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[pagebreak]
Charlie trusts Ken not to spill his secret because the two have a history—Ken used to be Charlie’s lawyer. According to his parole officer, Charlie was arrested on charges of attempted murder, rape, and pandering. One of the women he was hustling disappeared just as she was going to reveal the client list, but Ken got him a deal, and Charlie only did time for marijuana possession. Now, Ken is a high-powered attorney with ties to Nixon and Governor Reagan, and he’s already asked Hodiak to keep the investigation off the record. Lost daughters are temporary; political scandal is forever.
While Ken keeps quiet, Emma is going hungry. Charlie tells her to focus on getting him a record deal instead, but painting a bus is no substitute for a sandwich, so he hands her a floppy hat and takes her to steal something. She gets caught shoplifting a jacket, but Charlie intervenes just as the owner is calling the cops. “You gotta bite the hand that frees you,” he says, not quite understanding how cause and effect work. He does understand razors; after Emma runs out to the car, Charlie turns up the store radio, gags the owner, and slashes him across the eyes. That cop left too soon.
Apparently, the police are busy elsewhere. Shafe meets up with his stoner contact, Mike Vickery, to pick up his undercover work where he left off, but Mike already let slip that Shafe is a cop. Shafe asks Hodiak to help repair the damage, but they’re interrupted by another job: A white woman, Joyce Mankin, has been killed with a brick to the head in her primarily black neighborhood. Hodiak suspects her very racist husband, Leo, who’s dying of brain cancer. The detectives stop by a local diner—Hodiak is friends with the owner—and get Leo a milkshake to loosen his tongue. (“We’re stepping out on the suspect for a milkshake?”)
While Hodiak tries to ply the truth out of Leo, Shafe asks the neighbors what they saw. His inquiry is shut down by Bunchy Carter, a member of the Nation of Islam, who points out that 27 black people have been murdered in this neighborhood, and not one of their killers has been caught. But the police showed up for the white woman. The police bought the white woman’s white killer a milkshake. Sometimes historical dramas are frighteningly current.
To make matters worse, Hodiak arrests Bunchy—partly for obstruction of justice, but also because he wants to run a con on Leo. He even leaves Bunchy in the car while he intimidates Mike—which Hodiak accomplishes by taking off his sunglasses and starting to take off his jacket. (“It only works if you’re you, but on purpose.”) Mike admits that he snitched to Art Gladner, who’s funneling drugs through his diner, and the detectives tell Gladner to walk back whatever he might have said about Shafe. They’ll also be needing the names of the men he works for. Gladner asks for a deal in writing, so Hodiak writes “snitch” on his forehead.
NEXT: Bow ties are cool[pagebreak]
After holding Bunchy overnight, Hodiak brings in Leo to identify him. He tells Leo that he must know why he’s really here, promising the dying man that he’ll never see the inside of a courtroom if he gives it up now. Hodiak guilts Leo into signing a confession and then arrests him anyway, because cops can lie. Bunchy isn’t very appreciative of his role in all this. On his way out of the station, he hands Hodiak his bow tie and renounces the Nation of Islam; rather than leave the country, he’s decided that he wants to stay and change it. Hodiak just wants to know if he gets to keep the tie.
He also needs to figure out if he gets to keep his partner. Shafe isn’t happy with Hodiak, arguing that he wouldn’t have pulled that stunt if Bunchy were white. To drive home where he’s coming from, Shafe takes Hodiak to meet his wife, Kristin, a black woman. The two have a baby daughter named Bernadette. Hodiak is friendly, commenting that Bernadette is “his favorite saint,” but he doesn’t actually think he needs to know about Shafe’s home life unless Shafe is going to stick around and help him find Emma. Shafe concedes, and the buddy cops live to trick stoners another day.
But Hodiak’s family life couldn’t be further from Shafe’s, and it’s catching up with him. His son Walt, who’s supposed to be stationed in Vietnam, shows up at the house one night. Walt claims that he got leave thanks to a “new policy,” but Hodiak—a World War II vet—knows that his son has gone AWOL. He pays a visit to his “technically, I guess” wife, Opal, knocks the drink out of her hand, and accuses her of pretending to be sick in order to get their son home. Hodiak says that he’s going to have to turn Walt in, but he finds the house empty by the time he gets back.
Elsewhere in surprise visitors, Charlie turns up at the Karns’ fancy party to thank Ken for putting him in touch with a music producer. Ken threatens him, then shows up at the compound with half of Charlie’s money. He’ll provide the other half once he has his daughter back. Rather than argue, Charlie just makes out with Ken—and this isn’t the first time. “Do you remember how free we were?” Charlie asks. They’re interrupted when Emma knocks on the door, but Charlie sends her away. Even hearing his daughter’s voice, Ken is too afraid to do anything, but this is about more than political scandal now; it’s about his own trauma. He looks terrified as Charlie goes in for another kiss. Helter-skelter just about sums it up.
Bits and pieces:
- It’s just a matter of time before Hodiak and Grace hook up, right?
- Hodiak says he stopped drinking because he doesn’t make the best decisions when he drinks. That’s not ominous at all.
- Claire Holt has the perfect ‘60s eyebrows here.
- Emma earns the nickname “Cherry Pop” when she grabs a stash of cherries and other assorted fruits from the dumpster of a grocery store. The whole commune would starve without her.
- Hodiak’s struggle with the Miranda rights is the true heart of this show: “You, dirtbag, have the right to a bunch of s— you don’t deserve or I’ll kick your teeth in. How’s that?”
- “YOU have the right. To talk to a LAWYER.”
- Wardrobe deserves an award for Hodiak’s librarian glasses.
- “The old bongo!”
- Hodiak, on Shafe’s taciturn neighbor: “Him I like.”
Here’s the full two-hour premiere: