Apple TV+’s newest limited series Black Bird hits its stride in a strong third installment.
Prison guards and hound undercover informer Jimmy Keene as he tries to get close to suspected serial killer Larry Hall. McCauley and Miller search for harder evidence as time slips away from them. And outside prison walls, Big Jim is in a bind that affects little Jim.
Black Bird It still has a little ways to go to be truly great, but so far this is a promising look at guys at the end of their ropes looking for a way out of very bad circumstances that they brought on themselves.
Black Bird recap: ‘Hand to Mouth’
Season 1, episode 3: In this week’s episode, titled “Hand to Mouth,” Jimmy Keene (played by Taron Egerton) finishes his first week inside the prison. Now he just needs to settle into life at Springfield penitentiary. His first interaction with Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser) is a nonstarter, but he doesn’t lose hope just yet that he can get close to the killer. The prison psychiatrist (Christopher B. Duncan) and some of the guards know he’s in there, trying to get a confession out of Larry.
Detective Brian Miller (Greg Kinnear) is less optimism. He tried everything back in the day to get Larry to open up. But Larry learned to keep mum about his criminal behavior, thanks to local police telling him they liked him for serial murders, and his brother Gary (Jake McLaughlin) and his lawyer telling him to shut up.
Detective Lauren McCauley (Sepideh Moafi), who put Jimmy inside the first time, wants to go over every inch of Larry’s case file in the meantime. Miller humors her because he isn’t satisfied with the idea of Larry getting out again. But he’s also not sure it’s worth it.
Strong stuff between father and son
After his stroke, Jimmy’s dad Big Jim Keene (Ray Liotta) finally tracked down his son inside the new prison. Big Jim’s dying, and his son’s safety is the only thing that gives him something to get excited about. The trouble is, Jimmy’s alibi didn’t include having a dad, let alone a dad who’s a cop.
Their scene together is just stunning, with Liotta welling up, realizing he outed his son to the guards. One of the guards, Carter (Joe Williamson), realizes he can squeeze Jimmy to keep his secrets so the mob element in the prison doesn’t kill him. He wants 10 grand. However, the only way Jimmy can get $10,000 is if he makes his dying old man rob his old house to find drugs and bring them to him in jail, at which point he’ll sell it to a prison gang.
Simple stuff, eh?
Cozying up to a killer
Jimmy eventually finds a way in with Larry when he finds out he likes to watch TV in his spare time. Jimmy beats the hell out of a guy who comes in and changes the channel. He gets a little time in solitary confinement for it, but it’s worth it because Larry finally opens up to him.
Their talk soon turns dark like Jimmy needs it to, and he barely keeps up when Larry starts talking about sleeping with girls … without their consent. Jimmy starts trying to ingratiate himself to Larry by talking about his own bad behavior. The best part of the scene is that we don’t know if Jimmy’s making up the story he tells about holding a girl’s mouth shut in a basement.
We know Jimmy’s a bad guy. But is he that kind of a bad guy?
And as if all that isn’t bad enough, Jimmy’s got one more thing to worry about. When McCauley shows up during visiting hours in disguise as Jimmy’s girlfriend, she makes it clear there’s a pretty good chance they’re not gonna get Larry for this case. Which means Jimmy will have to serve the rest of his sentence.
Looks like he’s going to have to solve all of his problems on the inside, because he’s not gonna sit in prison for 10 years while Larry goes free.
Ray Liotta’s last big role
Actor Ray Liotta died earlier this year after four decades of great work on the screen. His career was never what it should have been, considering his enormous talent, his live-wire charisma, his fearlessness. Liotta could be a terrifying menace or a vulnerable little man, and he could switch between those two modes with the blink of an eye.
So to see him in Black Birdone of his final performances, being so affecting, so truly heartbreaking, is a gift for which I’m very grateful.
Liotta is a showstopper here but he’s far from the only great performer. Egerton is slowly shaping up, thanks to the good company he’s keeping, but Hauser is too magnetic for him to look great. Just the way Hauser looks around, and bugs his eyes out occasionally, is truly terrifying.
Greg Kinnear is still solid, but Sepideh Moafi is funny. She’s really awkward and stilted in her scenes with Egerton, but when she’s with Kinnear she’s natural and great. I can’t tell how much of the voice she’s doing is suppressing an accent or character choices, but I guess it doesn’t really matter. Everyone’s at least going with the flow.
Mogwai’s music makes Black Bird sparkle
Quick note about the music in Black Bird. It’s by the Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, which once was primed to be the next Godspeed You! Black Emperor but got a little softer than the task demanded. So Mogwai switched over to scoring, which suited the band better.
I saw Mogwai once at the short-lived Curiosa Festival. Martin Bulloch set fire to his drum kit after the band’s set, which was one of the more punk rock things I’ve ever seen. The players turn in some great work here — unemphatic, serving the scene instead of themselves. The show becomes very good and can dig into its texture and setting when Mogwai’s key-heavy score kicks in, simmering under Hauser’s performance notes.
Watch Blackbird on Apple TV+
New episodes of Black Bird arrive every Friday on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.