I got on board with Aquarius the minute LAPD Detective Sam Hodiak hotwired his own car when he couldn’t find the keys. Hodiak, played with swaggering ease by David Duchovny, is out of his element in 1967 Los Angeles. He’s a rule-bending cop stuck in a time when the cops are cracking down on the rules and young Americans are rejecting them. Aquarius tries to dim the noise of the country’s Vietnam-era unrest with plenty of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, and it sometimes feels like it’s looking at the symptoms rather than the cause. But so are its characters. What else can they do? There’s no stopping history—the fun is in watching Hodiak try.
The detective’s morning punching bag routine is interrupted by a call from ex-girlfriend Grace Karn (Michaela McManus), whose 16-year-old daughter, Emma (Emma Dumont), snuck off to a party four days ago and hasn’t come back. What Grace doesn’t know is that Emma left the party with a charismatic young Charlie Manson (Gethin Anthony). What no one on this show can know is how Charlie will make a name for himself, but it doesn’t take historical context to see that this smooth-talking aspiring musician is a grade-A creep. (“He was born to know your name.”) Only serial killers love extended metaphors this much.
To find Emma, Hodiak partners up with Brian Shafe (Grey Damon), a young guy who goes by the book only in comparison with his new partner. Shafe might be more invested in memorizing “that new Miranda thing,” but he also dresses how he wants, smokes pot undercover, and stands up to his fellow cops when they get rough with protesters. The incident gets him hauled into the station, where he picks a fight with the officer who brought him in; it’s that spark of rebellion that inspires Hodiak to work with him.
Shafe and Hodiak won’t even admit to liking each other, but they already have an engaging buddy cop dynamic. The two stage an argument in front of Emma’s maybe-boyfriend, Rick, who lost track of her at the party when Charlie sent a girl to seduce him. Rick relays what he was told—”Charlie gets the girls”—and Shafe works out a plan to smoke him out at the next party. Thanks to the stoner Shafe scammed while undercover, they’ve got a stash of weed at their disposal. All they need now is a girl.
For that, Hodiak recruits officer Charmain Tully (Claire Holt). While Shafe promises not to let anything happen to her, Hodiak plays it straight: “Anything could happen. It probably won’t, but you need to be sure.” And “anything” very nearly does happen after Shafe lights up with Charlie’s mustache crony, Roy Kovic. Kovic offers to take Charmain to Charlie in exchange for sex, and Shafe agrees. He trips Kovic down a flight of stairs to get her out of it, but Charmain is shaken—until she admits that she loved the rush of it all. With all of the LAPD’s institutional sexism, at least the party scene lets her use her sexuality instead of play it down.
The sexual dealings of what will become the Manson Family are by far Aquarius‘ most unsettling aspect. The wide-eyed Emma expresses her “craving” for Charlie, only to be pinned down not only by the man himself, but by other young girls. She doesn’t want it. Later, Charlie corners Emma’s father, Ken (Brían F. O’Byrne), in a parking garage. He pushes Ken against his car, puts a razor to this throat, and unbuckles his pants. It’s not clear how far he gets before another car rounds the corner, but he has time to reveal that he’s got Emma. “Maybe next time I’ll bring your daughter, and the three of us can get freaky-deaky,” Charlie threatens, as if this weren’t uncomfortable enough.
NEXT: I am not a crook