It’s not as though I haven’t said it before, but it bears saying again – I love Terriers. At first I thought it would be largely procedural, and then it had this fabulous multi-episode arc with Robert Lindus and the resort property. Then it returned to an episodic structure, and as the season winds up to an ending, the arc has come back with a vengeance, except from a different angle and with new, previously unexpected stakes. It’s so unusual to see a show work to balance those two pulls – inside toward episode’s frame, out toward the season – and to do it so deftly is surprising.
One of my favorite pieces on serial television is Sean O’Sullivan’s “Reconnoitering the Rim,” an article about Deadwood and third seasons of television. In it, he divides narrative into the possible, the necessary, and the possible disguised as the necessary, and describes the last category as a special problem for television. “Out of the array of possible stories and interests presented in the start-up operations of a narrative,” he writes, “some get selected and acquire the force of necessity without having ever really been necessary all along. This force of necessity accrues from the existence of a terminus, which asks that the possible acquire some sort of shape over the course of the regular production of episodes.” Or in other words: an ending looms inevitably on the horizon of any show, and its existence means that a couple of the nearly infinite potential plotlines are going to become weighty, conflict-producing devices full of momentum and vigor, and some are not. It could be any of them – a betrayal, the arrival of bank robbers, a massive fire, a skilled poker player – but at some point, one of those possibilities takes the lead and pulls the narrative forward. Once you’ve reached the end, you look back and believe that it had to be the bank robbers, but that’s only because you’ve reached an end point, and all of those possibilities had to get shut down for an ending to form and ossify.
The thing that I’ve found so amazing about Terriers is its ability to live almost entirely inside that magical, unfixed narrative place Sean O’Sullivan describes. It’s hard to know at any moment whether an episode is going to be a one-off procedural plot or is going to take a sudden left turn into some sticky multi-episode morass, and little plots that you think are complete tend to come back and haunt you; it’s a return of the possible not unlike Freud’s return of the repressed. (See, for instance, Britt’s drug dealer connection, the idea to steal Jason’s wallet, the sudden violent resurrection of Lindus’ real estate fraud, and the question of who actually killed Hank’s friend). Even the dog, that gorgeous goofy bulldog who seems like he’s going to be Hank and Britt’s sidekick in the show’s pilot, disappears into narrative conclusion before magically resurfacing as a key player for both plot and character development.
So much of this first season of Terriers, in fact, has been a dramatization of an unwillingness to declare an ending. Hank’s relationship with Gretchen, of course, is plagued by his inability to let her go, and his potential relapse looms continually on the horizon. Britt gets in trouble when guys from his criminal past show up to threaten his current domestic bliss. It seems as though Hank and Britt have dealt with Lindus, and of course that little problem comes back like a cat with eight lives left. Nothing stays buried, including Hank’s failed rape investigation, Katie’s affair, or Jason’s molest-y past. You drive a dead guy off a cliff, wipe your hands and walk away, and then sure enough, there you are two days later clambering down that cliff ‘cause you forgot something in his pocket. It’s the exact opposite of the procedural’s famous short-term memory problem.
It is a lovely meeting of content and form, then, that the show itself can never seem to decide when a character is really gone, or when an episode’s plot has actually concretized into resolution – except that with sudden explosive force, endings seem to come flying up out of nowhere to smack you in the face with their cruel finality. “Fustercluck” is the best example of this, although I think last week’s brutal final act is almost as good. This is why I will be particularly bereaved if, after the conclusion of tomorrow’s season finale, Terriers never comes back. It’s a show that seems like it could always come back, and it would return sneakily, from an unexpected direction.