Stumptown Finale: or, I Heard You Paint-By-Numbers

When Stumptown premiered, I wrote about how its pilot uses what amounts to paint-by-numbers writing to great effect. I want to bookend the season by talking about how the finale still paints-by-numbers while incorporating much of the show’s growth, true surprises, long- and short- running arcs, and character development.

Stumptown Season 1 turned into a network gem tightrope walking between ‘procedural’ and ‘graphic novel adaptation.’ The balance is hard to sum up as I didn’t review the whole season, but in short it hits a lot of expected procedural beats while using its underlying comedic properties – enabled by its graphic novel roots as well as its stars – to bring a fresh edge.

It’s got plenty of cop procedural drama real and manufactured a la The Good Wife and SVU, but is more serialised, funnier, and willing to experiment than they. It stops shy of straight homage or supernatural absurdities like Psych or other-PNW-based-graphic-novel-adaptation iZombie, shows which live best (heh. ‘Liv’ best) on cable.  The hourlong format has long been a staple of straight dramatic forms, but networks and platforms are allowing more genrebending, and Stumptown takes advantage, enabled by Smulders and Johnson having co-led ensemble comedies How I Met Your Mother and New Girl, respectively.

Much of Stumptown’s hilarity comes from performance and timing. Kara’s face when she says “crazy right?” and Cameron Manhein’s face when she admonishes her beatcops to chase Tookie’s taco truck are both great, but their simultaneous turn-and-glare through the two-way glass at Miles [below] is gold. Watch the scene [above] where Dex, Grey, and Dex’s lawyer-slash-ex-lover’s-father Lionel Hoffman discuss Dex’s dire situation; the comedy undercurrent is in them feeding off each other while Steven Williams brings great “I’m getting too old for this shit” Lethal Weapon energy. When Lionel later tells Miles the case will come ‘bite me in the ass’ it is deliciously chewy, like a perfect chocolate chip cookie, that line ripped off the page and savoured in a way which few hour-long network dramas allow for. (Miguel Ferrer in Crossing Jordan springs to mind.)

Michael Ealy, having worked more in dramas, is given the more dramatic / less soap operatic romances than Grey, to be played with subtler humour and unsubtler sex appeal on front burner. The chemistry between Miles and Kara (what’s their ship name? CopCop?) was set up to flame out, but burn hot and bright they did.

Sorry, I got distracted by the ridiculous level of attractiveness on this show. Where was I?

Stumptown challenges the very nature of the Golden Age of Television. It isn’t always very good, but somehow it’s great. It’s miles more successful at what it’s trying to be than, say, Ray Donovan (a much higher budget, Serious Show with Jon Voight and Themes Of Intergenerational Sins which started promising Goodfellas-final-third style exploits of a fixer trying to cover up individual indiscretions, murders, and secrets of the rich and famous, but quickly fell back on Manpain McEmmyBait storylines). It isn’t great in a Person of Interest way (which was bad until it was good until it became the best goddamn show on television), but does similarly pay homage to noir and classic films; POI starting with a Rear Window riff, Stumptown right out the gate with Chinatown episode titles.

The season’s 18 episodes experiment with shorter, 2-5 episode arcs, which enables the writers to hedge their bets; if it’s bad, they’ve cut and run, but if it works they can bring plot and/or characters back around. Stumptown doesn’t care you’ve seen most of its storylines ten times in the last year alone, it’s going to execute them with a wink, a nod, and some specific flair whether that’s Portlandian, Native American, bisexual, or comic-book-panel-style, all of which the finale plays with.

Speaking of: let’s dissect how the episode itself works.

“All Hands on Dex” is the culmination of several arcs: Dex’s general battle with PTSD and specifically her guilt over indirectly causing ex-boyfriend Benny’s death; Grey trying to expunge his criminal past while reconnecting with his deadbeat dad; Ansel struggling with abandonment issues while moving towards independence and dating; Miles butting heads with Lieutenant Cosgrove while negotiating fuckbuddy feels with Kara; Tookie getting his taco truck business up outside Bad Alibi while falling increasingly out-of-step with his wife of 20 years; and last the fraught, often-antagonistic, sometimes-opportunistic, occasionally-familial relationship between Dex and Sue Lynn tangled up in everything from Benny and Dex’s romance to Dex saving Sue Lynn’s granddaughter Nina back in the pilot.

