The Aquarius we’re leaving at the end of season 1 isn’t the same as the Aquarius we met earlier this summer. In my recap of the series premiere, I said that it felt like the show was looking at the symptoms rather than the cause of the era’s unrest, but only because the characters did the same. What else could they do? As it turns out, that’s been the question of the season, which has traded the symptoms for the cause — or at least found so many patterns in the symptoms that they start to look like the cause — for those characters willing to pay attention. But they also have to be willing to pay the price.
After “selling the last shred of his soul” to Ken last week, Sam is still having trouble convincing Walt to lay low; even Shafe can’t get through to him. Just as Sam and an officer named Halpert (who got his orders “from top of the top,” because Ken secretly runs the country) finalize a deal for Walt’s immunity and dishonorable discharge, Walt calls. He took the documents to Salazar anyway and then turned himself in. Halpert and Sam both compromised their standards for nothing. It’s not even clear what Salazar did with the documents, but Walt is satisfied. “Soldiers need to know the war we’re fighting,” he says. “We all do.” If there’s a message behind this show, that might be it, but now a murderer is walking free for no reason. Is this just a matter of weighing the many casualties against the few? Talk about a war.
And the murderer in this scenario isn’t even the infamous one. Via flashbacks, we learn that although Charlie was the orchestrator, it was Ken who actually ended Caroline Beecher’s life, stabbing her in the throat repeatedly with a shovel. Now, he’s got another dead body on his hands: Hal accidentally killed one of Charlie’s girls. It involved hitting an artery; don’t think about it. He left her at Charlie’s place when he went to find Ken, which was an awful plan — Charlie now has the body, with Hal’s DNA all over it, and he won’t give it up.
Ken deals with this problem the only way he knows how: with more murder. He spikes Hal’s drink with pills until he’s all but passed out, then drives him to a secluded area, locks the doors of the car, and pulls out a fake suicide note. But the pills didn’t quite do the trick — Hal rouses himself and fights back, grabbing for the gun. It goes off twice, but this is where we leave them. Was anyone shot? Were they both?
Those aren’t even the only ambiguous gunshots of the hour. Using DeMurray’s description, Charmain finds a match for Raymond Novo’s killer: Richard Theriot, a 28-year-old with multiple arrests for robbery, solicitation, and sexual assault. He’s their guy. Sam and Shafe stage an expertly coordinated raid, but there’s someone else in the house: Richard’s brother, who may have helped him kill Novo. Sam uses Richard to draw the brother’s fire, killing Richard, then fights the brother and snaps his neck. Ken’s assertion that he and Sam are the same isn’t looking too far off base at the moment.
Since neither suspect is left alive, the police commissioner is called in to investigate. He asks if both men had to die. Shafe insists that they did, but Sam cuts him off: They didn’t. He used Richard as a decoy. As for this brother, Sam says, “I wanted him to die.” Shafe looks like he’s contemplating unemployment. He still doesn’t know the world he lives in; the commissioner announces that they’ll both be receiving the medal of valor for closing this case so neatly, which is to say that they kept the sordid details of the killings from coming out in trial.
NEXT: Valentine’s day
Shafe receives his medal behind closed doors so as not to disrupt his undercover work, but Sam gets a proper ceremony. As aware as he is of the system that landed him here — he tells Shafe that he doesn’t have to do the job like Sam does, and in fact he “shouldn’t” — Sam isn’t all that troubled by it. Until an Internal Affairs guy whispers in his ear that there was a witness, Sam is all smiles. He’s getting a medal, and Grace is in the audience. What could go wrong?
That’s right: Grace and Sam are back together again. Just a week after her “fresh start” with Ken, she’s knocking on Sam’s door to tell him that she’s tired of pretending. Maybe what sent her over the edge was the news that Ken loves — or at least, has loved — Charlie, which comes straight from their daughter’s lips. Sam takes Grace to visit Emma in prison, but Emma refuses to leave. She knows that they can’t hold her much longer unless she’s being charged, and she’s still bitter about the whole emancipation thing. “Charlie always says that jail freed his soul,” she declares. It definitely unlocks something new in her; she returns to the Staircase spouting love and forgiveness with all the charisma of a miniature Charlie.
But they’re still just treating the symptoms. They’ve hidden away from the world so completely that Charlie refuses to let Mary deliver in a hospital, even when she goes into labor early. The baby is turned around; as Emma continues to insist that they need a real doctor, Charlie grabs a pocket knife and I cannot watch. The baby is stillborn. This is devastating news for absolutely everyone but Sadie, who’s looking for a way back into Charlie’s good graces. Dressed as a candy striper, she steals a baby from the hospital and brings him back to the Family, where Charlie christens him Valentine Michael Manson. What about the parents who just lost their son? Sadie doesn’t care; she just reclaimed her spot on top of the pyramid.
Is there a middle ground between Walt’s pursuit of the truth and Charlie’s equally dangerous denial? If there is, Charmain might have found it: She works hard, speaks up for herself, and anticipates everyone’s needs. But even Charmain gets into trouble when she goes looking for the funeral home that might be in cahoots with Guapo. She calls Shafe from a payphone out front to tell him what she’s found, but Kovic appears behind her. By the time Shafe gets there, she’s gone — but out of everyone on this show, I have the most faith in Charmain to take care of herself.
Bits and pieces: