‘Aquarius’ Season 2 Finale- Helter Skelter Coming Down Fast

Aquarius - Season 2

On the Season 2 finale of “Aquarius,” we got two episodes back-to-back, as seems to be the wont of many summer shows this season, from “Zoo” and “American Gothic” earlier this week, to Sunday’s “BrainDead” and Wednesday’s “Mr. Robot” finales coming soon.

I suppose it makes sense, as it allows shows to sustain a certain amount of forward momentum, though in the case of “Aquarius,” we already knew that the season was likely building up to the initial Manson murders as a climax, so it ultimately wasn’t that surprising, really.

That’s not really a criticism- we all knew that the murders were where this was headed even before they set it up that way at the beginning of the season, though I suppose, in doing so, the show likely hoped to keep viewers watching by proving to them that the big moment many were waiting patiently for (or not so patiently, in some cases) was coming up soon enough.

Aquarius - Season 2

Alas, I’m not sure it was enough, as the ratings for the show haven’t been great, directly resulting in the show being shuffled off to Saturdays- never a great sign. Of course, NBC did the same thing to the show last season, and it still got renewed, so you never know.

However, it does seem unlikely that, no matter how much the network was willing to give such a high-profile show with a reasonably well-known cast an even break the first time around, it would be inclined to do so a second time around. So, this may well be it for the show, making it as much a series finale as a season one.

Of course, these days, that may not mean as much, given how unconventional the routes to success for some shows is, what with online streaming and other services, such as Netflix and Amazon providing alternate ways to find an audience. Factor in the fact that this show has not been inclined to play by the rules from the jump, and you never know- this may not be the end after all.

Aquarius - Season 2

In case you don’t know, for the first season, the show was offered up online in its entirety after the initial network premiere- and what’s more, there was an uncensored, more “adult” version available that never would have been able to make the grade on network television.

This indicates that the show may well have been prepared for the possibility of shifting to another source from the get-go, and wanted to show other networks, as well as the likes of Netflix, that it was willing to take chances and push the boundaries, especially if given more leeway insofar as that goes.

Hell, as it stands, the show got away with a lot more than showing the notorious murders in fairly graphic detail- there was also all sorts of other stuff both shown and implicated that would have been unthinkable on network TV even a mere few years ago. For instance, implied orgies/group sex, rampant drug use of all varieties, and even some homosexual activity, both in terms of women and men.

Aquarius - Season 2

Indeed, some of that sort of thing might have arguably been the problem for the show’s perhaps intended audience, those old enough to remember the time in which the murders took place. By seeking to appeal to younger audiences by being edgier than the average network show, ironically “Aquarius” might have run off the built-in audience they already were attracting.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you- I’m one of those younger viewers who weren’t even alive when the Manson murders happened. If anything, I actually really appreciated that the show wasn’t afraid to push boundaries- I kind of found that refreshing, in fact. Least of all for a network not exactly known for such things.

So, credit where credit’s due to NBC for at the very least taking the risk, and what’s more, being committed enough to give the show a second season to prove itself, in hopes that it might catch on with viewers who discovered it after the initial airing, be it via online streaming or otherwise.

Aquarius - Season 2

Of course, at least part of that might be wanting to maintain a good working relationship with star David Duchovny, who also executive produced and even directed one half of tonight’s two-episode finale. After all, it was his name you saw, front and center, at the beginning of every show, during the eye-catching title sequence.

By giving the show a second chance at success, it stands to benefit in the future on down the line, even if NBC does cancel the show, as they could always given him another stab at something else later on. If anything, the highly-successful “X-Files” revival earlier this year proves that he still has the command to draw an audience with the right projects.

Yes, granted, that was “The X-Files,” which had a cult following before most people even knew who Duchovny was, but let’s give the man his due: “Californication” ran for seven seasons, and he was undeniably the main draw in that case. He’s earned the right to have his name above that title, for sure.

Aquarius - Season 2

He definitely doesn’t have anything to be ashamed of here, that’s for sure. Not only was his work strong throughout the series, it was undeniably one of the best roles he’s ever had, even including those other two iconic series. It may not have the numbers of those shows, but it might well have another thing in common with “X-Files”- the potential for a cult following, no pun intended.

Indeed, this show has dark horse written all over it. Forgoing the usual approach to the Manson material, it combined truth with fiction throughout in a clever, engaging way that maintained your interest even when Manson wasn’t front and center in a given storyline.

