Your Honor is a series about the effort to cover up a deadly hit-and-run accident, and the first episode ends with a certain amount of moral clarity: There would be no cover-up if the victim didn’t happen to be the son of a vicious mob kingpin. Judge Michael Desiato could be slagged for using his connections to arrange a softer-than-usual landing for his son Adam, but the bottom line is that father and son pulled into a police precinct with the intention of turning Adam in for the incident. Some of their actions may be questionable — Adam ultimately fleeing the scene foremost among them — but they’re in the realm of the decent and understandable.
This week’s episode makes an absolute mess of things, as the effort to cover Adam’s tracks goes so spectacularly wrong that it’s a miracle both Desiatos don’t wind up dead or in the clink. But it also goes wrong because the fate of another, completely innocent human being now hangs in the balance. As if the Desiatos had wished on a monkey’s paw, another young man steps forward to plead guilty for vehicular homicide, which theoretically wipes all their troubles away, but leaves too dark a stain on their consciences to withstand. Now Michael faces a truly compromising position: He cannot allow his son to come forward and likely get whacked by the Baxter crime family, but also cannot allow a blameless teenager to get put in the same terrible spot.
In a fairly outrageous coincidence, the teenager, Kofi Jones (Lamar Johnson), happens to be part of the family Michael assisted in court over dubious drug possession charges. And so now Michael’s own image as an administer of racial justice — someone willing to jog all the way to the Lower Ninth Ward to undermine a white cop’s testimony about a Black family — gets thrown directly into question. Michael doesn’t hire Kofi directly, because he needs his fingerprints off the cover-up, so he uses his connections to Charlie (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a mayoral candidate, to find someone to steal the family Volvo and make it “disappear.” We discover later that Charlie has put in a call to a gang leader to task some underlining with the job, which becomes yet another thing that needs to be covered up.
Oh what an insanely tangled web we weave!
The most affecting storyline in this second episode simply follows Kofi through this nightmare of someone else’s devising. He’s assigned to “steal” the Volvo and drive it to an impound lot, but he doesn’t even have to worry about breaking into the car or hot-wiring it. The keys are waiting for him on the right front tire. The assignment is so easy, in fact, that perhaps Kofi takes his safety for granted: He does it in broad daylight, in a white neighborhood, slipping in and out of his hoodie conspicuously. Having witnesses to his crime doesn’t matter yet, but he still approaches it as a casual drive from Point A to Point B. It’s when he gets pulled over for running a red light that the trouble begins.
Things escalate quickly and, to Kofi’s mind, inexplicably from there. He believes he’s being held on minor charges, negotiating his release by giving a desk officer the Mariano Rivera-signed baseball he found on the car floor. (One of many, many loose threads now dangling from the Desciatos’ scheme.) Instead, a mob-connected officer drags him to an abandoned warehouse, shackles him to a desk, and, later, tortures him into confessing the location of Rocco’s cell phone, about which he knows nothing. When he’s thrown back into a lock-up on vehicular homicide charges — again, an incident he knows nothing about — a gang leader sends him the message that he has to do the time for it. Still confused, he nonetheless does what he’s told.
Through the Kofi character, Your Honor exposes the cruel hierarchies of the city, where the sins of the powerful are brought to bear on the powerless. Michael is a highly respected judge. Jimmy Baxter is a mob kingpin. Charlie is running for mayor. None of these men are going to pay for the sins they’ve committed, and all of them are working connections that put them multiple degrees of separation away from dirty deeds. Even a supposed good guy like Michael, who’s genuinely interested in justice, has the privilege to keep a distance between his actions and their consequences. (Hence the scene in the police cruiser, where a cop tells him that a man he exonerated went on to rape three women.)
But Your Honor doesn’t ruminate over these themes for long, because it’s already created a monster of a plot and the beast needs constant feeding and attention. Michael’s plan for establishing alibis for Adam is a clever one: Pretend today was yesterday, because it will be easy to remember and witnesses are not going to be able to remember one day over the other. So Michael can place himself back at the shotgun house by telling a waitress about Kofi’s mother’s case, and Adam can say he was delivering flowers to his late mother’s grave and have a beggar as his witness. But that plan seems quaint once the fake Volvo theft fails and everything goes haywire.
Here’s where we stand: Kofi has pled guilty to a crime he didn’t commit, and Michael has quietly enlisted his lawyer friend Lee Delamere (Carmen Ejogo) to help him. Jimmy Baxter’s goons are running DNA samples on the blood found on Adam’s inhaler, which will not be all Rocco’s. (That Jimmy suspects Rocco’s drug problem to be the reason for a gang “hit” is a temporary plus for the Desiatos.) Adam looks utterly miserable and doesn’t want Kofi to take the fall. And there’s a mountain of incriminating evidence scattered about: Possible eyewitnesses at the scene of the crime and at the gas station where Adam stopped to refill, a bloody garment the dog tucked under a couch in the Desiatos’ residence, the baseball signed by Mariano Rivera, and the Volvo now getting heavily scrutinized in impound. Plus there’s another Desiato friend, detective Nancy Costello (Amy Landecker), who’s really determined to get to the bottom of all this.
In the true spirit of New Orleans, Your Honor has one extra-thick pot of gumbo on the stove.
Michael Stuhlbarg is one of the best character actors out there — superb as a leading man in the Coens’ A Serious Man and as a scene-stealing supporting player in films like Call Me by Your Name and Shirley. But boy is he making a meal out of Jimmy Baxter, who defies no stereotypes as a temperamental brute of a gangster. It’s hard to tell yet whether Stuhlbarg is giving a good or bad performance, but he’s definitely giving a lot of performance.
• Michael trying to explain the car theft to Costello, particularly the detail about leaving the keys on the tire, falls somewhere between Walter White–level frantic dissembling and Principal Skinner telling Superintendent Chalmers about Aurora Borealis in his kitchen.
• Michael now knows the inhaler is out there, likely at the scene of the crime. That should worry him much more than eyewitnesses.
• “I’m going to clean the city up. I’m going to make it fucking shine.” Baxter starting a gang war over his son’s death will be terrible for the city, but a source of relief for the Desiatos, so long as they don’t mind scores of other people dying on their behalf.