“I’m no good at puttin’ shit into order, Shaunie. Sometimes it takes stickin’ around to give things a chance to work out.”
With that midpoint line of dialogue, the fifth installment of John from Cincinnati—entitled “His Visit: Day Four”—quite mindfully announces itself as a placeholder (much in the same vein as the Deadwood season one intermediary, “The Trial of Jack McCall”). Points to creator David Milch and this episode’s scriptwriter Steve Hawk for their resolute self-awareness, though it doesn’t offset the somewhat uneven tone of the final product, which opens on an off-putting note of hysteria.
Thus far, Milch and his cast have trod a fine line between the captivating and the repellent; by this point, we should understand that the characters inhabiting the border town surf community of Imperial Beach are, for the most part, a tenuous bundle of exposed nerves, in no way traditionally “likable.” The slightest stimulus sets them off, and then they’ll frequently go on destructive, tangential tirades. In this community, not even miracles can capture one’s attention entirely; worldly digressions (the devil’s playthings) are everywhere.
So it is for Cissy Yost (Rebecca De Mornay), who wakes this morning to a call from Tina Blake (Chandra West), the long-forgotten mother (now something of a porn-star Mary Magdalene) of her grandson Shaun (Greyson Fletcher). Cissy quite believably goes into protective overdrive, but De Mornay at first overreaches the character’s paranoia. The point may be that Cissy is a burned-out loose cannon, but Milch and director Ed Bianchi allow De Mornay too much fourth-wall breaking free rein. When Cissy violently rouses both Kai and her drug addict son Butchie (Brian Van Holt) from a peaceful post-coital slumber, the seams of her performance show, and it distracts from the general thematic point of the episode, encapsulated by its end credits music cue—Elvis Costello’s cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
The unimpeachable structure of “His Visit: Day Four” is built on a series of misunderstandings: by Cissy of Tina, certainly (by episode’s end, De Mornay’s gun-toting madness is tempered into something quietly profound; her piercing blue eyes—Yost family eyes through and through—seem to hide the untold pain of the universe), but most notably by Vietnam Joe (Jim Beaver) of his fourth-episode encounter with John Monad (Austin Nichols). Joe’s two scenes in this installment act as microcosmic counterpoint to Cissy’s journey: he enters a local VFW pub, gun at the ready, prepared to confront Ernie, the bartender who he thinks is in cahoots with John, purveyors both of a cruel, past-exploiting practical joke. Joe quickly realizes his mistake—Ernie has no knowledge of this particular incident from Joe’s past (which involves a wounded Joe’s inability to assist his army platoon) because he’s never spoken of it. Having never mentioned his sense of helplessness to anyone, Joe has instead wallowed in it, kept it hidden away. His subsequent scene on the Imperial Beach pier (the punchline of which recalls the title of a recent David Lynch tome) provides the episode’s one true epiphany. Everything, and everyone, else seems in either a destructive or an impatient holding pattern.
Milch believes in human beings’ capacity for love and tenderness, but he never sees that as an endpoint in and of itself. No such thing, in this world, as happy endings: thus is Butchie’s memorably affectionate fourth-episode interlude with Kai brutally torn asunder in the wake of Cissy’s panic and by Tina’s ultimately selfless intrusion. Allowing things to work themselves out, as Kai says, only leads to more misunderstandings—the signature image of “His Visit: Day Four” might be the one in which Tina drives off in her sin-red Mustang, Kai walks off in a depressive huff, and Butchie stands flaccidly in-between them, left finally to himself (his subsequent walk of sorrow recalls James Caan’s exit in Michael Mann’s Thief, minus the transcendent complement of Tangerine Dream).
To my mind, a potential second season of John from Cincinnati might best be conceived with the lack of its titular leading man (first installment: “His Absence: Day One”); it’s clear by this point that John is the balancing element in the series’s ever-expanding rogues gallery. Vietnam Joe’s moment of clarity on the Imperial Beach pier was no doubt fostered by the fact of his very recent contact with the monad, yet the further these characters get from John, the more likely they are to succumb to their earthly foibles. John’s hand is always apparent in their lives, but—as befits a divine emissary in mortal form—he can only be in so many places at once. The object of his attention this week is Cass (Emily Rose), the documentary filmmaker formerly in the employ of Luke Perry’s surf-promoter Linc Stark (whose own story quite interestingly intersects with Tina’s). In the wake of her termination by Linc, Cass is hindered by deep-rooted feelings of uncertainty. “In summary, John, I am no longer able to trade on my sex, and I need to make some money,” she says. John replies, “You need your camera, Cass.”
This exchange acts as prelude to the episode’s major setpiece, where John wanders among the Imperial Beach masses at a streetfair while Cass films his every move. Even lost among this crowd of California surfers, Mexican wrestlers, and prayerful Hare Krishnas, John’s harmonizing effect takes hold. Though his mission seems more or less specific to the Yosts and their immediate circle, it’s clear that John is having an effect on the community at large. Cass intuitively understands this (she now continuously refers to her project as “the work”), but she seems unwilling, at this point, to come over to John’s side completely. “Look, John. Leap of faith, huh?” she lightly taunts before jumping, fully exhausted, onto her bed at day’s end. Yet the work she’s done remains, and John’s beatific expression at the close of this sequence suggests that Cass has finally found the right path, even if she (much like we, the John from Cincinnati faithful) can’t yet entirely contemplate her surroundings.
Keith Uhlich is managing editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.