The ebb and flow of the entertainment industry more or less spoiled the cliffhanger ending to Animal Kingdom season 2, in which Scott Speedman’s Baz was shot in his driveway and left to die on the street by his girlfriend. In the time between that episode aired and the show’s season 3 return, Speedman was cast in ABC’s long-running medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, as a potential love interest for Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey. While there was a chance Speedman’s move to the Alphabet Network could simply have meant he was doubling his workload, the writing was more or less on the wall: after two seasons, Baz was a goner.
As far as season finale’s go, last year’s ‘Betrayal’ was the sort of ending meant to guarantee a strong viewer turnout for the show’s season 3 premiere. And yet, TNT made the decision to put the episode up online in the wee hours of the morning. If you absolutely had to know what happened to Baz, well, hopefully you found a way stream it on your phone during your lunch break. Thankfully, ‘The Killing’ doesn’t beat around the bush with regard to Baz's fate. The writers go out of their way to provide a concrete answer a few minutes into the episode, as that’s all the time it takes before he’s declared dead in the ER.
Confirmation at the start of the hour makes ‘The Killing’ a somewhat top-heavy, slow-burn premiere. It’s mostly concerned with the fallout of Baz’s death, and less concerned with where the Cody boys are headed now that he’s gone and family matriarch Smurf (Ellen Barkin) remains behind bars pending her trial. That the hour opens shortly after Baz was shot, and then slows to underline the impact of his death is an interesting choice. On one hand, by not glossing over the fact that a major character has left the show — making room for Denis Leary later on this season — the weight of what happened registers more than if the series moved to establish a time jump months down the line. On the other hand, it ostensibly burns an episode, leaving Pope (Shawn Hatosy), Deran (Jake Weary), Craig (Ben Robson), and J (Finn Cole, Peaky Blinders) to move aimlessly about, even as the series plants the seed that one of them may have been the triggerman.
It’s more or less a delayed start to the season, as the series pauses to deliver a protracted sendoff to Baz (and to Speedman). It’s debatable how effective the episode is as a whole, though. Once Baz is declared dead, the episode’s narrative momentum begins to wane. There’s a lot of watching the Cody’s discuss next steps while loading shotguns in a living room. They’re preparing for a second strike that’s not coming. Though it makes sense why there wouldn’t be more bloodshed and it’s the right call that there wasn’t any, it feels as though Animal Kingdom still missed an opportunity to at least reflect the tension of a possible escalation or reprisal through the lens of the Cody boys’ grief — whether it wound up being real or not.
Instead, ‘The Killing’ settles into a pace that’s halfway between plaintive and mechanical, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It affords the hour the time needed for each character to deliver a response to their “brother’s” death. The downside is that the show doesn't seem to know how to convey the family's grief/anxiety while also moving the overarching plot forward. It essentially settles for shots of Pope staring menacingly at, well, everyone. Meanwhile, his insistence that he become Lena’s guardian is more than a tad suspicious, which feels like it would have been more interesting if the show had done more with it here. Furthermore, there's J’s relationship with Smurf and their dealings apart from her sons, but again, Animal Kingdom doesn't do enough with this in the premiere to justify it running parallel to what is the opener's main focus.
The same is true of Smurf’s time behind bars and the rising pressure of having o pay off Pedro Trujillo (Reynaldo Gallegos) and keep her criminal enterprise afloat. While it represents a clear path moving forward, and Barkin conveys Smurf’s concern in a series of engaging scenes comprised of limited exchanges between her and J or Trujillo, the feeling that viewers will have to wait a week before these plots generate any real momentum undercuts the significance of what just transpired.
The value of opening a season with the death of a major character is not lost on Animal Kingdom, and ‘The Killing’ very nearly comes away with an episode that was as impactful as the creators intended it to be. Were it not for the hour leaning a little too hard into some of the more languorous aspects of the show Baz’s death might have signaled a bigger shift in the series than it ultimately manages here.
Animal Kingdom continues next Tuesday with ‘In The Red’ @8pm on TNT.