‘Aquarius’ Season 2 Premiere Review: This is the Dawning…

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On the commercial-free (!), two-hour premiere of “Aquarius,” the show finally waded into more familiar waters with a series of flash-forwards to that infamous night of August 9th, 1969, when a group of Manson’s followers besieged a house being rented by actress Sharon Tate and her director husband Roman Polanski and killed everyone present at the time, in the aptly-titled “Helter Skelter.”

However, the bulk of the episode was devoted to the year before the famed crime, going back approximately sixteen months earlier, as the series of events that led to the murders were set into motion, as we met key players like Patricia “Patty” Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty, “The Fosters”) and Charles “Tex” Watson (Cameron Deane Stewart, “Pitch Perfect”), as well as fringe players like Beach Boy Dennis Wilson (Andy Favreau, “What’s Your Number?”).

Picking up where we left off last season, Detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny) continues to be investigated by Agent Ron Kellaher (Tim Griffin, “Wayward Pines”) from Internal Affairs, after a witness comes forward claiming that a shooting that earned Hodiak a Medal of Valor was unwarranted, implying that he was a dirty cop in the process.

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We later find out that Ron has an axe to grind against Sam because he once had a fling with Ron’s wife, which he resents him for, and that the witness in question is a fellow cop, who Sam puts the fear of God into by threatening if he talks to anyone. This would seem to have taken care of Hodiak’s problems- for now.

Meanwhile, Sam gets a seemingly innocuous delivery via an envelope with a photo of a pin-up girl type, which is followed in short order by one featuring seemingly the same girl, only apparently dead.

The girl is later identified as Tina by the high school jacket she is wearing, and is followed by a picture of another girl, Donna, whose estranged husband just so happened to have gone to the same high school as Tina, though he claims to have no idea where Donna is or who Tina is. That’s all we get on this particular plot development in the premiere, so we’ll have to wait and see how all this pans out.

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Sam does, however, solve another case involving the stabbing of a young woman on the roof of an apartment building, which proves to be the superintendent’s ne’er-do-well son, though it’s actually co-worker and friend Brian Shafe (Grey Damon, “Twisted”) that elicits the confession by appealing to the young man’s daddy issues at Hodiak’s suggestion.

Shafe himself finagles a promotion to detective in the process, also at Sam’s behest, who agrees to dinner with newly-promoted Captain Ed Cutler (Chance Kelly, “Power”) in exchange for it, though, given how terribly it goes, I’m guessing he regrets that move.

The reason being, Sam invites mistress Grace Karn (Michaela McManus, “Necessary Roughness”) instead of his estranged wife, Opal (Jodi Harris, “Project X”), much to Ed’s own wife Jeannie’s chagrin, who expected the latter. Though Jeannie may have the last laugh, as it looks like Sam and Grace have gone their separate ways by the end of the episode…maybe.

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Speaking of Opal, she also has an unpleasant run-in with Grace when she catches her over at Sam’s when she comes calling about their son Walt (Chris Sheffield, “The Last Ship”). It seems Walt came up empty when trying to sell his story to a newspaper- any newspaper. None of them have the guts to go near it, fearing the repercussions of the US military, which leaves Walt still in jail, though the charges of treason are dropped, at least.

Sam comes up with another gambit that might help him out if it works, when he gets wind of a drug dealer that is allegedly a former US military Captain that is smuggling heroin in deceased soldiers’ coffins, which would be a huge scandal if leaked to the press. Sam hopes to leverage this into freedom for his son altogether, but first he has to find the person in question.

This development is tied into a case that Brian is working on, with ties to Manson’s right-hand man Roy Kovic (David Meunier, “Justified”), involving a drug runner named Guapo (Lolo Sebastian, “Chop Shop”). Brian is working undercover in tandem with fellow officer Charmain (Claire Holt, “The Originals”), who goes the extra mile to embed herself with Kovic by sleeping with him.

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Unfortunately, despite her efforts to smooth things over between Kovic and Brian, who he still distrusts, it doesn’t stop Roy from trying to set up Brian at a meet with Guapo and the head honcho of the operation, the aforementioned military man, as yet unseen. Charmain gets wind that the deal may go south and tips off Brian, who narrowly avoids being one of the many victims laid low by the mystery man, including Guapo himself.

Also of note is the fact that Brian’s wife, Kristin (Milauna Jackson, “Strike Back”), has embedded herself in with the burgeoning Black Panther movement, who don’t take kindly to her being married to a cop- much less a white one, no doubt. Count on this to get ugly before it gets better- if it gets better.

As it stands, Kristin clearly has her doubts about the effectiveness of the police, particularly when it comes to African-Americans, and she’s not wrong to, especially at the time, though one could argue that the more things change… but that’s a discussion for another article, so I digress.

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Getting back to the main focus of the series, Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony, “Game of Thrones”) runs afoul of newcomer Ralph Church (Omar J. Dorsey, “Ray Donovan”), a former prisonmate of Manson’s who reportedly “taught him everything he knows”- at least according to Church.

Naturally, upon his release, he wants in on Manson’s action, and then some. Clearly wanting to take over altogether, Church almost immediately starts causing waves, intimidating Manson and trying to sleep with the girls at the compound- when not eating his food and suggesting he start pimping the girls out.

This does not go over well with Manson’s “family,” particularly Sadie (Ambyr Childers, also of “Ray Donovan”), who Church takes the most interest in. At first it seems like Manson is too cowed by the massive Church to do anything, but it turns out, he does indeed have a short-term plan.

