Show of hands, and be honest here: Who among you thought this drama about a drug dealer cozying up to a serial killer would feature real-life mafia don Vincent “the Chin” Gigante in a supporting role as that drug dealer’s benefactor on the inside?
No one? Okay then!
Hell, I was taken aback, too. But at the suggestion of a friendly (more on that later) prison guard, our anti-hero Jimmy Keene, cop’s son turned gun- and drug-runner, becomes acquainted with honest-to-god Genovese family boss Gigante (Tony Amendola). Dubbed “the Oddfather” by the always-colorful New York press, Gigante was often found wandering the streets of Greenwich Village in his bathrobe muttering to himself — a ruse meant to keep law enforcement off his back that worked for nearly three decades.
By the time Jimmy meets him, that’s all over with: He’s been convicted and imprisoned, and so he’s now just an old Italian American gentleman who enjoys playing boccie in the prison yard and dislikes being disrespected by anyone, ever. Despite his Irish surname, Jimmy manages to get on the Chin’s good side with three-quarter Italian ancestry, good manners, and not-half-bad boccie playing. (He learned the game from his Irish grandfather, but the Chin doesn’t hold that against him.) If Jimmy really were just the humble Wisconsin gunrunner that his cover story makes him out to be, he just found the best rabbi in perhaps the entire American carceral system.
Unfortunately for Jimmy, he’s not just a humble Wisconsin gunrunner. He’s a cop’s kid from Chicago, sent to this prison for the express purpose of snitching on … someone. The “who” of it isn’t clear to the corrections officer named Carter (an alternately ingratiating and chilling Joe Williamson), who initially befriends and then exploits Jimmy, but it doesn’t need to be. The moment Jimmy’s well-meaning dad Big Jim Keene showed up at the prison, expecting the thin blue line to extend its protective embrace to his boy, he blew his son’s cover. This gives Carter a shot at blackmail, which he executes almost immediately: Unless Jimmy can pony up $10,000, Carter will put out the word that he’s not who he claims to be. It’s not just the case against “is he or isn’t he a serial killer” Larry Hall that’s at stake if Jimmy’s cover is blown — it’s Jimmy’s life.
But somehow, Jimmy has found the will to risk even his own life in the quest to take Larry down. That’s what he tells Lauren McCauley, the FBI agent posing as his girlfriend in order to throw off suspicion. That’s how disturbing he, a gunslinging coke magnate, finds the prospect of Larry Hall ever seeing the light of day again. Even when his father Big Jim has spent all his drug money, even when he inadvertently let one of Jimmy’s old associates abscond with the kilo of cocaine Jimmy had squirreled away for a rainy day, even when it seems like a sure thing that Carter will come for his hide, he still volunteers to stay undercover and keep working Larry as an informant.
Why? Well, it’s indecorous to discuss. But after many false starts, Jimmy manages to befriend Larry and get him talking and discovers almost instantly that Larry believes the idea of women’s vaginas lubricating with arousal is an urban myth — or at the very least a prank being pulled on him by his alpha brother Gary and Jimmy himself.
In Larry’s experience, women are dry and scratchy down there — “dry as pine bark,” as he puts it. “I just kinda … I just kinda jam it in,” he murmurs in his reedy voice.
“They’re okay with that?” Jimmy asks.
“Oh, I don’t care,” Larry replies. “The girl? I don’t care.” Then he continues, “Do you? Do you care what the girls think of you after?”
Well, there was this one time, Jimmy says, that he did force himself on a girl, after which he threatened her not to talk, “or else.”
“Or else what?” Larry asks.
“I don’t know,” Jimmy stammers.
“I do,” Larry says.
It’s a chilling exchange, both for what Larry says and for what Jimmy implies; I honestly have no idea if he made up his date-rape story to get in with Larry or if it’s something that actually happened. Earlier in the episode, Jimmy spoke of the concept of “the girl,” the one woman who’d be attracted to him by virtue of his prowess on the football field and be his forever, thus securing the American Dream or some adolescent fantasy thereof. That never happened for Jimmy, much less for Larry. What might either man do if this sense of entitlement were not satiated?
Juxtaposed with all this, Agent McCauley and local cop Brian Miller continue investigating cases potentially connected to Larry. They dig up one case that looks promising: A bottle of birth control pills belonging to the victim was found in Larry’s van. But the case falls apart upon further investigation. Birth control pills, of course, don’t come in bottles, and it seems likely that Larry doctored up a bottle and planted it in his own car so he could confess to a crime he didn’t commit. It’s enough to have McCauley, near tears, grill Jimmy on whether or not he thinks Larry is a killer at all. But such is the power of Jimmy’s belief that he’s willing to risk his own life to ensure that Larry spends the rest of his behind bars.
There’s a lot going on in this episode, not just in the case at hand or special guest stars like the Chin. Life on the inside is depicted as a cavalcade of workaday horrors, men fighting and puking and cutting their own dicks off. Guards are brutal and predatory figures, their every smile masking the threat of punishment or death. It’s a fucking jungle in there.
But the lead performances fuel the whole thing. Taron Egerton is splendid as Jimmy, doing his best to cloak his desperation with his good looks and football-star charm. Sepideh Moafi’s Lauren McCauley is alternately all bluster and all vulnerability, a figure who’s unsure if she’s lost her way. Ray Liotta, in one of his final performances, invests Big Jim with a heartbreaking sense of mortality; he’s a man who knows he fucked up, and his only response is to bluster that he’ll fix it all, somehow.
And wheezing over it all is Paul Walter Hauser’s Larry Hall. Since Netflix has shitcanned Mindhunter and Cameron Britton’s masterful performance as Edmund Kemper, Hauser’s Hall is a serial killer (or is he???) without peer on the current small screen. His burst blood vessels, his lopsided “burnsides,” his breathy, high-pitched voice, his simultaneous discomfort and fascination with basic female biology — you can see how, upon meeting him, Jimmy decided, This is a man I must personally stop from ever setting foot outside this prison. The Chin may be a pleasant distraction, but this man is the mission, and by God, Jimmy’s going to see it through.