In Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston embodied a seemingly honorable man who saw a criminal opportunity, took it, and then took to it. Your Honor, on the other hand, features the actor as an honorable man who’s forced by circumstance to behave in a criminal manner, and discovers that he’s quite good at it—albeit not necessarily good enough to evade capture. For Cranston, it’s a chance to play a variation on the antihero role that brought him such acclaim (including four Best Actor Emmys), and if there’s a single reason to watch this new 10-episode Showtime miniseries, it’s his galvanized performance as a father driven to bend the very rules he upholds in order to keep his loved ones, and himself, safe.
An adaptation of the Israeli TV series Kvodo, creator/writer Peter Moffat’s Your Honor (premiering Sunday, Dec. 6 on Showtime) stars Cranston as Michael Desiato, an esteemed New Orleans judge still coping with the unsolved murder of his beloved photographer wife. On the anniversary of that tragedy, Michael returns home to discover his son Adam (Hunter Doohan) in a state of disarray. By the time this encounter occurs, we’ve already witnessed what’s left Adam in shambles. In a prolonged introductory sequence that gets this legal thriller off to a gripping start, Adam visits the Lower Ninth Ward scene of his mother’s demise, is menaced by a group of Black locals, flees in his car and, while trying to reach his inhaler so he might stave off an asthma attack, accidentally collides with a motorcyclist, killing its driver, 17-year-old Rocco Baxter (Benjamin Hassan Wadsworth). After failing to revive the kid, Adam panics and flees the scene.
Moffat and director Edward Berger stage this calamity with precision, cross-cutting between Adam, Rocco, and Michael—who’s in court, exposing a cop’s lie in a drug-related case against a Black single mother—with an air of mounting, inevitable dread. Upon hearing about this catastrophe, Michael’s natural reaction is to do the right thing and turn Adam in to the authorities. However, when he arrives at the police station, he sees the victim’s family and bolts, because Rocco’s parents aren’t just nobodies; they’re Jimmy (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Gina Baxter (Hope Davis), the kingpins of the city’s most ruthless crime family. Instinctively realizing that identifying Adam as the perpetrator will compel the Baxters to murder his son—and probably him as well—Michael opts for Plan B, which involves covering up Adam’s misdeed.
This is a daring gambit, given that Adam has left fingerprints and DNA all over the place, busted up his mom’s car, and been seen and videotaped at a gas station shortly after the accident—not to mention that Michael put in initial calls to the police and to lawyer Lee Delamere (Carmen Ejogo), his former law clerk. Those are just a few of the initial threads with which Your Honor tangles up its protagonist, and there’s a thrill to watching Cranston strive to resolve these dilemmas while stifling his conscience, maintaining a clear head, and keeping his shell-shocked son straight. You can see the gears whirring behind Cranston’s outwardly innocent eyes, and the more his father tries to cover all his bases—which multiply at a distressing rate—the more the actor reveals his character’s formidable intelligence and shrewdness, as well as his fierce paternal protectiveness.
It’s not long before Michael is asking his longtime friend, mayoral candidate Charlie (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), to get rid of the vehicle that killed Rocco. It’s at that point that Your Honor gets truly complex, since Charlie uses his police and underworld connections to get Kofi Jones (Lamar Johnson), a young member of the Desire street gang, to steal Michael’s car and make it disappear—a ruse that doesn’t work, and makes Kofi the prime suspect in Rocco’s murder, not to mention a victim of police brutality and an innocent kid in the crosshairs of the vengeful Baxters. Kofi’s plight weighs heavily upon both Michael and Adam, the latter of whom is involved in a secret romance with his teacher Frannie (Sofia Black-D’Elia), and can barely keep a lid on his misery, which he expresses at one point in an anguished dark-room dance to Joy Division’s “Love Will Keep Us Apart.”
By the end of its fourth episode (which is as far as this critic has seen), Margo Martindale has also leapt into the fray as Senator Elizabeth Guthrie, the mom of Cranston’s wife, and her participation further turns Your Honor into a grand acting showcase—even if the idea that the 69-year-old Martindale is the 64-year-old Cranston’s mother-in-law is more than a bit absurd. Between the escalating power struggle between Stuhlbarg and Davis’ mobsters (whose reaction to their son’s death is far from unified), and Michael’s balancing-act relationships with Charlie, Detective Nancy Costello (Amy Landecker), and Lee—with whom he begins an affair—no one is left without some juicy material to handle, and the show is at its finest when allowing its stellar cast to simmer, stew, and boil over with fury and agony, both alone and in the presence of each other.
“… no one is left without some juicy material to handle, and the show is at its finest when allowing its stellar cast to simmer, stew, and boil over with fury and agony, both alone and in the presence of each other.”
Your Honor stumbles slightly in trying to integrate criminal justice system racism and malfeasance into its primary narrative; while that critique is certainly relevant (and hits home during a bracing courtroom-humiliation incident), the show is so invested in its breathless melodrama—propelled by crooked cops, shady politicians, ruthless organized criminals, gang leaders, and duplicitous judges and everyday citizens—that its institutional-prejudice elements sometimes come off as mere plot devices. Moreover, while Moffat’s scripting does a sharp job piling on developments and characters to complicate Michael’s illicit mission, it too often relies on the frustrating foolishness of Adam, whose torment isn’t enough to explain away all of the stupid things he does that risk outing him as the real culprit.
Whether these issues persist is anyone’s guess; even before reaching its midway point, Your Honor is so thoroughly knotted that it could resolve itself in a variety of different ways. What is clear, however, is that Cranston remains one of the medium’s current giants, capable of imbuing even the clunkiest of moments with relatable remorse, wit, cunning, and desperation. He brings a gravity and charisma to Moffat’s miniseries that’s as invaluable as it is magnetic.
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