Why That “Low Winter Sun” Just Won’t Rise

A few minutes into the first episode of AMC’s Low Winter Sun, shady cop Joe (Lennie James) is convincing fellow cop Frank (Mark Strong) to help him to kill dirty cop Brendan, whom Joe accuses of killing Frank’s girl. Frank is initially skeptical of this plan, until Joe makes a point about morality that no television antihero has ever before put so bluntly. “Folks talk about morality like it’s black and white … but do you know what it really is? It’s a damn strobe, flashing back and forth and back and forth all the time. So all we can do is figure out how to see straight enough to keep from getting our heads bashed in.”

By having this quote serve as the thematic foundation for the series, Low Winter Sun makes its fatal mistake before the first commercial break even hits—it presents itself as one of the first antihero dramas that blatantly tries to market itself as an antihero drama at the cost of the one major factor that has driven so many similar dramas to success: quality storytelling.

The Quad’s own Adrian Burke argues in his feature article “Breaking Bad and Antiheroes” that Breaking Bad may just spell the end of television’s antihero era. Given Low Winter Sun’s approach to the genre, I’m inclined to agree. Despite AMC’s desperate attempts to market the show as another great antihero epic, few believed it, and fewer watched it. Critical reviews tore it apart. Viewers of Breaking Bad’s final stretch of episodes, who were the most exposed of anyone to Sun’s promotional content, were either annoyed by it or laughed at it. It became the butt of many jokes similar to the title of this article.

AMC's Low Winter Sun concluded its first season on October 6, 2013.
AMC’s Low Winter Sun concluded its first season on October 6, 2013. | Photo courtesy of AMC

Much of the show’s lack of success could arguably have been due to its airtime: Sunday nights at 10:00 p.m. EST, directly following Breaking Bad. Following after a critically acclaimed ratings success is usually good for a new television show, as it helps to build viewership and a strong fan base. However, the great disparity in quality between these two shows might have made Sun’s placement on AMC’s Sunday night schedule another fatal blow to the show’s success.

Nonetheless, it is that inherent disparity in quality that sets Sun far below Breaking Bad and many other great dramas on the scale of television’s antihero era. It almost seems like the writers of Sun thought that they could get away with breaking the basic rules of storytelling simply because they were an antihero drama and EVERYONE loves antihero dramas these days. What made very similar shows like The Shield so successful, though, was that they were raising the bar for quality storytelling in television by introducing moral dilemmas for leading characters, rather than using a lead character’s recognition of moral ambiguity as a tool to escape the basic need to tell a good story.

At the end of The Shield’s pilot episode, lead character and cop Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) shoots and kills a fellow cop in order to protect his strike team from being exposed for their ethically questionable use of their police power on LA’s streets. Although this horrible action in of itself presents Mackey as an antihero, the murder is only depicted after we’re shown how Mackey’s strike team might just be keeping the streets of LA far safer by bending the law here and there. This fairly complex moral dilemma allows us to identify with Mackey, a character who clearly has a moral code that can serve as a silver lining for his darker side.

Sun doesn’t give audiences the chance to identify with lead character Frank. As if Joe’s absurdly self-realized speech about moral ambiguity is enough to convince him, Frank helps Joe to kill dirty cop Brendan within the first five minutes of the pilot. The rest of the episode has Frank realizing that Joe might be a dirtier cop than he thought, and that he might’ve helped to kill Brendan for all of the wrong reasons. Sure, this shows that Frank has a moral code, but if he didn’t choose to kill Brendan on his own, if he was only tricked into it, then where’s the moral dilemma in his character? There isn’t one, and aside from some vague flashbacks involving his love interest who may still be alive, we know nothing else about Frank. Thus, we don’t care about Frank.

Unfortunately, the rest of Low Winter Sun’s first season is unable to make up for the first episode’s fatal mistake: stripping the main antihero of his driving moral dilemma and therefore his identifiable conflict as a character. If we don’t care about the main character, we can’t care about the story. Without a good story, it doesn’t matter how much AMC claims that this show is its next big antihero drama—nobody will watch it.

Unlike Frank, viewers seem not to be as easily tricked by things that appear to be better than they really are.

Evan Tuohey

Evan Tuohey is Film and Television major who was born a writer and never strayed from it. He also loves philosophy, thunderstorms, hiking mountains, and wine&cheese dinners. Evan hopes to one day write for a serialized television drama. Until then, you may find him working as a bartender for your local catering company.

9 thoughts on “Why That “Low Winter Sun” Just Won’t Rise

  • October 10, 2013 at 3:28 pm
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    Frank Agnew helped kill someone that he *thought* murdered his girlfriend. The fact that he is supposed to solve the case where he is the actual murderer is the dilemma. He’s wanting to stay out of prison because he’s not a bad guy, unlike Joe Geddes, he just got caught up in a bad situation.

