For anyone that forgot the strange origins of “Sneaky Pete,” Season 2 is here to remind you of what it could have been, what it is, and why it’s caught in between. Tossed out by Bryan Cranston during his 2014 Emmy acceptance speech, the term “sneaky pete” originated as the “Breaking Bad” star’s childhood nickname, but once the president of Sony TV heard it, he was transfixed. He called Cranston the day after his win and they started developing a series…
… for CBS. “Sneaky Pete” was originally shot as a pilot for broadcast television. It was shopped as a procedural where the con man would crack cases of the week, one after the other, while masquerading as a long-lost member of the family, returned home to help out during a time of need. When CBS passed, Cranston and Graham Yost reshaped the idea into a serialized story for Amazon, the show became one of the streaming service’s most-watched series, and now Season 2 is already upon us.
Yet what brought the origin story to mind while watching the second season had nothing to do with how far it’s come, but what it’s sucked back into becoming. Season 2 is a fun, smart, and thrilling string of episodes that closely mimics the feel and formula of freshman year — maybe a little too closely. It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with the new “Sneaky Pete.” Fans should be pleased, but whenever it’s about to do something unexpected, the narrative retreats into familiarity. In essence, it’s the same con as Season 1 — beat by beat — which would be more palatable if “Sneaky Pete” was still an episodic series built on repetition. It’s not, and there’s a frustrating lack of progress here.
Picking up right when Season 1 left off, Marius (Giovanni Ribisi) is kidnapped by a pair of thugs who claim Pete Murphy — the identity Marius stole from his former cellmate — owes their boss $11 million. Since they think he’s Pete (and he can’t tell them otherwise), Marius is on the hook to get it back.
Back at the real Murphy family’s residence, there are a pair of alternative problems in need of immediate attention. Audrey (Margo Martindale, amazing as always) is still shaken up after her run-in with the corrupt NYPD detective, and she’ll have to work with Taylor (Shane McRae), a local cop, to make sure no one finds out what happened to the deceased officer of the law. Meanwhile, Julia (Marin Ireland) has to launder the money she borrowed from a less-than-legal source as a means of payback for the very short-term favor.
All three of these arcs — as well as a loosely tied conflict between Otto (Peter Gerety) and a young hitman — run throughout Season 2 and effectively create tension through alternatively cute and unnerving short cons within the longer cons.
Martindale remains terrific; how she can shift from vulnerable and afraid to the one who knocks in just a few quick beats is still astounding, and though her screen time isn’t significantly expanded, her performance is so exciting it feels like she’s all over the show. Ribisi and Gerety are also top-tier — actually, in trying to note standouts after watching all 10 episodes, it’s clear the whole cast is extraordinary. Everyone gets a scene or six to strut their impressive stuff, and they make this family drama all the more compelling.
Yet even though Season 2 is focused on why Marius is so invested in this family — is it for the con or does he have real feelings for them? — it doesn’t dig into its emotional hooks enough. It takes steps toward busting things wide open, just like how the show often almost exposes a lie before miraculously going the other way, but unlike the savvy saves in day-to-day cons, with Marius it’s getting old. He needs to address the big secret, somehow, for the show to move forward.
[Editor’s Note: The following section of the review contains spoilers for “Sneaky Pete” Season 2. For those who haven’t watched, please skip to the last paragraph to remain unspoiled.]
Season 2 gets a little bit too twisted while trying to preserve Marius’ secret identity. First, he has to bust the real Pete (Ethan Embry) out of jail and then come up with reasons why he can’t go home to see his family. That’s easy enough, but then Marius has to convince Pete’s mom, Maggie (Jane Adams) to go along with the con, which seems a little too easy when it’s all said and done.
But the most troubling tease comes when Pete demands he be taken to the house to see his family or he’ll blow up Marius’ grand plan. Somehow, Pete is convinced to go while pretending to be Marius, and even though he can barely lie to them, he doesn’t crack and tell them the truth. It’s painful to watch — your heart goes out to Pete — and not easily forgotten.
That proves to be a real problem by season’s end, when the con is all taken care of and Pete ends up alone in the house with his grandmother, Audrey. There’s no reason for him to keep anything back anymore. Marius doesn’t need protection. The Murphys are all safe. When Maggie shows up to get him, even she expected Pete to tell her mom the truth. But he doesn’t. “I wanted to,” Pete says. “But with everything’s that happened, we can’t stay here now. So what’s the point of making things worse?”
That kind of argument rarely holds up to logic: This isn’t a secret that can be kept forever, and it’s never better to let someone be lied to longer than they need to be. Maggie’s sentiment is nice — that she and Pete have each other, so they can let Marius keep pretending this is his family — but they’re still letting a virtual stranger (who they don’t really trust) lie to their family and quite possibly put them in more danger.
Season 2 repeats the formula of the first, only with lower personal stakes for the lead: Marius has to pull off a series of increasingly elaborate cons to pay back a big bad (Bryan Cranston in Season 1, John Ales in Season 2) who’s threatening to kill him otherwise. Except rather than pay him back, Marius pulls off a con within a con, tricking the bad guy into thinking he gets what he wants only to keep the money for himself. In Season 1, Cranston’s Vince held Marius’ little brother hostage — and even chopped off his toe, in a gruesome, suspenseful, and memorable scene. In Season 2, we’re mainly worried about Marius (but not really, since the lead of the show isn’t going to die), but the big torture scene comes when Ales’ Luka throws acid on Joe (Desmond Harrington), one of the henchmen whom we’ve grown to kinda, sorta like. Beat by beat, the seasons match up, with little adjustments made as necessary.
Again, it all works, but it’s clear by season’s end, if not midway through, that the Murphy family needs to know who Marius really is. Thankfully, the ending at least hints that it might happen (with Julia directly asking Marius’ parole officer for her “ex-boyfriend’s” real name). If she gets an honest answer, Season 3 will be something to see. Until then, “Sneaky Pete” is still more fun than frustrating — but for how long?
“Sneaky Pete” Season 2 is streaming now on Amazon Prime.