Their search takes on a new urgency once the pair, also enlisting the help of perpetually demeaned female cop Charmain (Claire Holt, fantastic), learn that Emma has joined a commune and fallen under the influence of a nasty criminal with big dreams of becoming a rock star, named Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony, menacing in the extreme). Aquarius is set two years before the Tate-LaBianca murders, but when we first meet Manson, it’s easy to find psychopathic tendencies in the way he strong-arms a gaggle of impressionable women into worshipping him not just sexually but religiously. His “love,” as the forming Manson family calls it, is a drug as tough to kick as raw heroin.
Manson isn’t the only problem Hodiak has to deal with, and it’s intriguing that neither he nor Shafe see the guy as much more than a tricked-out pimp with delusions of grandeur. Aquarius is tinged with dread – these murders are coming, and no matter what the two “hero cops” do, they’re not going to be able to prevent them. That failure hangs over every scene with Manson, who in the first few episodes forces Emma into an orgy, attempts to rape a male character at knifepoint in the bowels of a parking garage and brutally assaults a man who tries to prevent him from carrying out one of his many “missions” to further his ambitions. This is one bad dude – but to Hodiak and Shafe, he’s just another punk riding the coattails of the ’60s.
That’s not the only troubling aspect of Aquarius. As political demonstrations garner increasing support, with police treatment of black men and women galvanizing civilians to protest and occasional violence, it seems like the city itself is turning against Hodiak and his fellow cops. The show raises questions about the changing culture of the decade – homophobia, sexism, racism and elitism runs rampant in the police department, though Aquarius eyes those aspects of its time period as leftovers from a different era, more outdated by the day. In one of the most frustrating and disturbing scenes in the show, Charmain is forced to perform oral sex on one of Manson’s menacing cronies in order to maintain her cover – it’s easy and probably correct to condemn the show for putting its lone self-possessed female character in that situation, though the moment (thankfully) isn’t played for eroticism in any way.
The series is also guilty of softening its messages by letting Hodiak off the hook. For a cop in his time, he’s oddly open to new ideas, and it feels a little off whenever he quietly supports gay men, protects an interracial couple or pushes Charmain to prove herself just as capable as the rest of the officers. Bigotry is an oft-used plot device – but Aquarius perhaps regrettably places itself outside of its chosen era in how it limits the employment of that then-systematic issue.
For the most part, though, Aquarius proves itself an exceptional period procedural, especially when its narrative picks up steam in later episodes. It’s not going to be the compulsively consumed TV addiction of the summer that NBC has tried to position it as, and that execs seem to want it to be that begs the question of whether they understand the genuine strengths of creator John McNamara (Prime Suspect) has delivered. Aquarius is most compelling in terms of its performances, particularly those of Duchovny, Holt and Anthony, and in terms of its convincing, sinister visualization of the ’60s. Watching all three performers excel against the rich, involving and tension-fraught backdrop of LA in the Summer of Love is a singularly groovy pleasure you won’t find anywhere else on television.
There's some formulaic stuff here, but watching Duchovny play a Marlowe-esque cop navigating the Summer of Love is a singularly groovy and engrossing pleasure.