‘Black Bird’ Review: Reciprocity Is the Name of the Game in ‘Hand to Mouth’

·6 min read

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Black Bird” Season 1, Episode 3, “Hand to Mouth.”]

The first two episodes of “Black Bird,” released simultaneously last week, were exposition-heavy with the setup of our two leads: drug dealer-turned-informant Jimmy Keene (Taron Egerton) and possible (?) serial killer Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser). The culmination of Episode 2, “We Are Coming, Father Abraham,” saw Jimmy and Larry physically inhabit the same space with the hard work — Jimmy cozying up to Larry to garner a new confession — just beginning.

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Episode 3, “Hand to Mouth,” continues the Lehane touch established in the first two episodes. It’s not surprising considering the director of this episode is Michael R. Roskam, who directed the 2014 feature film adaptation of Lehane’s novel, “The Drop.” Last week, Jimmy had a serious moment of weakness and contemplated backing out of the deal entirely. We understand why the first minute of this episode, when Jimmy looks back on the interactions he’s had with fellow inmates his first week. Springfield is a place of not only rampant violence, but extreme brutality on the mind. When Jimmy asks what happened to the former prisoner who inhabited his room, leaving behind faint bloodstains, the audience is treated to an extreme act of self-mutilation that sets the tone for an episode that’s never as visually graphic as this scene, yet is equally disturbing.

Egerton came out of the gate swinging in the first two episodes but now ensconced in Springfield the swagger has to be tamped down. In fact, in spite of Agent Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi) picking Jimmy because “people like him,” Jimmy isn’t able to get Larry’s attention. Egerton has to retreat into himself this episode, both to stay under the radar of the residents as well as to not look too eager to befriend Larry. The audience already knows Jimmy is there under false pretenses, but rather make that fact a Sword of Damocles throughout the entire season Episode 3 just comes out with it. Jimmy’s already worried about things going south and asks his psychiatrist — who knows why Jimmy’s there — for a way to get in touch with him. No doubt that will be tested at some point.

But it’s actually Jimmy’s well-meaning father, Big Jim Keene (Ray Liotta, who gets a loving tribute at the end of the episode), who ends up putting his son in hot water, again. Big Jim comes to visit his son as an act of love for him, to show that he supports him. Unfortunately, he doesn’t come during regular visiting hours, flashing his badge and letting the other guards know that Jimmy is a cop’s kid. The father/son dynamic in this series started out strong, but here it’s intensified to 100. Jimmy is initially mad at his dad for blowing his cover, but Big Jim feels genuinely horrible. As he says, he’s continually failed his son and this is another marker against him. Liotta and Edgerton do some fantastic acting, especially when Edgerton takes command to make Liotta’s Big Jim not feel bad. Jimmy reminds his dad that he remains proud to be “Big Jim Keene’s son,” no matter what.

“Black Bird” - Credit: Courtesy of Apple
“Black Bird” - Credit: Courtesy of Apple

Courtesy of Apple

Jimmy’s arrival in Springfield, for better or worse, is a chance to start over. Not as Jimmy Keene, Big Jim Keene’s son, but just an average criminal with no discernible privilege within the confines of Springfield. Unfortunately, shades of Jimmy’s past are everywhere. A seemingly kindhearted guard asks Jimmy to befriend a Mob boss known as Vincent Gigante. It’s unclear exactly why, but Jimmy gets a chance to slip back into his likeable former self and establish a dangerous connection that’s closer to that of Jimmy and his dad. Unfortunately, the same guard wants $10,000 from Jimmy in order not to blow his cover leading to Jimmy’s realization that his friends, as evidenced in the first episode, have taken all his money. Jimmy’s forced back into dealing drugs, but it’s unclear how he’ll do that.

With so much emphasis on Jimmy, it’d be easy for the other characters to slip into the background but remember, Jimmy’s entire reason for doing all this is to stay in the prison long enough to befriend Larry Hall. After a few false starts, Jimmy eventually finds a way to get Larry to speak to him, beating an inmate senseless for changing the television (Larry’s a big fan of “America’s Most Wanted”). This is the first major interaction between Edgerton and Hauser and it is fantastic. Edgerton plays Jimmy aloof, while Hauser’s Larry comes off as curious. Why would someone like Jimmy stick up for him? No doubt, the realization that Larry has a strong relationship with his brother is an entry point for Jimmy. Much like his burgeoning friendship with Gigante, Jimmy looks to find gaps in familial relationships and fill them.

He and Larry soon start to hang out, culminating with Larry showing Jimmy his “office,” the prison boiler room. This episode started out with a genital mutilation, but the cringe factor is nothing compared to Larry and Jimmy’s conversation in the boiler room. You see, where last episode Detective Miller (Greg Kinnear) was so convinced Larry was a murderer he and his team became hellbent on obtaining a confession — so much so that a typographical error forced a judge to consider it coerced — now he’s not sure. In looking back on the murder cases, Larry obtained a bizarre bottle of birth control pills from one victim, but couldn’t have actually committed the crime. Miller and MacCauley start to fear: Could they have been wrong?

Viewers aren’t 100 percent sure, but based on Larry and Jimmy’s discussion, it certainly seems like the answer is no. Larry and Jimmy soon start talking about women. In graphic terms, Larry tells Jimmy that he doesn’t believe what his brother and others claim about women’s arousal, as every woman he’s been with has been “dryer than pine bark.” When Jimmy starts discussing his own interaction with a woman from his past, and alludes to having committed an assault, Hauser does something completely haunting. His face lights up only to immediately return to being serious and demanding Jimmy complete the story. Now, is Jimmy actually admitting to assaulting a woman? Or is this for Larry’s benefit? It’s truly unclear. The audience knows Jimmy doesn’t have any lasting relationships with women. Is this part of it?

It’s this moment that Jimmy returns to when Lauren tells him they’ll get him out of Springfield when he reveals his need for $10,000. As Lauren starts to doubt Hall’s guilt Jimmy thinks of Larry’s face as he describes assaulting women and that he doesn’t care how they feel. To Jimmy, Larry is guilty. No matter what. But are Jimmy and Larry two halves of the same coin? That remains to be seen.

“Hand to Mouth” doesn’t have the same punch as the first two, mainly since McCauley and Miller’s plotline on the outside just doesn’t have the same intensity as what’s brewing between Jimmy and Larry. But the acting remains a master class, especially Hauser’s eerie performance which revels in the terror of quiet horror.

Grade: B

“Black Bird” streams every Friday on Apple TV+.

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