Warning: Spoilers for the finale follow.
In its second season, Animal Kingdom became more than just a fun, eye-candy-filled summer series. The show has always been a compelling family drama, but those dynamics — as well as the show’s trademark heists — reached a new high this year. The finale, “Betrayal,” brought to a close one of the show’s most major tensions (Baz finding out that Pope killed Catherine), but it revealed a new one: that Lucy has now set him up and robbed him. The series could have easily ended its second season on the “who shot Baz?” cliffhanger, but it didn’t need to. Lucy’s betrayal of Baz is just the start of the family repairing itself after a season of being ripped apart.
Lucy has been a low-key power player all season, especially after the reveal that she was involved with Marco’s kidnapping plot and seemingly running his cartel crew. Like Lady MacBeth, she’s encouraged Baz to take what is his, to challenge Smurf, and to be at odds with J (and has worked that drama from both sides). Though Animal Kingdom focuses primarily on the Cody men, it’s worth noting that they are almost always being controlled by the women in their lives. Smurf is at the forefront of that, but J usually goes along with Nicki’s ideas and schemes, defaulting to her lead on most things. Baz seeks his counsel from Lucy, and Pope was actually healing and transforming through his relationship with Amy (for a time, anyway). The exception might be Deran and Craig, but they have changed and grown a lot this year as well, with Deran’s bar forcing him to grow up, and Craig finally taking some responsibility and stepping up when it comes to planning and executing jobs (and of course they both ended up loyal to Smurf).
But for most of the season, the family in-fighting has taken centerstage. Baz squared off against Smurf, and the rest of the Codys chose sides (and changed sides, and chose sides again). It’s been thrilling to watch, but it’s also not sustainable. The family is the show. “Betrayal” ending with Baz forgiving Pope was an important moment — no matter the transgression, they stick together. At least, the brothers do. And while Baz has gained the upper hand this year, culminating in his imprisonment of Smurf, that’s about the change. Once it’s revealed that the money and valuables from the safe are gone, the boys will no doubt turn to Smurf again to set things right, since it was Baz’s misplaced trust that put it all in peril.
The other important element is that the sons are no longer free to take off and live their lives. Without that bankroll (as Deran and Craig bring up late in the episode while sitting in the bar), they won’t have the cushion they had been assured of. It keeps Baz in California, and everyone else close together as they struggle to make ends meet. With Smurf in charge, no one had to worry about being taken care of, but that has changed. And it seems more likely than ever that Deran’s hopes of going legit with the bar aren’t going to happen any time soon. (Which kills me because I am truly so proud of Deran being an adult).
This all matters because Animal Kingdom has done an exceptional job of making us genuinely care about these characters. As much as I enjoy the vicarious anxiety and excitement of their heists, it’s the show’s quietest moments that are some of its best. Those conversations — between Baz and Pope, Deran and Craig, Smurf and J, and others — are at the heart of the series. Not everything is about plot points, and Animal Kingdom has done an admirable job of making sure the characters continue to develop alongside its larger narrative (like Craig’s casual acceptance of Deran as a gay man, or Pope trying to make Baz more accountable for his daughter). It’s compelling because those characters are also so distinct and interesting. The dynamics between them and among the family are fascinating and ever-changing, and in that it feels real. Everyone wants to be free, but family means everything.
There was one other element that was brought back to the forefront in “Betrayal” that I had largely forgotten about since Season 1, and that’s the question of J’s father. I have always assumed it’s really Baz, and I still do. Smurf’s face when he asked her about it at the jail suggested that she thought his reveal about it would be something other than what it was. If J’s father was just some scummy boyfriend of Smurf’s at the time, I don’t know why she would keep that a secret. All of her children have scummy fathers, and she has surely long-ago buried any remorse for what happened to Julia. I’m fairly certain that Baz doesn’t think he’s J’s father, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Smurf knows — and I wouldn’t be surprised if she uses that to unite the family again when it suits her.
Animal Kingdom has been renewed for Season 3, so we’ll have more of the Cody family’s trials to come (as well as how Smurf will weasel her way out of jail). But for now, the show was smart to resolve the truth about Catherine’s death and test the family ties before presumably bringing the family back together to face this new, outside threat. “Betrayal” brought to light some of the show’s darkest moments, but it also has shown a way forward.