The fences go up in the aftermath of the miracle that closed the second episode of John from Cincinnati. In “His Visit: Day 2 Continued”, young Shaun Yost (Greyson Fletcher) is now fully, and inexplicably, recovered from his fatal neck injury. His family and friends spirit him away from the hospital on the roundabout recommendation of the kindly and curious Dr. Michael Smith (Garret Dillahunt), but instead of basking in the joy of the occurrence, this head-on encounter with the unexplained allows all involved to open up past wounds and kindle new fears and prejudices. Creator David Milch and episode scripter Ted Mann’s meaning is clear: old habits die hard.
The ever-paranoid (and Debby Boone-fearing) Barry Cunningham’s allusion to Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” provides the episode its primary theme: in the presence of the unknown, retreat to what is familiar. Milch, Mann, and director Mark Tinker illustrate this often involuntary foible of human nature in various ways, many of them memorably comical. Drug dealer Steady Freddy Lopez (Dayton Callie), consigned to sitting vigil in the hospital parking lot, gets the Milch soliloquy of the week, expounding on the pleasures of the Sarah Brightman-Andrea Bocelli cover of “Con Te Partirò” before recoiling when Bocelli doesn’t come in where expected. “What’s this? Different version?” he asks of the ether.
Perhaps so, in the sense that even a favored song can attune itself to the needs of a particular moment in time, revealing, in the process, untold and illuminating layers of meaning. Yet the discovery is still unnerving, especially for those of us caught, so irrevocably, in the confines of routine. The best thing to do, as Freddy discovers, is to go with the flow, first fracturing the hand of his subordinate Palaka (Paul Ben Victor) in an ultimately unnecessary attempt at pretense, then helping to distract the reporters when the Yost family (blood relatives and surrogates alike) exits a hospital side-door with Shaun in tow. Brightman’s populist soprano stylings swell to the occasion (one more example in John from Cincinnati of a collective working in unwitting harmony), and the effect is lyrical, soul-stirring, profound.
Indeed, my favorite scenes of John from Cincinnati’s third installment are those underscored with song and, to this end, the episode’s key sequence must be counted as the one between otherworldly John Monad (Austin Nichols) and surf-store employee Kai (Keala Kennelly). A propulsive Delta Blues ditty as background accompaniment, John exhorts Kai to “See God,” whereupon she falls into a trance and witnesses several Imperial Beach denizens—drug-addict surfer Butchie Yost (Brian Van Holt), motel employee Ramon Gaviota (Luis Guzmán), and illegal alien shuttle-man Vietnam Joe (Jim Beaver)—succumb to a intense burning sensation. It’s another moment of unconscious connection, and Kai isn’t having any of it. “Don’t do that to me again, John,” she says upon waking.
Some may dismiss Kai’s seemingly instinctive evasion of the miraculous as a writer’s conceit, but it meshes with the surf-culture mentality that Milch and company are exploring. A clear dividing-line exists, for many a surfer, between land and sea. Only on the ocean are they fully themselves, attuned to the rhythms of the world in ways that, for the most part, can only be reconstituted in landlock via illicit and/or solitary means (and then only as pale imitation). Off the waters of Imperial Beach, these characters fall prey to their weaknesses, a point quite literally illustrated when elder surf statesman Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) catches his leg on a nail while jumping a backyard fence. “You’re hanging there like a side of beef,” says Butchie when he comes upon his dad’s predicament. The two connect for a brief moment of father/son simpatico, but once the physical hurdle is cleared, Mitch goes on his selfishly separate way, ostensibly to rendezvous with imposter filmmaker Cass (Emily Rose), who is in the clandestine employ of surf promoter Linc Stark (Luke Perry). (Most everyone on John from Cincinnati is wearing a mask of one kind or another.)
About the only person who openly engages with the day’s events is Dr. Smith, who comes unannounced to the Yost household and requests an audience with Shaun. “Watching a stranger tie himself in knots is probably not your idea of fun just now,” he stammers to Shaun’s grandmother Cissy (Rebecca De Mornay), who nonetheless admits the physician with little resistance. Dr. Smith finds Shaun in perfect health, and also somewhat annoyed at the adults’ treatment of him as a fragile vessel. “This sucks,” he offers while Dr. Smith runs him through a series of physical tests. All this miraculous brouhaha and he just wants to go skateboarding. For all the criticism (undeserved, in my opinion) of Fletcher’s flat-affect performance, he makes for a wonderfully reactive and observant screen presence. An earlier scene in which Cissy and Mitch have a heated argument is punctuated by a cut-away shot of Shaun lying on his bed, fully aware of the events transpiring just outside his door. The youngest Yost has not yet built up his protective emotional barriers—everything makes an impression, for better and for worse.
“I am so happy,” says Dr. Smith in the episode’s climactic moments, though it’s clear that he doesn’t quite know where his elation is coming from. It is merely organic to the moment, and Shaun, with Cissy’s hard-won permission, acts as the feeling’s conduit. As a crowd gathers outside the Yost household, Shaun takes to the backyard half-pipe, wowing the gathered reporters, neighbors, friends, and strangers as Lazarus might have the multitudes at Bethany. Kai and John come upon the throng. He looks forward knowingly, while she looks on in awe. “See God, Kai,” he says to his companion. And as Shaun effortlessly crests the half-pipe’s apex—bridging the gap, breaching the wall—she, and we, do just that.
Keith Uhlich is managing editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.