Black Bird, the Apple TV+ drama about a bad guy sent to ferret out a worse guy in the rottenest jail in America, takes a turn for the confessional this week. Probable serial killer Larry Hall and police informer Jimmy Keene tell each other some truths and some lies as they clean up the mess after a prison riot.
Larry starts to see the hidden side of Jimmy. And Jimmy starts to recognize the worst parts of himself — the ones that remind him of Larry. Black Bird’s been in a good place for two and a half episodes, and this latest one finds the show indulging in its strengths for an extended conversation between the two leads.
Black Bird recap: ‘WhatsHerName’
Season 1, episode 4: In this week’s episode, titled “WhatsHerName,” Jimmy (played by Taron Egerton) and Larry (Paul Walter Hauser) lie awake, dreaming about their childhoods. Jimmy was the son of a busy and distracted cop who wanted the best for him, and yet still made time to throw the ball with him … at least at first. Larry was the son of a grim and disgruntled gravedigger.
There’s a great little scene where Jimmy searches Larry’s cell looking for clues, all the while aware that the killer could come back at any moment. He discovers some pretty grim drawings in among the porn and pictures of cars. They aren’t a confession, but they’re pointing in the right direction.
Unfortunately, Jimmy might not have much time to find better clues. Corrupt guard Carter (Joe Williamson) is about to tell the wrong people that Jimmy is a snitch, a death sentence in general population, because he didn’t get Carter the 10 grand he promised him.
Quality time after a riot
Luckily, Jimmy gets a nice bit of uninterrupted time with Larry thanks to a violent riot. Larry heads up the custodial jobs at the prison, so they put him in charge of cleaning up the lunchroom. That gives James a full afternoon to start asking him about his upbringing.
Larry’s dad would make him rob the bodies of the recently deceased for valuables when he was no older than 10. This got him used to the idea of corpses. And also to the idea that the dead don’t mind when you cut their fingers off to take their wedding rings. Or worse.
Jimmy takes in all this as he has to confess some things he’s less than comfortable with about himself and his upbringing. He talks about his relationship to his parents, and how the girls he’d later wind up sleeping with in drug transactions looked like his mom (Kylie Casciano Davis). Jimmy’s step-dad beat him up real good as a kid, and it ate him up inside, which explains both his need to become a stronger person but also his self-destructive urges as a man.
Just as they’re about to head back to their cells, Larry mentions something a little odd to Jimmy. He asks Jimmy if he ever thought about killing his mom. Sure, says Jimmy, sometimes. Well, easier than trying to push her down the stairs or something would be soaking a rag in starter fluid. Then you can do whatever you want to them, Larry says.
“Who’s them?” asks a shocked Jimmy.
“Girls I meet,” Larry says. Bingo.
Two actors, alone in a room
This week’s episode of Black Bird, despite the flashbacks, consists mostly of Hauser and Egerton in a room together, cleaning and talking. That was a wise choice. Egerton focuses when opposite a performer like Hauser, who has become his character and gives so gives Egerton plenty of room to react, which becomes a position of strength for a lot of performers.
Projecting for Egerton is tough, especially in a role like this that’s defined by the character’s strengths, by the fact that he wants people to know he’s in charge, that he’s the man.
That’s not really all that interesting as spectacle because what do you learn from strength? Nothing, but you do learn a lot when a tough guy suddenly starts to feel afraid. Not just of the guy next to him, but the parts of himself he’s allowed to grow past him and without regulation.
Who is Jimmy, really? Does he even know? That’s a lot more fun place to explore. And I like that Egerton allows himself the space to become the smaller man in a scene with Hauser. While Hauser might not be a matinee idol like Egerton, he is an incredible talent.
A hint of the horrific
The little horror movie vignettes creeping into their stories this week are also well-handled. Neither man’s childhood was a fun place to be. And indeed, the harder they veer into the sense of being trapped, the more claustrophobic and compelling the show becomes.
In each man’s past reside the things they couldn’t control, the things they never dealt with. It’s very, very fine work all around this week. Especially because, and this is an old documentarian trick, the episode starts with graphic violence.
Anthropologist and filmmaker Robert Gardner opened his landmark nonfiction film Forest of Bliss with a terrifying and startling sight — street dogs getting into a vicious fight for just a split second. After that, you feel as though the movie could do anything, could show you true horrors. That doesn’t wind up happening but it’s a warning; real life is unpredictable, and so too is art.
Opening this episode of Black Bird with a bunch of slit throats and brutal beatings, puts you on edge waiting for the return of violence. Excellent theory and practice this week.
Watch Blackbird on Apple TV+
New episodes of Black Bird arrive every Friday on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.