For instance, this season saw several main subplots at the forefront: there was the ongoing storyline about the Black Panther movement and the one about detective/undercover cop Brain Shafe (Grey Damon, in a strong, should-have-been star-making performance) and how the two intersected in logical ways, given that Shafe’s wife, Kristen (Milauna Jackson) was black and involved in both the Panthers and with a white man in a time where such things weren’t as readily accepted.

Aquarius - Season 2

I liked the way Kristen’s ongoing association with the Panthers put a strain on the marriage, while at the same time, Shafe proved his own worst enemy by getting wrapped up in drugs while undercover, which proved to not be his first rodeo, as we found out this season when it was revealed that he’d first gotten involved with the drug during the war- and that Kristen knew it and married him anyway.

All of that was fascinating to me, and extremely well-written, plotted and conceived, as well as impeccably acted by all concerned. Even the way Duchovny’s character reacted to and interacted with the Panthers was really interesting, as well as his fellow law enforcement officials, hewing close to the climate of the times while allowing for different strokes for different folks, as it were.

For a show that’s ostensibly about the Manson murders, that’s pretty impressive. Of course, in some ways, the murders were beside the point. “Aquarius” is not really about the murders so much as it was about the way the times fostered the murders in the first place.

Aquarius - Season 2

After all, we’re talking about a time in which not only was the captain of the Black Panthers movement killed, as seen this season on the show, but also within the decade itself: the President, John F. Kennedy; his brother Robert; and the Reverend Martin Luther King- all strong leaders who sought to curb racial injustice and sought equality and fair treatment for all.

The disillusionment people must have felt as a direct result of this undoubtedly led to the rise of radical movements like the Panthers, as well the collegiate likes of the Weather Underground, also featured this season.

Just as crucially, it led to the rise of cults, which splintered the formerly free-loving, free-living hippie movement and turned them into something darker and nastier- and even dangerous, as seen with the Manson Family.

Aquarius - Season 2

Further, through the eyes of Charmain Tully (Claire Holt), we saw the way women were often treated, even by those who were seemingly in support of them, such as Sam’s attitude towards her, which was equal parts in favor of her fair treatment and verging on outright sexism itself (i.e. his half-joking demands for her to get him some coffee).

These are two things which would seem at odds with one another, but which no doubt co-existed on an everyday basis for women in general- but especially women like Tully, who sought to elevate themselves into something more than, say, a housewife or a secretary or the like. (“Masters of Sex” also does a fine job of exploring this sort of thing.)

All of these things combined make for a captivating backdrop for a story most of us have seen told many times over, whether in the original “Helter Skelter” TV-movie or the more recent remake, or even over on Lifetime, of all places, which tackled “Manson’s Lost Girls.”

Aquarius - Season 2

Factor in a small army of books and more than a few movies, fictionalized (i.e. Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects,” which featured the infamous Tex Watson quote also heard in the finale: “I’m the Devil, and I’m here to do the Devil’s work.”) or otherwise (“Manson,” “The Manson Murders”), and to say it’s well-tread material is putting it mildly.

By recontextualizing the Manson family and the murders within the time in which they happened and what was going on during that time, “Aquarius” ambitiously seeks to explain how something like that could have happened in the first place- and indeed, how it might have been inevitable. That’s pretty heady stuff for a network series, but “Aquarius” rises to the occasion more often than not.

As someone who has read a few of the books about the subject, and seen quite a few movies/TV adaptations and documentaries, it was interesting to see how the show integrated fiction within the non-fiction, and if it didn’t always work, it at least made for something one couldn’t predict as to how it was going to turn out.

Aquarius - Season 2

For instance, some of the more “case of the week”-oriented material didn’t work much at all, so it was a relief when the show essentially bailed on that sort of thing in favor of more across-the-board long-term storylines and cases that were ongoing and not wrapped up in an episode or two, such as the serial killer case Sam was dealing with, which came to a head in the final episode.

I thought that the whole serial killer thing was well-handled, and done in a way that wasn’t as predictable as it could have been, from Sam’s tracking down the killer via good, old-fashioned police work to his “Heat”-like meeting with the killer in a diner as he was closing in on the guy.

