Your Honor Needed A Second Season.
Unfortunately, It Hasn’t Fixed The Problems of the First
When I first reviewed Your Honor way back in December of 2020, I thought it had the potential for greatness. Bryan Cranston was in the process of giving another performance that would get him multiple award nominations, the cast was one of the best of a Limited Series that Showtime had assembled to that point, and the spiraling plot had the makeup of so many of the great limited series that Peak TV had been treated to for the past several years and continues to enjoy.
My opinion of it dropped dramatically before it was over. None of this had anything to do with the cast: Cranston was magnificent throughout, and the ensemble was extremely good, from Michael Stuhlbarg and Hope Davis, two of the most undervalued character actors of this era, down to the always reliable Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. and Margo Martindale. But the longer the series went on, it became harder and harder to overlook the gaps in the plot and the coincidences that the viewer was asks to believe.
The set-up we got in the Pilot was a good one: Judge Michael DiSanto learned that his teenage son had been involved in a hit-and-run that left another boy dead. He prepares to turn his son, but then learns that the child he killed was the son of Jimmy Baxter (Stuhlbarg) the most ruthless crime boss in New Orleans. He then does everything in his power to protect his son, which eventually will lead to the corruption of his robe, and a string of murders and horrible violence. Your Honor had the plot and the cast of a great series. But almost from the start there were too many problems.
The biggest of them involved the Baxter family itself. Jimmy Baxter is set up to be this violent monster, capable of great evil. But from the pilot on, he is shown as the model of restraint and patience. That’s not a problem when it comes to the nature of Stuhlbarg as an actor: his entire career is modeled on showing restraint and calm. Where it falls down in the plotting of Your Honor is that from the moment we meet him, Gina (Davis) is shown to be angrier and more controlling one, forcing everybody around her to act as she fits and almost always overriding her husband, including orchestrating the plan for her older son to murder the young man she feels responsible for her son’s murder. It was never believable for a moment that Jimmy Baxter could control a crime family when he could never control his actual one. Even less believable was the fact that his daughter Fia, the quieter more modest child who Jimmy always got along with better than his son or his wife, could somehow be completely oblivious to her family’s criminal activities well past the murder of her brother. Even in the second season, she is still trying to fundamentally deny everything her father does as ‘rumors’ more than anything else. That at some level she still wants to be a part of the family even after we learn about her makes the character either willfully blind or ridiculously naïve.
I’d actually argue that was the biggest flaw in the first season, but it wasn’t. No, the biggest problem was a plot twist that was not only unworthy of Peak TV but that would barely be acceptable in a 1980s soap. Out of Michael Juniors guilt, he encountered Fia and the two fell in love. Michael Junior never revealed his secret, of course, and kept seeing Fia despite knowing full well how dangerous it was if they ever got a hint of the truth. The entire relationship undermined everything that was going on involving the major action, and it made you question the intelligence of the writers if they really thought the viewers could accept this.
Even that did not sicken me as how it looked like the series was going to end. After Carlo Baxter ended up being found not guilty (entirely due to Michael’s manipulation of the trial) the victim’s brother bought a gun and went out to shoot Carlo at the Baxter hotel. Michael frantically tried to get there to get his son out of there — only to arrive to see him take a bullet that was meant for Carlo and die in his father’s arms. I’ve had problems with the endings of many limited series in the last several years, but I don’t think any have made me fundamentally feel like they had wasted my time the way the last minutes of Your Honor did. Maybe the writers thought that this was supposed to be the ultimate tragic irony. To me, it just seemed to render everything I had watched for nearly three months pointless. Michael had thrown his entirely career and life away to protect his son — and his son died regardless.
In hindsight, I now consider Your Honor the weakest limited series I saw from the start of their highpoint — probably 2016 with the debut of anthologies like Fargo and American Crime Story as well as more compact series like The Night Of and The Night Manager — to the present day. Unlike too many limited series that have gone one to have second seasons — Big Little Lies and perhaps Nine Perfect Strangers — there was a far better reason to give Your Honor a second season. Despite the conclusion, there were too many loose ends left unresolved and in that sense, it made sense to bring it back for Season as they finally did this January. Unfortunately, the fundamental problems with the series have not been changed in the interim: the performances are still magnificent, but the writing is at its core, beyond lacking.