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    • October 11, 2013 at 12:22 am
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      I agree that there is certainly a plot dilemma at hand. However, does Frank’s character have a truly sustainable *moral* dilemma? Cop Frank helps cop Joe kill cop Brendan, somebody who Frank thinks is a bad cop. Turns out that Joe is the bad cop who deceived Frank, and Brendan might have been killed for all of the wrong reasons. Now, Frank is a good cop caught up in a bad situation–he is leading the investigation into the murder that he wrongly committed, and Internal Affairs is involved. Great dilemma to move the plot along, I agree.

      However, what about Frank’s moral dilemma? Frank is a good cop who was deceived into committing an immoral act. Now, he doesn’t want to be caught, because he was a good man before he committed the act. However, by not turning himself in, isn’t he continuing to act immorally? And what is his moral justification for doing so?

      The Shield has Vic Mackey killing a fellow cop using the moral justification that his strike team needs to bend the rules to better protect LA’s streets. Breaking Bad has Walter White cooking meth using the moral justification that his needs to provide for his family after he dies of cancer. The Wire has Jimmy McNulty being a fairly terrible family man using the moral justification that the city of Baltimore requires his undivided, “good police” dedication. The Sopranos has Tony Soprano constantly taking the easy way out/choosing the mob life by showing that Tony, despite his horrible actions, is a product of his environment, and it is difficult to overcome who you have been raised to become. All fairly complex moral dilemmas that drive these antiheroes–never as simple as merely “good guy vs. bad guy.”

      Low Winter Sun has good cop Frank Agnew killing a fellow cop with the moral justification that the cop killed his girlfriend, until he learns that this isn’t true and that he was deceived. He doesn’t turn himself in, which is arguably immoral, and using what moral justification? That he was tricked? That he is still a good guy? That he’s not as bad a guy as bad cop Joe? For a show that so quickly does away with the “morality is in black and white” myth, the characters quickly seem to fall into those extremes. If Frank were really a good guy, why wouldn’t he just turn himself in? Not turning himself in using the justification that he’s still a good guy is hardly sustainable, simply because he has little else to prove that he is still a good guy besides the fact that he once was.

      We watch Frank maneuver his plot dilemma without a strong moral dilemma to drive our interest in his “antihero” character. There’s very little that keeps me caring at all about his character.

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      • October 11, 2013 at 1:50 am
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        I couldn’t disagree more. Why isn’t trying to stay out of jail a good enough impetus. He thinks he’s a good person, and he probably was (though flawed). He doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life in jail. I mean who would….especially if they were deceived? The writing and development of Frank throughout the season is pretty great IMHO. Actually this is one of my favorite series in quite some time.

        You seem to think Frank isn’t developed. By the end of the the finale I felt like I knew exactly who he was. If you tuned out before we got to the end, then maybe you got frustrated, but honestly I was always into it.

        Frank is obviously still in love with his ex-wife (Sarah). He has a very obsessive and destructive personality. As much as he tells Dani (the female detective) not to bring cases home, that is likely exactly what HE did. He also was Sean’s (the homeless former cop) partner.

        My guess is the darkness of trying to help Sean, but seeing his self destruct AND focusing single minded on ridding the streets or murderers poisoned his home life. It was likely a slow process over years, involving a lot of withdrawal from the person he was. Living with him was like living with a ghost. All he’d do was mope and be an opaque figure incapable of talking about anything other than cases like the Lady Belle or Sean’s destruction.

        So…he became “death” as Sarah says. She divorced him and he threw himself even more into his work. Then he meets Katia who reminds him of Sarah 20 years before. She is blonde (Sarah used to be…remember he asked her if she changed her hair), is significantly younger, visually striking a chord deep within his memory. What he really wants is a second chance with Sarah…and somehow in his mind he associates the two. That’s why he starts sending Sarah packages again – even without realizing that’s what he’s doing.

        He’s in love with a memory, and it informs everything he does. He’s looking for a second chance. Not just at love, but after the murder, at life as well.

    • October 11, 2013 at 4:42 am
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      CJ, that is obviously the package they’re trying to sell us, but most of us aren’t buying it. Agnew clearly wasn’t a “good guy in a bad situation.” He wasn’t “caught up” in anything: he committed cold-blooded murder with no evidence except Joe saying “uh, yeah…dude killed your girlfriend, man.”

      Everybody knows if you’re going to kill the man who decapitated the prostitute you’ve been dating, you need to make sure you see the prostitute’s headless body FIRST.

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      • October 13, 2013 at 4:50 pm
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        He did have the blood stained wall in Katia’s house…with no Katia. Might be reasonable to believe that it would be her blood in that situation. In fact, who else’s would it be?

  • October 11, 2013 at 4:38 am
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    Thanks, this was a thorough and worthwhile autopsy!

