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Full Circle Saves Its Best Twist for Last

Steven Soderbergh connects the dots behind the kidnapping plot, but it's Zazie Beetz and Claire Danes who share the most pivotal scene.
  • Claire Danes, Zazie Beetz (photo: Max)
    Claire Danes, Zazie Beetz (photo: Max)

    In the final two episodes of Full Circle, a mystery of sorts is solved, though it's more like the final few layers of an onion are peeled. Director Steven Soderbergh and writer Ed Solomon didn't set up some grand whodunit, nor have they laid out bread crumbs or red herrings in order to encourage the audience to try to figure it out. There are things we didn't know headed into the finale that we now know. But the real surprise comes via a final rapprochement between two characters who, up to this point, really couldn't stand each other.

    [Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for Full Circle through Episode 6, "Essequibo."]

    First, though, there's the action. The big joint FBI/Postal Investigative Service raid on Savitri Mahabir's (CCH Pounder) house not only thwarts Savitri's plans to do a second circle ritual (if at first you don't succeed…), but it also leads Manny Broward (Jim Gaffigan) to chase Garmen (Phaldut Sharma) down an alley and into his house in an incredibly ill-advised attempt at heroism that ends with Manny dead. Meanwhile, Xavier (Sheyi Cole) hits the fork in the road and chooses to kill Garmen in order to save Louis (Gerald Jones) and Natalia (Adia) and get them on a plane back to Guyana, leaving his own future uncertain. And Melody's (Zazie Beetz) investigation leads her to the enigmatic Mr. Willoughby (Franklin Ojeda Smith).

    But the real unraveling comes during a confrontation between Melody and Sam (Claire Danes) at the hospital. Sam is, for all intents and purposes, in the clear. Her son Jared (Ethan Stoddard) is safe. Her husband Derek's (Timothy Olyphant) affair and secret child have come to light, but all things considered, that could have turned out worse. The McCusker family secrets have been kicked up out of the dirt — including the revelation that it was Sam, not her father (Dennis Quaid as Chef Jeff) who ratted out Uncle Gene (William Sadler) all those years ago — but with a little willful amnesia and compartmentalization, that would probably be fine too. But Melody loves nothing more than to jab-jab-jab at someone who's trying to get away with something until she provokes a reaction. That's how she's been trying to get to Sam all this time. At the hospital, she tries a different tactic.

    This is the first surprise Full Circle's finale springs on its audience — this showdown between Melody and Sam is what the show has been building to all this time. As he's done throughout the series, Soderbergh pulls this off slyly, elegantly. The central conflict in this show hasn't been about Melody nailing the Mahabir crime family, or getting one over on Manny, or helping Xavier navigate out of the river of crap he's found himself in. It's been about Melody getting Sam to face up to her complicity and culpability in not only the origins of the kidnapping but in two decades' worth of death and destruction.

    For the first time in the whole series, Melody goes for a soft touch. She tells Sam about the organized crime rings beyond the Mahabirs, the secret bank accounts that fund their operations, and the routing numbers that could help take them down — routing numbers that Sam is familiar with, because she used them 20 years ago to bribe officials in Guyana as part of the Colony at Essequibo project.

    Sam is nothing if not loaded up with plausible deniability, so Melody lays out the whole interconnected way of the world: corrupt Guyanese officials like Savitri's late husband, Ranwell, were bribed by foreign developers (like Sam and her father) to rewrite zoning laws and move people off their land in order to pave the way for American business ventures. One such man Ranwell Mahabir tried to strongarm off his land was Chef Jeff's chess pal Clarence Joseph (Ted Sod), whose son was kidnapped by Mahabir and ultimately murdered in a park not far from Joseph's home at 1:11 AM. If that all sounds familiar, it's because those are the same details of the plot to kidnap Sam's son, because Clarence Joseph was the one who planned it along with Willoughby.

    That's the mystery of Full Circle, unraveled at last. It was the enigmatic chess man from Washington Square Park all along. If this were a show about figuring out who was behind this plot, surely some Redditor would have had this sussed out weeks ago. But that wasn’t Full Circle’s primary concern.