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Using new recruit Patty, who he and the girls met while dumpster diving behind a local supermarket and convinced to quit and join the commune, he tells her to cook dinner for Church and his gang- but only them, taking special care to note that the food is only for Church and company and the girls are not to touch it.

The implication he gives Patty is that he doesn’t want them eating the same thing as the black men, which is plausible, given his obvious disdain for African-Americans in general and Church in particular, but naturally, Manson has other reasons.

As we eventually discover, he’s been slowly poisoning Church and his men, who all collapse and die after a certain point, thus taking care of Manson’s “little problem” and avoiding a messy shoot-out between his followers and Church’s in the process. Patty isn’t thrilled to be used as a pawn, but as we see in the flashforwards, she certainly comes around to it.

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Patty also comes in handy in getting her and Grace’s daughter, Emma (Emma Dumont, “Bunheads”) an invite to friend-of-a-friend Dennis Wilson’s big shindig one night, where the girls end up hooking up with the famed drummer. (Fun fact: Wilson was the only Beach Boy that surfed, ironically enough. Less fun fact: he also went on to drown years later.)

Emma raves about the experience to Manson, who wastes no time in insinuating himself into the proceedings, accompanying the girls to Wilson’s one day and meeting the man himself. Though at first awed by the famous personality- Manson even bows to him upon their first meeting, which reportedly really happened- he later becomes fast friends with the easy-going hippie.

Eventually, Manson opens up to Wilson and after initially being too scared to play his music for him, finally caves and does so after the help of some psychedelics and a pep talk from Wilson. As we know from history, Wilson will later introduce Manson to a producer friend to lay down some tracks, one Terry Melcher, who just so happens to own the mansion Sharon Tate (Amanda Brooks, “Mistresses”) later rents out with her husband, unfortunately for her.

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I think that about brings us up to speed, save the revelation that Grace’s estranged husband, Ken (Brían F. O’Byrne, “The Last Ship”) is apparently going to get away with the attempt he made on the life of attorney Hal (Spencer Garrett, “The Magicians”), who somehow managed to escape Ken after he shot him and crawl down the hillside to safety below, where he was discovered by some motorists passing by.

Ken’s father-in-law takes care of the mess by attributing the attack to a group of hippies and even getting a comment from President Nixon himself. Before Hal wakes up and even knows it, the matter is in the paper and all but covered up cleanly, forcing him to either keep his mouth shut or face even worse consequences that he won’t be crawling away from this time.

In exchange, though, Grace’s father basically owns Ken- and has let him know in no uncertain terms that he expects the two to get back together and work things out, which may be the real reason Grace breaks up with Sam. It will interesting to see how Ken behaves himself, as we already know his tastes tend to run towards the same sex.

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That was about it, but it was plenty. It was cool of NBC to run this commercial-free, and it really went a look way towards making it feel like a feature film, albeit one with no real ending. Still, it allowed us to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that we would be getting to the famous murders in due time, which many were disappointed weren’t even on the radar last season.

Personally, I didn’t mind it so much, as that story has been told so many times before as it is, but I will allow that they would be pressing their luck if they dragged things out too much longer. “Aquarius” may have been just successful enough to eke out a second season, but they might not get another if they drag things out too much.

By showing us that things are slowly-but-surely headed towards their inevitable conclusion, it gives the viewer something to cling to, in knowing that yes, we’ll get there soon enough if we’re patient. By giving us a few tantalizing glimpses of the horror to come, the showrunners no doubt hope to ensure viewers will stay tuned in the meantime.

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I, for one, am in, and it really has nothing to do with that, which, like I said, we’ve all seen many times before. I’m more interested in the who and why we got there, and “Aquarius” aims to do that for us in a different way than we’ve seen before, which is exciting.

While they may play a bit loose with the facts here and there, overall, the show feels authentic and true to the way things likely went down, more or less. You can see how, with a little help from the drugs that were prevalent at the time, Manson might have used that to his advantage to seduce and sweet-talk others into doing his bidding, as well as literally get away with murder- at least for a time.

Note the scene with “Tex” and “Sadie” as well, where she peer pressures him into taking acid after the easy-going, seemingly nice fellow says he doesn’t do that, as it veers him a little too uncomfortably close to his dark side. Naturally, we would get all too acquainted with that side when he terrorized Tate and company around a year later. (“I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s business,” he says, in one of the more infamous quotes of all time.)

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It’s fascinating to see how a normal, all-American guy transforms into a cold-blooded psychotic killer- to say nothing of how psychos breed psychos, as evidenced by Sadie- and this season, we’re going to get to see that in detail, which is alone worth watching, I think, as it also shows how such things can be prevented. Sometimes it really does boil down to hanging out with the wrong crowd and the worst of circumstances.

The same certainly holds true for Patty, Emma and some of the other girls swept up in the madness of Manson. It will likewise be interesting to see how they got from nice, girl-next-door types to raving lunatics. This season aims to show us, and I think it will be truly intriguing, thanks to solid writing and an excellent cast of old hands and interesting newcomers.

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What did you think of the premiere? Will you, too, be watching this season? Do you also find the events leading up to the murders to be fascinating, or do you wish they’d hurry up already and get to it? Should they have even “teased” the murders in the first place?

What true-life events and people would you like to see incorporated into the series? What do you think of the cast? Anything in particular you’re looking forward to? Sound off down below, and I’ll check in with the show later in the season!