Now I do get the reasoning behind the motivation for the action that propels Season 2. But from the get-go, nothing about is any more plausible, realistically or dramatically. In the beginning of Season 2, Michael is now in jail for his part in corruption and has lost all will to live. He has completely rejected his entire support system, refuses psychiatric help and visitors and in the season premiere, seems very determined to kill himself. So the visit of Olivia (Rosie Perez) a federal prosecutor who wants to use him to bring down the Baxter family is handled badly from the start and shows no realization of it.
Olivia makes not even the barest effort to try and show either sympathy or empathy with Michael, approaching him like any other felon. When she meets with the judges determined to prosecute Michael, she has already made up her mind that he’s going to do this even though he hasn’t signed on. To any other agent with a soul or a brain, it would be crystal clear that Michael is the worst possible person to try and recruit for this — he doesn’t care about anything and wants very badly just to die. Yet when Olivia visits him after his near death experience, she actually tries to joke about what happen and then after another refusal, basically blackmails him into making ‘the right choice’.
Olivia can’t even be bothered to show the minimum about of sympathy or even empathy for what Michael is going through or even for his well-being for the danger he’s putting himself in. “Have I given you the impression any of this voluntary?” she tells him at one point. She can barely be bothered to mouth the words assuring him of his safety. Michael is just a tool to her. The fact that he might only be doing this so that he can get killed probably doesn’t bother her as long as she can hang on the Baxter rap sheet at the end. I’ve seen heartless representatives of the law over time, but I’ve rarely seen someone so utterly blind to the consequences of what she’s trying to do.
But that’s to be expected from the writers of Your Honor who are so concerned with the consequences of everything that happens that they don’t even bother to go through what that makes their characters look like as a result. This is particularly true when it comes to Gina, who clearly doesn’t even seem to be a human being. Her daughter has now lost her brother and her boyfriend, and she doesn’t even care one bit about Fia’s grief. In a scene in a hotel room with her daughter, she seems to care about the condition of the room rather than how her daughter is feeling. When her daughter curses at her — something she has no problem Carlo or Jimmy doing — she berates her for her language and slaps her across her the face. She barely paid any consequence to her husbands actions in Season 1, and when her son does something risky that could have gotten him killed, she is angrier at Jimmy for not acting out in retribution then her son’s own actions. Davis is a great actress, but there’s nothing for her to work with any more than a haranguing banshee.
And that’s true with just about everyone else. No one wants to show anything resembling the bare minimum of a human side. Eugene (Whitlock) whose still reeling from everything that has happened to his godson and best friend, nevertheless, puts his personal feelings above his own ambition. Jimmy is now essentially a figurehead among his own family whose strategies will never be listened to and will never take responsibility for what has happened to his daughter. All the characters in both crime families, including the bosses, have no control over anything that their soldiers do and whose words of wisdom have long since stop mattering.
Cranston alone manages to stand above the material because Michael is the only character in this entire show who has motivations that are completely understandable and sympathetic. He spent half of Season 1 trying to control everything to keep his son safe until the ripples eventually became too much and he lost everything. Now every moment of his time on screen we can tell he is a man who has no motivation to keep going and who may only be doing what he is not for redemption but oblivion. Only at the end of the second episode does their come a revelation (which is barely a surprise) that may give him the slightest bit of daylight at the end of the tunnel and the barest reason to live. You can argue in a way that this is a better performance than his work as Walter White, both because he is infinitely more sympathetic and, frankly, because the writing is so much worse than it was on Breaking Bad.
I don’t know if I have it in me to follow Your Honor to the conclusion the rest of the way. There are a lot of good actors to appreciate, and the direction is absolutely spot on. I just find it very hard to stay committed to a series that has decided to concentrate more on the consequences of actions rather than whether the character’s actions were in themselves realistic. What I can say with certainty is this. If you haven’t watched the first season of Your Honor, don’t. At the end of the day whatever strengths the series might have are ultimately outweighed by its weaknesses. The entire cast is worth seeing, but in basically any other project they’ve done then this one. I’m committed mainly because of my prior investment. There are too many better series in Peak TV for the viewer to watch than to waste time with this one.
My score: 2 stars.