Of course, Sam’s hubris cost him in the end- or, at the very least, it cost him both his girlfriend (a wonderful, sexy Olivia Taylor Dudley, recruited from writer/producer Sera Gamble’s other show, “The Magicians”) and her ill-fated sister. If the show continues, it will be interesting to see where Sam goes from here, and if he learns anything from his experiences, or just continues doing things business as usual, consequences be damned.

Aquarius - Season 2

Likewise, Shafe seems destined for an even bigger fall that the one he’s already had, between shooting up at a murder scene (technically at TWO murder scenes, actually!) and almost doing it at work, no less. I guess essentially losing his wife and nearly causing the death of Tully and her alike only made things worse, rather than sending him back to rehab where he belonged. Oh well.

As for the whole Manson thing, though intriguing at first, given some of the new wrinkles at hand (i.e. incorporating his now well-documented bisexuality, or at least his use of sex to manipulate others; the more gradual evolution of the “family” and its inevitable disintegration), honestly, there were a lot of times it was the least interesting thing going on in a given show.

There were even times when Manson and his ilk felt a bit like unwelcome interlopers on the very show that seemingly revolved around them, if I’m being honest. Sort of like a “Yeah, yeah, yeah, Manson’s still crazy and talking nonsense- can we get back to the other stuff now, please?” kind of reaction, you know?

Aquarius - Season 2

But I think that just comes from over-familiarity, as I mentioned. Whenever the Manson stuff was dealt with in a way that was more reflective of the other stuff going on, it typically worked more for me than when it stuck more to the facts.

For instance, it makes more sense that a jailed Manson would embrace fascism and Hitler and emboss a swastika on his head when you discover that, like Hitler before him, he was failed artist, albeit of the musical variety, rather than the painting kind.

It’s well-known that he famously interacted with and befriended Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, for example, but it was downright engaging to see him feel like an outsider at his own shindig at Wilson’s parties or fly into a jealous rage like a petulant child when the attention wasn’t all focused on him like he wanted it to be.

Aquarius - Season 2

If anything, it shows how Manson was more pathetic than anything else. Note, for example, that he rarely got his hands dirty for real, opting instead to get others to do his dirty work for him, almost as if he didn’t have the stomach for it. Granted, he did kill Ken (Brian F. O’Byrne), who saw, all too late, how far off the deep end Manson was- but that actually never happened IRL.

In reality, Manson was more like an inept General sending off his troops to get a job done that he wasn’t capable of doing himself. And if they didn’t do it to his liking…well, then, you better believe he threw a fit about it, to the point of going back after the fact to a freaking crime scene to make sure the details were to his liking after the “hard part” was already done. Moron.

By exposing the weak underbelly of Manson, “Aquarius” actually does his victims justice, despite some of their protests, by way of exposing what a sad excuse of a human being this guy really was (and is, no doubt).

Aquarius - Season 2

For far too long we’ve seen the things he did practically glorified by so-called “fans,” and in some cases, be the subject of near-hero worship, despite how horrific what he did was. Not so here. This is not someone that anyone in their right mind would want to follow, and indeed, at times, it’s hard to understand how anyone would- at least without all the drugs and sex he was plying them with.

It’s a testament then, to the solid writing and especially the performance by Gethin Anthony, of “Game of Thrones” fame, that you simultaneously understand how someone could buy into it and are able to distinguish where the more alluring qualities of Manson part ways with sanity and propel themselves right into madness.

By showing us the context of all this, “Aquarius” shows how the paranoia of race relations brought to a boil, coupled with the dark side of the free-love movement and the consequences of living “off the grid” can lead to the ugly side of American life, resulting in murder, mayhem and rampant destruction of family values.

Aquarius - Season 2

As such, even if the ratings aren’t that great, bless NBC for at least allowing such an ambitious show to exist and taking a chance on letting it tell the story their way, despite it not being for everyone by very virtue of that approach.

Rather than going the easy, exploitative route, “Aquarius” is aiming higher, and if it doesn’t always succeed…hey, at least they’re trying something different. I can live with that. And if it has to end here- well, at least they did it on their own terms. There’s something to be said for that.

Aquarius - Season 2

What did you think of the season finale of “Aquarius”? How about the season as a whole? Did it work for you? Did you think it was an improvement over the first season? Would you like to see more? Would you still watch if the show switched networks or went over to something like Netflix or Amazon? What was the most compelling aspect of the series for you? Sound off down below, and thanks for reading!