[This is a review of the Animal Kingdom season 1 finale. There will be SPOILERS.]

We all know that succeeding in the television industry isn’t easy. Every night, the competition is fierce, as hundreds of shows scrap and claw for viewer eyeballs and for the privilege to stay on the air. And for rookie dramas — like TNT’s Animal Kingdom — the jungle that is the modern TV landscape can feel especially treacherous. So, it’s a rather impressive feat that the series has not only survived, but thrived in its first season at the network.

Despite featuring a cast of mostly unknowns and being developed from foreign-produced source material, the show managed to suck viewers into the dark belly of the Cody crime family with slick production values, fine performances, taut direction and a tension-filled narrative throughline. With season 2 already confirmed by TNT, all the series had to do was stick the landing in its first finale to keep that positive momentum rolling into and through the upcoming break.

While the finale, ‘What Have You Done’, couldn’t match the visceral intensity and excitement of the heist sequence from the season’s penultimate episode, the last episode of Animal Kingdom season 1 certainly heightened the tensions within the Cody family to great effect, while also moving the narrative forward in a compelling way.

Even though the show’s central focus drifted from its main character at times throughout the season, it appropriately shifted back towards J (Finn Cole) in the finale. The episode saw him make a daring play against the police in order to protect his new family. From a story perspective, this turn was not necessarily a surprise (given that the kid’s other option would have changed the series’ trajectory entirely), but seeing J finally affirm his loyalty to the Cody organization was important, satisfying and productive on a couple of different levels. Firstly, the turn marked a decided and firm full-circle conclusion to the internal moral conflict that defined J’s season 1 character arc; and secondly, the move paved a path for J to move forward into season 2 with a clear vision of who he is and what his role in the family could be.

Ellen Barkin and Finn Cole in Animal Kingdom season 1 finale Animal Kingdom Season 1 Finale: Taking the Gun

At the end of the episode, we — along with family matriarch Smurf (Ellen Barkin) — realize that role will be a significant one, which is why she offers him the gun. Not only does the weapon serve as a reward for J’s contributions to the crew’s biggest score ever, but his acceptance of the gift also serves as a brilliantly rendered symbol of his commitment to the Codys and their way of life. That’s something he only started to embrace when he held a gun for the first time in the pilot episode.

Interestingly, J — who began the series as the character most unsure of himself — seems to be more comfortable in his own skin as compared to nearly all of his relatives at the conclusion of the season. This proves to be true as we see a charged moment between Smurf and eldest son Pope (Shawn Hatosy) that illustrates the insecurities of both the powerful matriarch and her underappreciated attack dog. Feeling like an outsider and outcast since Baz (Scott Speedman) became the leader of the Cody crime operation, Pope looks to his mother for recognition and support after committing a horrible crime for her; and yet, all she can do is denigrate him to mask her own fear of losing her beloved Baz. While the dialogue here is a little on the nose for a series that usually favors showing rather than telling its story, the scene is still able to introduce an important power struggle between two dangerous Cody family members (the emotions of whom will almost certainly be kindling for a firestorm to come next season).

Shawn Hatosy as Pope in Animal Kingdom season 1 finale Animal Kingdom Season 1 Finale: Taking the Gun

Of course, the real fuel of that fire came from Smurf’s ill-fated decision to eliminate Baz’s girlfriend Catherine (Daniella Alonso). That decision will surely come back to haunt both her and Pope, but retribution from Baz may not come for a while; after all, they were able to cleverly pin the crime on believable fall guy Vin (Michael Bowen).

Even with great character moments, perhaps what was most impressive about the finale and the season as a whole was the show’s ability to weave in the unique family dynamics at play within the Cody household with a tight, well-paced and efficient narrative. Aside from a rather unnecessary and cliché subplot involving closeted homosexual brother Deran (Jake Weary) and another that saw wildman Craig (Ben Robson) rob a dying lover to no consequence other than drawing the ire of his mother, the show has done a great job so far at fitting those story pieces neatly together, while keeping things moving.

So, with all that said, it’s clear the show now has enough steam to power ahead into its second season with confidence. The Codys are seemingly clear from the authorities’ watchful gaze (for now), J is on his way to becoming a powerful player within the organization and more buried secrets are just waiting to be unearthed. We’re certainly looking forward to seeing all that drama unfold in season 2 of  Animal Kingdom upon its return next year.

Animal Kingdom will return to TNT with season 2 in 2017.

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