For fans of AMC’s addictive brand of “welcome to the dark side” storytelling, the network’s new drama Low Winter Sun has a dead-serious role to fill.
The atmospheric character study, starring Mark Strong (Zero Dark Thirty) and Lennie James (The Walking Dead) as Detroit cops bound together by murder, must ease us out of the final episodes of Breaking Bad and into a new season of The Walking Dead without letting us get too bereft about the former or too impatient for the latter. And, says James, who plays Sun’s seminary student turned morally ambiguous cop Joe Geddes, it’s just the show for the job.
“Like Breaking Bad, Low Winter Sun is built on a very simple premise,” James explains. “Breaking Bad is based on the premise of a chemistry teacher who finds out he’s dying of cancer and has very little to leave his family, so he ends up making meth, and everything springs from there. The premise of Low Winter Sun is just as simple. It’s about two cops who kill another cop and the reverberations of that killing — what that killing does to them, what it does to the officers investigating the crime and what it does to the underworld that that cop was linked to — and I have faith that our writers’ room has the ability to take our audience places that have the depth and surprise that Breaking Bad has.”
Like the 2006 British telefilm that inspired it, Low Winter Sun begins with what should be the perfect crime. Geddes convinces Strong’s Frank Agnew — a man clearly driven by the murky motivations of a broken heart — to help him kill his partner, Brendan McCann, using Agnew’s crack policing skills to disguise the death as a suicide. When internal affairs shows up at the trio’s precinct just as McCann’s body is discovered, the dead man’s connections to Detroit’s drug-saturated underworld are revealed and it quickly becomes clear that — as Geddes tells the conscience-stricken Agnew — morality isn’t black and white, but “a damn strobe light flashing back and forth all the time” for nearly everyone in this tale.
“Frank’s journey is very much a man — a very honest man and a man who is very good at his job — who is finding out how far he will go, how much he will do in order to protect himself from the crime that he’s committed. He’s about to find out how dark he can become and how dishonest,” James says. “Joe Geddes knows exactly how dark he can become and exactly how much wrong he can do, and he’s backpedaling from that. His journey is away from the dark side and Frank’s journey to a certain extent is toward the dark side. And that’s where these two men meet.”
Leaving viewers with the intriguing job of deciphering if Agnew is merely a puppet in Geddes’ game or if they’re both caught up in a much greater evil.
“That is an area of the story that is constantly on a knife’s edge,” James says. “In one episode, my character says to Frank, ‘We’re married now. This act that we’ve committed has brought us to a kind of messed-up marriage. Every conversation we have. Every move we make. Every time our paths cross, every moment of our lives — we are linked by this single act that we have to navigate.’”
James says working closely with Strong, a fellow Brit who originated the role of Frank Agnew in the U.K. version, is a treat both in terms of their shared work ethic born on the London stage and having a front-row seat as Strong reinvents the Agnew character based on the series’ pithy Detroit setting and expanded storylines.
“The British series gave us a very good kickoff, but we’re going into many different areas, which I think, for Mark, makes him feel like he’s playing a very different guy,” James says. “There are flashbacks to moments of joy in his life — Mark gets to play moments of happiness, moments of joy, moments of bliss that he never really got to develop in the character before.”
That emotional core is why the series’ showrunner Chris Mundy says Low Winter Sun isn’t so much a crime procedural as a study of morality, second chances and what drives people to make the decisions they do. His stars agree.
“Mark has used a phrase that I repeat because hopefully it makes me sound intelligent, which is that most cop shows are about solving a crime,” James says. “Low Winter Sun is about two guys trying to ‘unsolve’ a crime. And that’s what keeps it constantly bubbling and constantly fascinating.”
Low Winter Sun airs Sunday nights at 10/9pm ET/PT on AMC.