    The show is morally inconsistent, which is why I couldn’t personally come to grips with it. Frank is a “good man,” but we only know this because it’s emblazoned on the poster and the point is relentlessly belabored throughout the show. He actually doesn’t seem like a good man who did a bad thing, he seems like a man who is pretty comfortable with Detroit’s criminal underworld. He’s “dating” a prostitute, a woman who is supposed to represent his potential for redemption (I know this because one of the producers or someone said so in an interview), but she’s so young, he barely knows her, his relationship with her is mostly voyeuristic and stalkerish, and he sleeps (or whatever) with two other women in the course of the show (he even corrupts the show’s one worthy character, Dani Khalil, for which I can’t forgive him. If he was really a “good man” he would never have dragged her into his moral cesspit.) The woman he supposedly loves enough to kill for actually doesn’t seem worth it. He doesn’t seem all that freaked out when he realizes that he actually killed Brendan on a false pretext, nor does he freak out when he realizes that another cop – the one he’s “married” to – ACTUALLY HAS KILLED HER.

    Also, Katia was almost killed, and told that if she made contact with Frank again she would be endangering herself and him, but can be found 4 hours away broadcasting herself on the internet with no firewall. When Frank tracks her down she’s too terrified to encourage him (with good reason) but when he chats with her online using a pseudonym, knowing that people might be observing her and DESPITE HER SUSPICION about the identity of the client, she tells him the name of the man she loves! It’s inconsistent and unbelievable.

    The story was poorly written and unsatisfying. I don’t understand why the things that happened happened. Sean’s confession was a ridiculous deus ex machina, and the fact that ultimately neither Joe nor Frank were punished for their misdeeds makes me stabby. Why would I want to watch them in another season when they’re not redeemable? I don’t even WANT them to be redeemed, because I think they deserve to be punished. I can’t sympathize with them. There are no moral absolutes in the LWS universe, and it makes for confusing, depressing viewing. Making Frank mentally unbalanced was also kind of a cheat, explaining nothing, but artificially tying up whatever loose ends and contradictions were present in Frank’s inscrutable character.

    I actually love watching Mark Strong on screen, which is why I persisted with this as long as I did, but it didn’t do him justice and I’m sorry he picked it up. The writing was simply crap, and the show was bleak and joyless. I hope he puts this hot mess of a show behind him and moves on to something better. Same for Athena Karkanis – she’s beautiful and interesting, and her scene in the store with the Muslim man who didn’t want to speak with her was a rare bright spot in this dark, dark show. I hope LWS is a leg-up for her in the industry, because I’d love to see her in something good.

    I’m just sorry they ever made this show, sorry I wasted time on it, and embarrassed for some of the people involved.

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    • October 13, 2013 at 11:42 am
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      I like the show. Yes, it has flaws but the characters/actors are interesting and I want to know and see how they survive in Detroit. I think AMC can do a lot of back story to make up for any plot holes and possibly that is what they will do next season. Developing Agnew’s persona, Lenny James character, David Costabile, the kingpin, etc. I looked forward each week for this show and it was not a waste of time for me.

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    • October 13, 2013 at 5:58 pm
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      By the time Frank is in a position to kill Joe after Katia is dead, Frank realized that his obsession with Katia was just as much (if not more) about his ex-wife than about Katia. Not to mention, he’d never get away with killing Joe after Dawson is aware that he’s a murderer. AND with Boyd. In fact, even if one of those two slipped on a side walk, hit their head, and died — Boyd would probably suspect foul play from the other.

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      • October 28, 2013 at 7:17 am
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        Just finished watching the whole series and I didn’t notice any “plot dilemmas” OR “lack of moral dilemmas” as the author asserts.

        I had a little bit of trouble getting into the first couple of episodes, largely because of so many closeups of a very angry and verbose Joe… that turned me off. But I stuck with it, and by the 4th episode was really into it.

        Evan says: “We watch Frank maneuver his plot dilemma without a strong moral dilemma to drive our interest in his “antihero” character. ”

        I disagree totally… he is obviously conflicted by his part in the murder of Brendan, but he only went along with it because Joe told him Brendan had murdered and beheaded and dismembered the woman … it was a heat of passion moment for Frank.

        Frank is clearly morally conflicted by the whole situation… tho obviously he does not want to be convicted of murder. He rapidly learns of Joe and Brendan’s corruption… His first approach is that no one be framed for the murder… but then acquiesces to letting a dead guy take the rap… all the while being pressured by Joe… and also threatened by Joe, remember.

        Joe is a hard-ass, SOB who has shut down all feelings of right and wrong just to protect himself. He stops at nothing to ensure he is not found quilty. Frank on the other hand takes care of his junkie former partner, warns Maya of possible trouble and seems to have a soft side completely lacking in the hardened Joe.

        I actually see some similarities with Walter White… Walt struggles initially with the drug making, wanting Jesse to handle the “distribution”, but then slowly over time acquiescing to more and more and more of the criminal activities and killings.

        The success of the anti-hero premise of Low Winter Sun was evident to me at the end of the finale when I really wanted Frank and Joe to be let off the hook even tho I knew what they had done… mostly Frank, actually, I wouldn’t have minded if Joe went down.

        Sorry Evan… but you did not give this show enough of a chance… altho I think it was a mistake for AMC to begin showing after Breaking Bad near the end of its run. That show was such an incredible high in TV making, that any new show following it would not be getting the fair chance it deserved. I just watch LWS this week and after the first couple of shows, really enjoyed it and want to see more.

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