What does power look like, really? In the infinitely improved second season of Snowfall, John Singleton’s FX drama about the origins of the crack epidemic in America, power takes a multitude of forms: brute aggression, political maneuvering, financial capital, bravado. But it’s embodied most memorably in the third episode, when the furious, grieving drug dealer Kevin (Malcolm M. Mays) briefly aims his gun at his boss’s head. Franklin (Damson Idris) doesn’t flinch. He cocks his head slightly to one side and peers at Kevin quizzically, as if to say, Is this really a good idea?
The biggest issue with the first season of Snowfall was that it felt more like scene-setting for future episodes than absorbing television in its own right. Singleton’s characters—the teenage drug dealer Franklin, the Mexican gangster’s daughter Lucia (Emily Rios), the ex-wrestler Oso (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), and the disgraced CIA agent Teddy (Carter Hudson)—were all equally compelling, but the business of watching them get established seemed to delay the grist of the show’s story. Not to mention that Snowfall often struggled to convey why the sweet-natured Franklin or the pragmatic Lucia would be so desperate to get involved in the drug trade—particularly when the human cost so obviously appalled them both.
In Season 2, Snowfall no longer has to validate its characters’ ambitions quite so much, and the show is more persuasive for it. Still, there’s something missing. Set four months after the first season, the series picks up at a moment when crack is beginning to emerge on American streets, thanks to a confluence of circumstances that the first episodes detail. Franklin, who went from a kid hawking dime bags to a significant purveyor of cocaine in the first season, has figured out how to cook his product into crack, increasing both demand and his profit margins. Teddy, whose final chance at work involved an off-the-books CIA operation funding rebel Nicaraguan Contras by helping them traffic cocaine, has established networks north and south of the border. Lucia, after putting out a hit on her own uncle, has established control of the family drug business, and is aggressively pursuing its growth.
Snowfall’s historical grounding at the beginning of an American catastrophe allows Singleton to explore the structural elements that precipitated it, but it also gives the series a distorted kind of optimism at times. Each main character is deliberately myopic about the consequences of his or her actions. Lucia describes the opportunity of cashing in on a hot new drug trend as something that can empower the Mexican community; Teddy sees his clandestine work as saving the future from communism; Franklin sees how grateful his friends and family are for the wealth and jobs he’s creating. But the four new episodes made available for review spend no time with the addicts whose lives are the collateral damage, leading to a strange sense of cognitive dissonance for viewers. Seeing the story only from the perspective of dealers, at least in these early episodes, feels like a trap: We’re encouraged to enjoy the misadventures of the drug game, and deterred from thinking about its consequences.
Season 2 is at its most fascinating when it considers the concept of power, and how it’s gained and lost—but again, it focuses on the winners, at least for now. As Snowfall’s characters form new allegiances and deals, they’re constantly having to prove that they’re tougher than the people they’re engaging with, to the point where conflict and brutality can only escalate. (As one character puts it, “There are no good guys, and the only way to deal with bad guys is to be worse.”) Idris, who is Snowfall’s greatest asset, conveys greater authority and intention as his character rises, even while communicating that he’s still very much a kid. The British actor is spectacular in the role, giving Franklin endless charm but also an increasing detachment from viewers as his ambitions soar.
Teddy’s storyline, which tended to sag in Season 1, is bolstered by the addition of Jonathan Tucker as his brother, Matt, a pilot and a Vietnam vet whom Teddy conscripts to help transport his product into California. Teddy maintains that he has noble reasons for what he’s doing—“If we win this war we can change the course of history,” he tells Matt—but Hudson, for one, makes it obvious that he’s enjoying it. Rios’s Lucia doesn’t entirely exude the killer ambition that supposedly made her father anxious about promoting her, but she’s a more complex character than the stereotype of the female drug baron (this is made more obvious in a scene where she encounters another woman in her line of business). Peris-Mencheta is always fascinating to watch as Oso, bringing significant emotional intelligence to his role as hired muscle.
Despite two brutal murders toward the end of the second episode, few characters seem to have considered the cost of what they’re getting into, even though Snowfall constantly alludes to trouble ahead for the dealers. After Kevin acts out the end of Scarface, Franklin asks if Tony Montana lives. “Nah, buddy, everyone in that motherfucker die,” Kevin replies. After a robbery attempt, Franklin and his aunt Louie (Angela Lewis) discuss putting bars on their windows—a hint of how drastically their business is about to change their city. But there’s little clear sense yet of the damage Franklin’s trade is doing to his community, no challenge to the pleasure he derives from his business.
The third episode, which is written by the crime writer Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress), is a bravura melding of larger pieces coming together and smaller sequences that sing. Every character becomes involved in some kind of tussle for supremacy, whether it’s Franklin asserting his authority over his uncle after his team is challenged, Franklin’s homeless father (Kevin Carroll) facing off against the increasingly brutal LAPD, or Teddy having his mettle tested by Colombian drug lords. Altogether, it’s an episode that shows how much stronger Snowfall is with its setup established and its main elements in place. There’s no overarching mystery to establish: The value in watching the events of the show play out is in better understanding how they happened.
Still, it’s hard not to hope that in later episodes the show pays more than lip service to the people disempowered by the drug trade. Popular culture, as Josie Duffy Rice wrote in The Atlantic earlier this month, has long lionized drug dealers while sidelining or scorning their victims, the addicts. Singleton’s meticulous attention to detail—to the distinct sounds and sights of 1980s L.A., to the myriad lives coming into conflict, and to the larger forces positioning his characters—is what gives Snowfall its power. But for now at least, it’s only telling half the story.