All this amidst a sanctuary slugfest set to “Devil Went Down to Georgia”, a Scarlet-Pimpernel-esque bait and switch involving burritos instead of guillotined heads, and one more too-convenient misfire of of Dex’s beater car’s unreliable stereo system, this time revealing the diegetic music at the end of the chase instead of up front as the pilot did. Yes, the first episode reveals the music’s source up front, the last at the end. Like I said, it ain’t subtle, but it’s good.

(pictured: not subtle, but oh so good.)

With a few exceptions such as Elementary, Stumptown works harder than most recent procedurals to slowly grow storylines to organically incorporate conflict, boost WTF moments, and add weight to therapeutic chats like between Grey and Tookie last episode. It generally does a good job weaving older plot threads back in, with minimal producer-induced “remember this character!” lines of dialogue or ‘previously on’ prods Network TV requires, and the finale gets away with just a little of what I’ve decided to call Expository Ansel Moments, and one Previously On which tries to cram 18 disparate bits of information into 20 second.

After said previously on, the finale opens in blue-washed woods, a sequence which immediately feels like both dream sequence and narrative shorthand to condense the events immediately following last episode’s cliffhanger. It is in fact all of the above, with bonus foreshadowing of Dex’s final fight showdown with her would-be killer. (This could be merely a happy byproduct of their practical decision to shoot both sequences at the same time in the same patch of Canadian woods.)

We then get some super shallow depth of field on Dex’s upper left facial quadrant coming into frame, another thing which feels like a panel from a graphic novel and sets it apart from L&Oesque assemblyline procedurals. After Dex wakes up in hospital to a comedy relief roomfellow, we’re off to solve the whodunnthisthingtome which drives both mystery and the interpersonal conflict down the stretch.

 

Dex’s classic noir position as The Wrong Man is a great excuse to bring back Miles’ dad, which means we’re not getting an unfamiliar lawyer at the 11th hour, and also sets up real conflict, both ‘personal’ and ‘of interest’ nature.

Daddy issues continue with Grey’s emotional fallout after being stood up by his dad, and Dex’s comedy “great dad speech” bit subverts what could have been a tired romantic attempt by pushing off Grey’s big Speech of Concern, predictably followed by her sneaking out of the house. This is a teenage move which last episode showed us she’s had practice pulling in this very house since she was 15; it’s the culmination of these little touches which add up to Stumptown‘s greatness. 

Crucially, these touches tie together over more than just the finale episode. In a season which operates best in the sweet zone of 2-5 episode arcs, it doesn’t rush the wrapup into 42 minutes, but lets things play out over the last few episodes, crucially coming to a head in 17 before being wrapped up in 18. In fact, 17 almost ‘lets Dex off the hook’ psychologically with its reveal Benny didn’t die just trying to propose . . . before 18 hooks her back in by reminding her she still has a lot of guilt, both ‘valid’ and ‘completely invalid’ to work through.

They could have tried to make all of these plot threads all come to a head in this episode, pulling off that “lookit how these plots all converge and are resolved in a neat tidy package!” finale. Instead, Stumptown gives the emotional moments more time to breathe, lets some really great character work shine. For example, when Tookie, is about to run for it mid-emotional-maelstorm, Grey comes out and talks him down. It’s a solid moment, showing so much tenderness from Jake Johnson . . . while reminding us of Tookie’s mobile taco truck, which comes into play in Dex’s getaway. Neither the character beat nor the reminder would have time to work so well if everything from the last few episodes were forced into one. 

Meanwhile, in the C-plot, Miles and Kara have their DTR, straight into throwing Dex under the bus, then necessary plot complications, then their blowup. You can understand both their points, which is nice; Miles feels Kara didn’t trust him enough to communicate her qualms thus can’t see a relationship in their future, Kara points out he put her in an impossible position. Yes Miles is hot and fun, and we know he’s trustworthy etc., but Kara’s right to not put her job on the line for a guy she banged once (on behalf of his ex-lover no less!) When characters operate on the basis of the information they have, rather than what the audience knows, that’s just good writing. Sadly that likely means Kara is done for.

