lucia joins Gustavo in a gritty post-sex scene of mutinous plotting that’s right out of The Godfather. In a beautiful parting scene with her visiting mother, Mariela (Bronx-born Saundra Santiago, Gang Related, One Life to Live, Gina on the original Miami Vice), who advises her to return to Mexico at Mauricio’s hacienda funeral, the matron relates it was not her second sex but her father’s fears that the impetuous young girl “could tear up our family” that kept her rise up the jerarquía familiar at bay, words that soon become prophetic.

A devastated Teddy, wrung dry by the crimson events after coming upon Alejandro in the process of dispatching a lifeless Victoria in her bathtub, is cheered by James in a bar. The intelligence bureaucrat reports from DC that the director (then William Casey) and the president (Ronald Reagan) are both “extremely pleased,” citing the southerly flow of dollars and supplies and the resurgent Contras. While a tacit acknowledgment that the affair was known at the highest levels early on, Ballard also refers to Teddy’s past actions in Tehran for a second time, to which the incredulous field op replies, “I could’ve prevented Tehran. I could’ve. I should’ve pulled my agent out. I knew he was in trouble, and nobody would listen.” James’ assertion that “sometimes shit just goes wrong in our business” is perhaps the understatement not only of the series, but of the century.

In an earlier heartbreaking telephone scene with estranged wife Jules (the powerful Peta Sergeant, The Originals, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland), Hudson shows to just what levels he’s managed to make his most vexing character sympathetic, and he’ll need all of that dexterity in a risky meeting with Alejandro’s uneasy Cali connection in a hotel presidential suite. The besieged agent promises to provide intelligence and keep law enforcement and border security at bay in return for pure product at insanely low prices. When domestic cartel rep Diego (Wade Allain-Marcus, Insecure) asks him whom he represents, Teddy’s answer is simple, “the U.S. government.” In an earlier contentious meeting at Avi’s with Franklin, Jerome, and Kevin, the uncle insists Franklin go straight to the “crazy ass Jew’s” direct source. “Can’t just sit outside his house and wait,” Franklin replies. “Be arrested in five minutes in this neighborhood.” Later, we briefly see Franklin’s White ex-college roommate, Rob (Taylor Kowalski, The Detour, Homeland), espy Teddy coming from Avi’s on a stakeout, another portent that the three storylines will soon be completely meshed.

Nothing, however, can really prepare us for the scene that unfolds on a hilly oil field—looks like Signal Hill—when Leon’s direction comes to fruition, albeit with an insane twist. Franklin and Jerome meet Ray Ray, who’s brought a rock-cocaine deranged Lenny in the trunk of their car. The sudden transformation in Idris’s crazed eyes and authoritative construction as Franklin commands a reluctant Ray Ray to do the job for him is sensational, a countenance that seems to turn to sorrow until he kneels over Lenny and spits out the terse epitaph, “For Leon, &*^%$#*^%#@.” It’s a Scarface moment, the devastating nighttime execution signaling the sudden rise of a kid with a backpack to neighborhood kingpin, reinforced on Jerome’s front porch the next day when Franklin pays off an ice cream truck driver (veteran character actor Damon Standifer, Becker) with a large bill to distribute treats to the coinless children. The message is clear with Franklin, Jerome, Louie, Kevin, and Leon sitting idly in the shade, the reigns of production in hand, chillin’ to the tune of what I believe is Bobby Womack’s version of “California Dreamin’.” Yet, it remains to be seen whether Franklin is neighborhood savior or destroyer; you already may know that when Saint and associates are finished, sunny day or not, there may be no need to get to L.A.

(Snowfall is available on FXNOW, Amazon Video, and iTunes. The series returns to FX in 2018.)

(Special thanks to Springfield! Springfield!—UK—television and movie script database!)

© 2017 John Tyler/24 Hours