    The black-magic curse-lifting circle was always going to be something of a Macguffin, but as it turns out, so was the whole kidnapping plot. Sure, it unearthed Derek as Nicky's (Lucian Zanes) father and set Melody on her quest to connect the dots and nail the McCuskers' privileged behinds to the wall. Yes, folks like Manny and Aked (Jharrel Jerome) and Garmen ended up dead, the latest collateral damage we can chalk up to American capitalism. But the real reveal requires Melody to get Sam to own up to her own part, however small, in this greater tale of predation and harm.

    What happens next is even more surprising: Melody is successful. Sam agrees to own up to her part in the Series A bribes in Guyana, provide the FBI with the routing numbers to help them nail these criminal organizations, and probably face some prison time (unless she's very fortunate, which people who look like her often are).

    So much of the charm of Full Circle was that it was always just slightly off of the expected rhythms of the crime drama. The criminal plot itself was always a little janky, not quite bumbling but a far cry from the well-oiled criminal operations we often see in shows like this. Then there were the McCuskers, whose peculiarities went beyond Chef Jeff's French braid. The way those family secrets and resentments were untwisted felt idiosyncratic, even silly. You kept waiting for Chef Jeff's frustrated-doofus act to give way to something more calculating, but he was mostly just a putz.

    Other moments might have felt superfluous in a more typical series. That small scene of Kristin (Suzanne Savoy) and Aunt Cindy (Kristin Griffith) having a drink in the backyard and unpacking the last 20 years didn't need to exist for plot reasons, but it gave everyone (including the audience) the chance to breathe and to see these people as a real family, not just stand-ins for the show's themes.

    Melody herself was a fabulously destabilizing element, so immediately confrontational with suspects and victims alike, so willing to throw an elbow just because. Her relentlessness when it came to Sam was jarring at first. Soderbergh and Solomon played with the audience's sympathy for Sam throughout the series. She was the mother of a kidnapped child, but wait — it wasn’t her child. She was targeted by this criminal family, and suddenly this cop (er, Postal Inspector) gives her a hard time because her apartment is too nice? Soderbergh seems very aware that Sam's whiteness, beauty, and wealth are as advantageous in the world of the show as they are with viewers. White ones, anyway. On top of being the show's protagonist, Melody is a strong reminder that not everyone automatically sees a rich white woman with tears in her eyes and information she's withholding as inherently sympathetic.

    Indeed, it's Melody's doggedness when it comes to Sam that actually gets results. Manny tried to play hero by chasing Garmen down an alley and got himself killed. The FBI raided Savitri Mahabir's home and hit a dead end. It's Melody's perseverance that ultimately gets Sam to a place where she has to face herself and the consequences of her actions. Sam's not going to do it on her own. The kidnapping story didn't have a chance to make the news. Sam was well on her way to resuming her life and keeping all her family's secrets, letting the dirty business that Chef Jeff's culinary empire grew out of stay buried in the ground. Melody forces the issue, and Sam, quite surprisingly, meets her halfway.

    The Big Mystery approach to drama series has been favored by many recent HBO shows, everything from Mare of Easttown to The White Lotus. There's an argument to be made that taking that approach is what separates good shows from TV events (even a mediocre show like The Undoing had people watching the finale live to learn who the killer was). But at the same time, it's become harder and harder for these shows to actually surprise audiences who've gotten savvier and have seemingly endless free time to spin out an infinite number of scenarios, at least one of which is bound to be the one that actually happens.

    Full Circle never asked its audience to solve the mystery. The margins of its story were too ragged, and the truths at the heart of its plot were too incidental (Clarence Joseph) or too technical (routing numbers!) to work as a whodunit, or even a whydunit. As he did in Traffic, Soderbergh is able to make a compelling and idiosyncratic drama that, at its core, is about people who choose to accept the benefits of a corrupt system and those who reject them in favor of something more just.

    Full Circle is available to stream on Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Full Circle , Claire Danes, Ed Solomon, Steven Soderbergh, Zazie Beetz