‘Black Bird’ Review: ‘WhatsHerName’ Asks Whether Happiness Is a Choice

"WhatsHerName" gives us deeper insight into the characters and creates a deep union between Jimmy and Larry.
Paul Walter Hauser, Taron Egerton
"Black Bird"
Apple TV+

Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for “Black Bird” Season 1, Episode 4, “WhatsHerName.”

Last week’s episode was all about bringing our protagonist, Jimmy (Taron Egerton), and possible serial killer, Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), together. The walls were starting to crumble, and progress was being made. But would Jimmy be able to get a confession from Larry in time, let alone with the knowledge that a prison guard wanted $10,000 from Jimmy or was threatening to blow his cover?

Weirdly enough the episode decides to table that $10,000 for another day, with the guard acting as if he’s willing to give Jimmy a pass. No doubt this could easily pop up in a subsequent episode, but considering the impact it had last week it’s jarring to have it fizzle out completely here. Instead, we’re traveling back to Wabash, Indiana and Kankakee, Illinois in the 1970s to meet the younger, (maybe?) more innocent versions of Larry and Jimmy. This episode plays on a familiar trope in pop culture: How much is our memory influenced by our current conceptions of ourselves? Where is the truth when we nostalgize everything?

In this case, it starts with an exploration of that popular Lehane theme: fathers and sons. In this case, little Larry is woken up when it’s still dark to help his father bury people in the local graveyard. Meanwhile, an adolescent Jimmy remembers his father as an encouraging, kind-hearted man who played football with him. But as the episode goes on, and Jimmy starts ruminating on his past, he starts to note the red flags. Now, considering the last three episodes Jimmy has talked a lot about his father’s failings, this sets the stage for him to look more objectively at his dad, but also….weren’t we aware of this already?

“WhatsHerName” is all about showing how different Jimmy and Larry are but, surprisingly, how much they have in common. Compared to the last episode, which had a director who knew Lehane’s style, this week’s episode feels far closer to a typical television procedural with director Jim McKay presenting two distinct color palettes when focused on Jimmy vs. Larry. Larry’s world is made up of nighttime shades, blues and grays, like the graveyard he spent time in. Jimmy sees his world in blinding color but is it a lie? This is a question we started to look at last episode: How much of Jimmy’s interactions with Larry are fueled by his own suppressed issues with women?

Taron Egerton
“Black Bird”Apple TV+

Edgerton takes a marked backseat this episode as the two younger versions of him take center stage. We see his relationship with his mother, Lynn (Kiley Casciano Davis), whom Jimmy describes as “a piece of work.” Though he remembers his dad as a man who truly loved him, the flashbacks show his father was absent much of his life, seeming to have abandoned Jimmy in his teen years. Instead, his mother remarries, causing Jimmy to feel he needs to protect her.

In his eyes, which are in doubt to the audience, his mother is a callous figure who loved her new husband more than him. It’s something Larry points out that Jimmy doesn’t necessarily disagree with. It leads Jimmy to reflect on the numerous nameless women he’s encountered (punctuated by a really great club remix of Sarah McLachlan’s “Possession” that adds another layer to the scene). It’s also worth noting that Jimmy’s mother looks very similar to the woman he was sleeping with in the pilot episode. Coincidence?

Larry tells Jimmy that “happiness is a choice” and it’s something that punctuates the entire episode. For Larry, his happiness may have started as a means of pleasing his dad — robbing the recently deceased of their jewelry, going so far as to cut off a dead man’s finger — but transforms into a “by any means necessary” mentality. He’s happy just to have liberated a stone bird off a corpse. He sees Wabash as a place that’s “just so innocent,” with its malt shops and pigtails. “We were like stuck in a time warp.”

Larry sees the goodness in this, but might have utilized that innocence as a hunting ground for himself. The fact that all of these conflicting emotions are bound up in one person reiterates that serial killers often can’t be placed in a psychological box. But for Jimmy, he had no choice but to be happy (or pretend to be). His father wasn’t going to save him and his mother was content to get through life as unscathed as possible.

Paul Walter Hauser
“Black Bird”Apple TV+

This week is really about Paul Walter Hauser, who continues to take a character like Larry and infuse him with an aura of tragedy and sincerity. The audience knows there’s something wrong; Jimmy discovers a host of porn magazines in Larry’s cell where the women’s faces are destroyed. But this episode shows Larry is far more intelligent and calculating than he’s given credit for. He starts the episode by pointing out that a storm is brewing and, boy, is it. Where last week’s genital mutilation was brutal this episode sees a full-scale prison riot that’s bloody and intense. But while Larry often seems to be in a world of his own, here he becomes a leader who organizes a full-scale clean-up of the prison cafeteria.

Larry also sees things that aren’t necessarily surface level. When Jimmy starts to recount his football success story, Larry points out how similar Jimmy sounds to Larry’s brother; “you both talk so big.” Larry’s certainly starting to see the cracks in Jimmy’s façade. Easily the episode’s highlight focuses on Larry telling Jimmy a story about the most beautiful girl Larry knew in high school. Unfortunately, she ended up breaking her neck and dying young, with Larry left to bury her in the local cemetery. If happiness is a choice, then for him it doesn’t matter who else is happy because we all die anyway. Larry’s antipathy towards women is directed at their rejecting of him, and this is another look into his psyche that’s chilling in how straightforward and weirdly logical it is.

“WhatsHerName” gives us deeper insight into our characters and creates a deep union between Jimmy and Larry. But it also feels less plot-driven than the preceding three episodes. Last week’s travels outside the prison veered towards the lackluster but by staying in Springfield the pace is slower. It’s a solid episode, but hard to triumph over what we’ve seen so far.

Grade: B-

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

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