Full Circle is the third TV series for which Steven Soderbergh has directed every episode, and as in 2018’s experimental murder mystery Mosaic, released as both a television drama and a mobile app, he has the screenwriter Ed Solomon as his partner. So far, Full Circle feels most reminiscent of Soderbergh’s second collaboration with Solomon: No Sudden Move, a stylish ’50s-set crime thriller in which the convoluted web of elaborate double crosses is part of the appeal.
Similarly, there’s a lot to keep track of already in Full Circle, with several intersecting groups of characters seemingly intertwined by history and fate. It remains to be seen exactly how most of these people are connected, and slowly revealing those mysterious links will surely be the focus in the weeks to come.
Let’s start with Savitri Mahabir (the great CCH Pounder), a.k.a. Mrs. Mahabir, the superstitious Guyanese crime boss reigning supreme in Queens. After her brother-in-law Quincy is killed, she returns home to Guyana for spiritual guidance — and learns there’s a way to reverse the curse on her family that began long ago with her late husband. He was involved in the death of Clarence Joseph’s (Ted Sod) grandson, and Mahabir can balance the scales and “close the circle” by kidnapping and murdering another boy: Jared Browne (Ethan Stoddard). We don’t know what the teenager has to do with the curse — his famous TV-personality grandfather, Jeffrey “Chef Jeff” McCusker (Dennis Quaid), is implicated somehow — but all we need to know for now is that Jared is the target.
So Mahabir gets to work assembling a team with the help of her more practical right-hand man, Garmen (Phaldut Sharma); third-in-command, Paul Tranquada (Kareem Savinon); and nephew Aked (Jharrel Jerome). In addition to her “whack-a-bum” operation — murdering vagrants and collecting the insurance payouts — she has a deep stable of young immigrant employees who rely on her for green cards and housing in exchange for a dangerous few months of working off their debts. One of these is Mahabir’s masseuse, Natalia (Adia), who also happens to be Aked’s girlfriend. And now she requests two more people who have been hoping to leave Guyana for a long time: Natalia’s brother Louis (Gerald Jones) and his friend Xavier (Sheyi Cole).
Upon their arrival in New York, the two young men are given an assignment to test their loyalty: murder one of Mahabir’s insurance clients for the payout and make it look like an overdose. Xavier, perhaps surprisingly, proves to be the tougher new employee, going through with the kill without thinking twice. The abrupt act of violence weighs more heavily on Louis, whose sister is similarly racked with guilt over her complicity in whatever crimes are carried out at Mahabir’s behest.
Jared’s kidnapping and murder will be carried out the following evening in a chalk circle in Washington Square Park at 1:11 a.m. The specificity of the time, the ransom ($314,159), and the circle motif suggests, at least in this moment, that Mahabir’s decisions come from a place of spiritual certainty. Her goal here above all else is to break the curse supposedly responsible for other deaths in her family. But Nat, who overhears Mahabir discussing the plan with Clarence, formulates a plot to save Jared’s life: She and Louis will somehow swap his body with an acupuncture training dummy from the massage school using identical bags, matching laundry bikes, and a wig.
While all this drama is developing, an average enough day plays out in the lives of Sam (Claire Danes) and Derek Browne (Timothy Olyphant), a wealthy Manhattan couple who manage Jeffrey’s culinary empire. Jared, their son, has a habit of losing his expensive gifts, such as phones, hoodies, and shoes, and it happens again today while he’s playing catch with his dad. It turns out they’re being stolen by a strange boy named Nicky (Lucian Zanes), whose small room in the corner of a loft features dozens of photos of the Brownes. Nicky gets in touch with Jared, promising to give his things back if they can meet up in person. Those are the plans that disrupt Jared’s typical Saturday-evening tutor appointment — and begin the series of mistakes and miscommunications that throw Aked’s operation off track.
I haven’t even mentioned Melody Harmony (Zazie Beetz) yet; she’s a postal inspector determined to get on the Guyana case (for some reason). Mel is the classic dogged-detective type who prioritizes work over her relationships, seemingly pissing off everyone in her vicinity, including her boss, Manny (Jim Gaffigan), and her girlfriend, Carol (May Hong). She knows she’s on the chopping block at work but thinks one big win can save her. More important, her ego can’t stand not pursuing every possible lead. That’s how she winds up temporarily “turning a cooperator”: Xavier, whom she has connected to the previous night’s murder. He discreetly calls Mel to warn her of something going down at Washington Square Park the following night, but the next day he panics and goes back on what he said.
The much-hyped kidnapping plot itself begins to play out only in the episode’s final 20 minutes, which ratchets up the suspense as everything starts to fall apart. Aked, Xavier, Louis, and a fourth guy, named Keesen (Shemar Yanick Jonas), manage to follow Jared on his bike ride to meet Nicky — and that’s when we shift primarily to the Brownes’ point of view as Sam gets a call from Aked on Jared’s phone saying he has her son.
One of Solomon’s smartest choices here is to disorient us by temporarily limiting our knowledge of what’s playing out in the van; everything happens so quickly I didn’t immediately clock the strangeness of the call coming from Jared’s phone when he doesn’t actually have his phone. It’s also just helpful to spend some quality time with the Brownes, who gain a lot of dimension and empathy when we see them go through this nightmare scenario. Sam and Derek mostly belong to the Parasite brand of rich parents: likable and charming enough but with a slight lack of self-awareness, especially on Sam’s part.
This is all in keeping with Soderbergh’s usual interest in class, a theme that informs many of his projects, including his prior collaborations with Solomon. And the whole scenario gets a lot more interesting once Jared unexpectedly arrives home and the twist is revealed: Aked’s group has kidnapped Nicky, who is wearing the same hoodie and sneakers as Jared and had borrowed his bike. With that reveal, the stakes suddenly shift in a compelling direction — do the Brownes have a moral obligation to spend a fortune keeping alive some kid who isn’t theirs? (It’s a premise consciously borrowed from Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low.)
Jeffrey’s knee-jerk instinct is to cancel the withdrawal from his casino creditors, but a message containing a video of the kidnappers prying out one of Nicky’s teeth is enough to make them reconsider. After all, even disregarding the kid whose life hangs in the balance, couldn’t the men still come after the real Jared once they figure out they’ve killed the wrong boy?
In retrospect, “Something Different” feels like the first half of a two-hour premiere — and luckily, the episodes are dropping in pairs, so it’s just a matter of waiting for autoplay to kick in. Evaluated as a first episode, though, it still works really well, raising plenty of intrigue and laying out a murderers’ row of talent in front of the camera, both old pros and refreshing newcomers. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but I find myself almost as interested in what happened before all this. That’s the mark of a solid beginning.
• Xavier seems to have had a long-distance online relationship of sorts with a girl in New York named Shakeela, but I have a feeling their late-night plans will be disrupted. (Or maybe his voice-mail will serve as an alibi?)
• On the phone, Nicky asks Sam and Derek to “call Charise.”
• Jeffrey is confused about who knows of his casino credit limit, which is both interesting food for thought and a funny encapsulation of his myopia.