Speaking of, readying Miles to be single again means there’s more chance for he and Dex to get all ‘it’s complicated,’ which is good because I they need to chill with the Grey/Dex shipping. They work better when their conflict comes from existing love and history and co-dependence, not potential future romance. While I am all for Dex Parios banging with anyone who crosses her path, and this season has started her down some good roads in terms of healing, she’s got a ways to go before she’s ready to be partnered, and I hope the show honours that if it gets a Season 2.

Meanwhile her other relationships remain even more fascinating than her romantic entanglements, from her mentorship with Artie early in the season to her negotiations with Ansel to her truce here with Sue Lynn. Yes, it is altogether too convenient for Sue Lynn’s gun to be fired by Dex to stop Benny’s murderer, but then I am a sucker for poetic justice.

This goes back to the above discussion; a procedural would do it just for the convenience. A Prestige Drama would find a way to make it take eight convoluted episodes to get from Point A to Point B. Stumptown doesn’t pretend to make it have the significance of the latter, but neither is this just about convenience. It’s rooted in history and character, and the characters’ relationships with each other.

More than plot and poignancy, the relationships allow humour and callbacks as well. “That was crate and barrel” and “white people always fall for that” are continuations of the sorts of jokes Sue Lynn and Hollis have pulled throughout the series, as well as shorthand showing how Dex and Sue Lynn’s relationship has been antagonistic for years. Now, though, alongside antagonism is growing mutual begrudging respect. I love their dynamic – complex, prickly, both often right or wrong and sniping at each other, yet supporting one another against broader societal injustice. Of all the things I want in S2, more of this tops the list.

Once the mystery, lowkey caper, cop-versus-establishment, and will-they-keep-banging plotlines are wrapped up, the show needs to lay low-stakes groundwork for next season. The number-painting dictates it not cliffhanger anything too major we’ve worked through all season, but be big enough to promises to Juicy Stakes in S2. So we get a bit of a fakeout with Ansel’s girlfriend leading to that dundunDUN door-opening moment. Tookie keeps up the facade, so I’m not totally sure if that means Ansel kept it up to him, or he brought Tookie in on it and Tookie responded by stress-cleaning? This is the only plotline which feels seriously shortchanged in this hour, and perhaps a scene was left on the cutting room floor. Doesn’t matter because we all know that door will open to what every religious TV watcher guessed: THE MOTHER RETURNS. Just so Grey doesn’t get left out of the parental drama, he’s confronted with some generic mob muscle informing him daddy – whether intentionally, out of sheer stupidity, or under duress and too cowardly to even give Grey a heads up – hung Grey out to dry for crimes he committed in Portland.

If anything, the state of flux television is in right now may work in our favour, as it’s a shorter-run, smaller-budget, Canadian-shot show which has shown itself to be plenty adaptable may make at least a 13-episode run when other more intensive shows may have to be axed or at least postponed.

With all that’s on right now, it doesn’t take much to see that the series renewal of the convoluted problems of three fictional people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But at least we’ll always have Stumptown, Season 1.

Stray Observations

– Thanks to Dale for his contributions, especially in bouncing around why Stumptown is better TV than some actual prestige TV.

– Since we’re talking about other shows, someone else please break down how Babylon Berlin‘s pilot uses its therapist, voiceover, and family and workers rights group discussing their plans in its pilot to spell out things for the audience. Painting by numbers in a very, very different way.

– It doesn’t really come into play in a finale so centred around two relationships with men, but the series doesn’t forget Dex is bisexual AF, and her shirt/duster combos are always there in case you for a moment forget she’s queer.

– They didn’t need to add that flavour to Sue Lynn’s gun, but they did anyway. Because fuck rapists, and why not use your finale to drop Checkov’s sexual assault back story.

– I know after the pilot they moved production to Vancouver, plus I haven’t lived there for half a decade, but goddamn that flyover with the bridges made me miss Portland like nothing since the last Thorns game.

 

Sue Lynn: When the hole is big enough there is no filling it. It just becomes a part of you.
Dex: So what now?
Sue Lynn: We go on.

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