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Still the Best Drama on TV
on September 17, 2011
While neutral about the season 3 (I thought it was too short and disjointed), I found season 4 to be just as smart, suspenseful, superbly plotted, and expertly acted as ever. It's the best season since its debut, and still one of the most relevant-to-the-times dramas on television.
Our heroine Ellen and anti-heroine Patty take on High Star, a private defense contractor integral in illegal interrogation and extraction activities in Afghanistan. One botched mission serves as platform for a lawsuit. The true purpose of that mission is an underlying mystery known to only one character, which is revealed bit by bit. This is not your typical wartime terrorism, and solving this mystery is essential to the plot so trust that the battlefield flashbacks are relevant and not just filler. Because the CIA is in bed with High Star, it's also not your typical corporate corruption. The stakes to protect the guilty are the highest and most dangerous they've ever been. Ellen and Patty are warned and then threatened to stay away, and of course that makes them all the more hungry to continue.
In a heartbreaking performance, Chris Messina plays Chris Sanchez, a vet and High Star combat employee suffering from acute PTSD and racked with guilt after leading said botched mission. He's an old friend of Ellen's and she convinces him to sue High Star for wrongful deaths - partly in the name of justice, but equally to feed her ambition. But her firm of record is not so ambitious -- so unable to win it without Patty, Ellen goes back to the lair, literally.
John Goodman is well cast as the CEO of High Star. As a staunch Christian, he seemingly struggles reconciling his job and his faith. But through intense prayer (and because his back is up against the wall) he ends up justifying more and more manipulative, illegal and often violent acts as "patriotism" and "God's will". This character is indeed a right-wing stereotype -- he likes to hunt and read from his giant bible -- but it's an accurate portrayal of how "for the good of national security" is misused to feed monetary greed, justify betrayal and commit any heinous act under the sun.
Stereotypes aside, season 4 delivers an accurate dramatization of what happens when private industry leads military actions -- corporate greed always trump everything. Since Patty has a reputation for stomping out corporate greed and now dares to challenge the government, tactics to protect the guilty involve murder, torture, international terrorism, kidnapping and the power of one very clever, resourceful and unscrupulous CIA agent. Because he is always one step ahead, has bottomless resources, and will resort to anything, you wonder how the two lawyers stand a chance of winning this time.
This rogue CIA agent, while as evil as they come, is also multi-dimensional enough to be a different kind of villain. A jaded, reluctant patriot, he's hiding a secret which makes him at times sympathetic. This delicate balance is a genius portrayal by underrated actor Dylan Baker, who should win many awards. At first the "reason behind it all" as revealed through the CIA agent seemed weak enough to be a bit anti-climatic. I can see people saying "all *that* for that?" But it's more important to focus on how a simple mission spiralled out of control and how desperation to cover it up ruined so many lives.
Plus this season makes full use of suspenseful foreshadowing, the show's signature technique. Each episode delivers flash-forward glimpses of a violent and bloody act that's come, revealing a little bit more each episode. You think you know how it may go down, but there are plot twists up until the last minute where all is revealed. So the payoff delivers.
A subplot involves Patty, her toddler granddaughter, and her estranged son Michael. And of course there's the usual cross-manipulative, love-hate relationship between Patty and Ellen that, by the end, reaches an ugly impasse. I had to laugh a yet another last meeting by the water to reflect -- where we know Patty will continue her relentless pursuit of success at the expense of any and all meaningful relationships, while Ellen will continue to fight against following in her footsteps despite the fact that she's cut from the same cloth.
Kudos to Direct TV for picking-up the series after FX dropped it, so it can live on DVD. Prepare to be engrossed. You won't be disappointed.