Skilled performances overcome all too convenient plotting in the new Ed Solomon-Steven Soderbergh collaboration.
Seeing creators pull together disparate threads into a cohesive whole can often feel like a magic trick. “Oh, that woman on the train platform was the same one waiting outside the bodega. I get it!” and all that. For the attentive viewer, it can feel like an affirmation of one’s thoughtful focus. For the more casual audience members, it can impress and beguile. Push it too far, though, and one might feel less rewarded and more led by the nose. Full Circle dances on that line before stumbling, too far, into EVERYTHING is connected territory. Thankfully, several strong performances and director Steven Soderbergh’s gift for conveying immediacy through his imagery prove enough to redeem the series’ far too nicely wrapped up with a bow conclusion.
As conceived by writer and creator Ed Solomon, Full Circle explores the ways past sins catch up with people. It also highlights how attempts to manipulate others’ prior transgressions often resurrect the spectres of our own iniquities. Derek (Timothy Olyphant, having quite the small screen year) and Sam (Claire Danes, ditto) are exceedingly well-off New Yorkers, making a living helping Sam’s dad, Chef Jeff (Dennis Quaid), manage his celebrity and cooking empire. Their only son Jared (Ethan Stoddard) loses things constantly, either a sign he’s so insulated from consequence by their wealth, or he’s so uncomfortable with it he’s subconsciously casting off the signs of it almost faster than his parents can replace them.
The matriarch of a local crime family, Savitri Mahabir (CCH Pounder), has fixated on Jared as the solution to her “family curse.” Convinced her brother-in-law’s recent death has broken a circle of protection, she feels the need to perform a ritual to heal the breach. For reasons initially unrevealed, the teen is the apparent lynchpin. When the kidnapping goes awry in numerous ways, however, everyone touched by the crime finds their lives grow measurably worse.
Just describing the plot, especially without spoilers, cannot properly convey how extremely interconnected the elements become by Full Circle’s conclusion. U.S. Postal agents Mel Harmony (Zazie Beetz) and Manny Broward (Jim Gaffigan), immigrants from Guyana Xavier(Sheyi Cole) and Louis (Gerald Jones), Chef Jeff’s estranged brother (William Sadler), real estate, police corruption, a casino, and more all get sucked into the crime’s gravitational pull. Still, it isn’t just how this one crime seems to connect so many events and people that rankles. Yes, it strains credibility that each person and element would so perfectly fit together, but Full Circle is hardly the first piece of fiction to pull that trick.
In the end, Full Circle feels too neat, too clean. The actors inside of it, though, prove very alive and messy.
What is significantly more bothersome is how tidy the tale wraps up. There are some lingering ambiguities concerning a few characters’ fates but only just barely. For the amount of blood, sweat, and tears everyone sheds over the course of six episodes, things are frustratingly without mess by the show’s end. Some may label that efficient, but it feels more like overly fastidious. The perfection of the wrap-up leaves the series’ events feeling airless and almost inconsequential, a strange sensation for something that ends with a not inconsiderable number of dead bodies and once strong bonds strained.
However, while the plotting is flawed, the acting is not. Full Circle’s spiritual/supernatural/superstitious elements never feel real, even momentarily. However, Pounder convincingly conveys both her character’s belief in them and how those beliefs unmoor her previously steady, calculating leadership. And what her performance can’t get across, her ruthless lieutenant Garmen’s (Phaldut Sharma) reactions fill in the blanks well. On the law-and-order side of things, Gaffigan continues to come into his own as a dramatic actor. Paired with his dual role in Linoleum earlier this year, the predominantly known as a stand-up comedian performer demonstrates he not only can give an audience different looks, he can fully settle into a character’s skin.
The dual MVPs, though, are definitely Danes and Beetz. Coming off a very different wealthy mother in crisis in Fleishman is in Trouble, Danes provides the often chaotic in the early going Full Circle a center to revolve around. Starting as an ultra-competent caretaker to all, she shades and deepens her performance with each scene until it dawns on the viewer that she’s gone very far afield from the person one first guessed her to be.
Beetz, by contrast, hits the ground running. All irritation and self-destructive impulse, she plays like Poker Face’s human lie detector Charlie’s overcaffeinated and misanthropic cousin. Harmony’s never wrong, but her refusal to explain her actions, play politics, or even entertain the notion of other people’s feelings derail her talents time and again. Moreover, you can see that she knows on her face and in her body language. But Harmony can’t stop herself. She’s like an addict for righteous indignation. Beetz has been good in several roles before this, but never this magnetic, this undeniable.
In the end, Full Circle feels too neat, too clean. The actors inside of it, though, prove very alive and messy. The series’ final two scenes hint at what the show could’ve been had it given itself over more to that humanistic energy and less to making sure the red string connected to every peg on the board.
Full Circle begins connecting the dots on Max on July 13.