How not to get away with murder

By Kelly Connolly
June 16, 2016 at 09:58 PM EDT
Ron Batzdorff/NBC
S2 E1
  • TV Show

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

Anyway, let’s check in on Sam! (If you’re not here to gloss over the abrupt transition from terrifying murders to slick, fun cop stuff with the help of ‘60s pop music, did you even watch season 1?) When last we saw the man, the myth, the buzz cut, he was accepting a medal of honor for using unnecessary force on the men who killed Raymond Novo, saving Hollywood from a messy trial that would have outed Novo as a gay man. But there was a witness to Sam’s not-quite-by-the-books neck snap, and Internal Affairs officer Ron Kellaher (Tim Griffin) is determined to hold it over him.

This isn’t really about the witness. Sam figures out without much digging that a cop on the neighborhood beat saw him through a window, and he shoves the guy against a locker to keep him quiet. Problem solved, the Hodiak Way. This is just about Ron not liking Sam at all. “When I told you that I admired you,” Ron says, “I admire the fact that you have somehow managed to bully your way into holding on to a job for 20 years that you should have been kicked out of when Ike was president.” What is Ron’s deal? Sam follows him home one day and winds up in a cheery conversation with his wife, Lillian, who knows Sam from her days as a stewardess. Is there history between them? Whatever it is, Sam feels like Ron’s home life explains it all.

While Ron fights to keep Sam out of police business, someone else is out there pulling him into it. Sam finds a photo of a high school-age girl in an envelope above his locker, made out to the “#1 detective in LA!” Cutler chalks it up to fan mail, but when another envelope lands on Sam’s desk — containing a picture of the same girl, topless and scared — it’s clear that this is no admirer. Shafe recognizes her high school from her sweater, and Meg (Alison Rood), a cop who doesn’t seem new to the precinct but is new to our show (give it up for more ladies in the LAPD!), identifies her as Tina Greenwood, a senior at Vineland High. In a visit to Tina’s mother, Sam suggests that Tina might just be doing what Emma did. What is it about being bound and topless that makes Sam think she might have willingly run off to a Manson-like cult? Don’t answer that.

It’s possible that the kidnapper has killed before; Meg finds a Jane Doe in Canoga Park who isn’t Tina, but her case looks similar. And the culprit is still at it: Sam gets a third envelope with the photo of a second young woman, Donna Healey, gagged and bound in a chair. Donna married and had a child right out of high school, but she’s estranged from her husband — who went to school with Tina. The husband claims not to know who Tina is, but he’s very high and mighty about his wife’s pin-up modeling, and I don’t trust him.

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Meanwhile, Sam follows a radio call to an apartment building where multiple residents report hearing a woman scream. The rest of the cops are incompetent; the woman’s blood is dripping down the stairwell, and Sam is the only one to notice. (Who’s obsolete now, Ron?) The woman, Marisa, dies in Sam’s arms on the roof, the victim of a classic Nice Guy who didn’t appreciate when she put a stop to their make-out session. Shafe pretends to be on the guy’s side in order to trick him into a confession.

Shafe has been on a roll lately. Sam wants to see him promoted to detective, and Cutler agrees on one condition: Sam has to let Cutler’s wife, Jeannie, host him for dinner. The men act like socializing with Jeannie in exchange for free food is such an inconvenience. The dinner doesn’t go well; in order to ease Jeannie’s suspicion that he and Opal are still sleeping together, Cut may have led his wife to believe that Sam and Opal reconciled. When Jeannie finds out that Sam is coming with Grace, she cooks and eats the dinner early, leaving nothing for her guests but some drinks.

NEXT: Not a crook

The Cutlers aren’t the only couple having problems. Grace is sleeping at Sam’s house, but she’s drawn back into Ken’s world when Hal turns up at the hospital. She breaks the news to her husband, who pulls his gun out of his mouth and makes his best “I’m definitely not the one who shot him” face. Hal, now paralyzed, pulls through, giving Ken no choice but to stay alive and clean up this mess. He tells the cops that Hal was mobbed by “three anti-war, anti-Nixon, hippie radicals,” boosting Nixon’s cause and covering up Ken’s role in the shooting.

Ken gets the idea from Grace’s dad, who continues to be terrible. He orders Grace and Ken not to live apart before the election; Grace seems all set to ignore that particular order, but she isn’t especially happy with Sam right now, either. He won’t open up about his work. He comes home one day with someone else’s blood on his bandaged wrist, and even we don’t know how it got there. (Did he have another “chat” with the witness cop?) If work weren’t such a 24/7 affair, that would be one thing, but Sam is always out. “I’m just alone again in a different man’s house,” Grace explains as she leaves. Being a 1960s housewife seems like a bad deal across the board, but it also feels like she’s looking for an excuse to do what her father wants.

Even Shafe and Kristin have hit a rough patch. She’s started working with kids in the community through the Panthers, and Shafe doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the arrangement. Kristin, for her part, is losing patience with her husband’s job, which she says is a waste of his talents — though Shafe thinks she’s really just ashamed to tell the Panthers that she’s married to a cop. They can’t even agree on the war, which Kristin wouldn’t mind seeing America lose. “Maybe we need to stop thinking we’re the whole world’s answer to things,” she says. “I want our daughter to grow up in a country that can learn that. Maybe even live it.” When Shafe argues that he doesn’t want Bernadette growing up in a country that loses wars, Kristin reminds him that the American dream looks pretty different on her end: “I grew up in a country that won wars. Never felt that great to me.”

She’s right about that. This week’s investigation into high-powered corruption is led by the most effective cop on the force: Charmain. After falling into Roy’s clutches at the end of last season’s finale, Charmain seizes the opportunity to go undercover, but she has to burn Shafe to protect herself. She tells Roy that she was snooping around the funeral home at Shafe’s request; he doesn’t trust Roy. Also, she’s sleeping with Shafe to keep him “housebroken.” And he’s not very well endowed. (Shafe: “Wait, that’s your cover?!”) Shafe reluctantly rolls with it, but Roy tries to send him into a trap. Charmain calls Shafe to warn him — which doesn’t help her cover — but everyone else at the meet winds up dead.

Evidence at the scene suggests that the killer is U.S. military, so Sam and Shafe do some digging. Lucille Gladner, who’s gone into hiding with her family in the wake of the murders, tells Sam that she remembers Roy working with someone he called Captain Wells. She asks for police protection, but before Sam can institute it, Lucille leaves her kids with someone else and bolts — with Roy on her tail. Wells is Roy’s supplier, and he’s shipping heroine from Vietnam in the caskets of dead soldiers. There’s no way the army and the government don’t know about this. Sam can only find one solution to a conspiracy so massive: If he finds Wells, he can leverage what he knows in order to force the government to cut a deal for his son’s freedom. Poor Walt; he’ll always be a pawn in someone’s game.

Bits and pieces:

  • “I’m sorry our head cheerleader’s such a bitch, but let’s focus on the big game, shall we?”
  • “Spring, I find your name ironic.”
  • “Love the grilled cheese.”
  • I missed Sam’s glasses most of all.
  • “Do you just sit around thinking about ways to make things worse for yourself?” “Hell no! It just comes to me.”
  • “You think it’s too late for us to start moisturizing?”
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