What year is it again? On Aquarius, it’s 1967. And 1969. And maybe 2016. David Duchovny’s old-school cop drama, back for a second season because we couldn’t just leave Charmain hanging, spends its two-hour season premiere jumping between the show’s “present” in 1967 and the infamous 1969 Manson Family murder of Sharon Tate and her friends. No more making daisy chains; it’s time to jump into the history books.
But history has a way of repeating itself. The problems of the age of Aquarius — racist cops, sexist workplaces, homophobic murders — are still unfortunately familiar 50 years later. Now that our timeline is split, the parallels work on two levels: The show’s “present” foreshadows the Tate-LaBianca murders even as it reflects our actual present. It makes sense. The whole point of a Charles Manson origin story is that the worst is still coming — it’s about tracing how things fell apart, not how we fixed them.
And this is all going to fall apart in the bloodiest possible way. If you were harboring any hopes that Emma might open her eyes and get out of the Family before it’s too late, this episode wastes no time showing that she’s headed for ruin as much as the rest of them. We find her with Charlie in Sharon Tate’s house hours after the murder, almost as pregnant as the woman lying dead on the floor. The pregnancy positions Emma as another of Charlie’s victims. She doesn’t want to be here, and she’s visibly not cool with the whole murder thing, but she’s in too deep to get out now.
Back in 1967, Charlie is also in over his head. Ralph Church (Omar J. Dorsey), a black man who took Charlie under his wing in prison, shows up at the Staircase ready to be repaid. He doesn’t ask; he just kind of intimidates everyone around him into doing what he wants. Even when Ralph climbs on top of Sadie, Charlie is too afraid to protest — but he pretends to care later, when he gives Ralph a big speech about how his girls aren’t objects. Actions speak louder, Charles. Charlie might act like his bad blood with Ralph is all in defense of the Family, but it’s just fear and racism wrapped up in false moralizing. He poisons Ralph and his all-black group of friends with a handful of mushrooms; in 1969, we see him name-drop his Helter Skelter scenario for the first time.
Does Emma know what she’s doing when she adds those mushrooms to the soup? She seems to. Emma is Charlie’s secret weapon. When they bring a new girl into the Family, she’s always the last one to reach out her hand; she has a way of sealing the deal just by introducing herself. Their latest recruit is Patricia Krenwinkel, a shy teen who will go on to play a ruthless role in the Tate murders, even though watching Ralph die drives her to panicky tears. Patty knows the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson, so she takes Emma to meet him in the hopes of getting Charlie a music deal. The girls sleep with Dennis, and he’s putty in their hands.
Dennis and Charlie are two sides of the same coin: They’re both musicians who like to hide their insecurities in a crowd of women, but Charlie is the hippie to Dennis’ square. (Charlie can argue that he’s a “slippie” all he wants; I’m pretty sure the hippie-est thing of all is to deny that you are one.) As for Dennis, he actually, genuinely asks Charles Manson if he wants to “get in on” some cookies and milk. Charlie squints: “Like chocolate chip and stuff?” It’s so mundane it’s incredible. This show spends so much time immersed in the world of cynical cops and future killers; if it forgets all about cookies and milk, the extremes start to feel less extreme. All of Charlie’s girls could be at home doing homework.
But Charlie doesn’t trust free desserts or music industry connections. He looks like he’s constantly torn between playing his guitar for Dennis and beating the guy with it, but — after hesitating for way too long — he does play. He also meets future ally Charles Watson. (“Yeah, that don’t work. I’m going to call you Tex.”) Sadie wastes no time convincing Tex to join her on the other side of a drug trip, even though he says that his one previous experience with hallucinogens unlocked something violent in him. Sure enough, in 1969, he’s got wild eyes. Tex shoots Steven Parent while Sadie and Patty tie up Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring inside the house; later, Tex will tell a struggling Wojciech Frykowski that he’s “the devil, and [he’s] here to do the devil’s business.”
NEXT: Pushing the envelope