‘Snowfall’ Season 3 Begins to Focus on the Human Toll of the Drug Game 

It’s the summer of 1984 as the third season of FX’s “Snowfall” begins, and the tension is rising in this unique saga. Characters are beginning to face moral reckonings and the flip side to the justifications for their actions. Rising kingpin Franklin Saint (Damson Idris) has killed friends and more, while helping facilitate a CIA scheme to traffic cocaine in order to fund the right-wing Contras in Nicaragua. But with a rise in prominence comes the inevitable arrival of new foes. Franklin has to ask himself if he’s willing to turn the neighborhoods he claims to empower into war zones.

The season premiere, “Protect and Swerve,” opens poignantly enough with Officer Andre Wright (Marcus Henderson) coming across a crack addict lighting up in broad daylight in the middle of a Los Angeles neighborhood. It’s another sign of the unpleasant, encroaching changes taking place. Meanwhile Franklin’s ego is growing after being busted out of jail by the CIA, who need him to move drugs into the inner city so they can move weapons to counter-revolutionaries in Central America. On the surface things at time seem nice and stable. Jerome (Amin Joseph) has opened a speaker store, hoping it’s his ticket out of drug running. At the opening party it’s still a gangster’s hangout however, to the point where Andre has to have a chat with his college-bound daughter Melody (Reign Edwards) about her romantic link with Franklin. Franklin has his own distractions anyway with the appearance of a new rival, Man Boy, whose overzealous crew attempts to rob one of Franklin’s dealers. On the CIA side of the tale Teddy (Carter Hudson) needs to find better ways to get drugs into the USA to spread freedom abroad because the DEA is cracking down on his Colombian contacts. 

This will be the first season of “Snowfall” to air after the passing of director John Singleton, who was one of its creators. Fittingly the season premiere is dedicated to the late maestro. From the beginning this show has been a worthy heir to the kind of cinema Singleton pioneered with films like “Boyz n the Hood.” Visually rich in its gritty tones, written with a sparse, direct style, “Snowfall” is a gallery of intriguing character studies, framed against controversial history. It is an allegory for the dark underbelly of the American dream, with the Cold War conflicts of the 1980s used to frame what the showrunners see as the hypocrisy of the system. In this world the CIA floods L.A. streets with crack under the excuse of fighting Communism down south. But Teddy isn’t the only one using self-righteous excuses. Franklin sees himself as an example of rising out of the hood’s poverty through his chosen racket. But when others threaten to move into the turf he could care less about killing, telling Man Boy that in 24 hours the fool who tried to rob his dealers must be dead and they can even do business, if not then his rival will be wiped out. Franklin is growing darker as his influence grows, and as he begins to suspect his handlers like Teddy are not mere traffickers. Teddy himself has a quietly insightful scene where he brings his mentally haunted, former pilot of a brother home, while then sitting down with his aged father who wonders why well-off Teddy can’t be with his family more often. Teddy offers to pay for someone to take care of his father and brother, but we suspect it’s his way of coping with a guilty conscience.

The standout moment in “Protect and Swerve” comes near the end when Andre has a frank talk with Franklin, bringing him down to size. He becomes the embodiment of conscience, asking the drug runner how he can sleep at night knowing he is poisoning the community. It’s one of those scenes where we gain insight into another character while the tension builds. Andre too was once on the wrong path before cleaning up, and even if Franklin at first grins and claims he sleeps “like a baby,” Andre will make him face what he has wrought. He drops off the drug lord at a crack addict spot in the neighborhood, so the evidence becomes all too real.

This kind of writing is what continues to make “Snowfall” more than just another nostalgic 80s drug saga. Even amidst the glisten of guns and the suave demeanor of its criminals, or the spy intrigue of the CIA schemers, it never loses sight of the human consequences. No one looks particularly heroic in this show, even big, broad-shouldered Gustavo Zapata (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), who Teddy visits at a bar to try and recruit to go find disappeared underworld figure Lucia (Emily Rios). Even Jerome’s shop will be vandalized by the end of the episode. We also find out it was Claudia (Judith Scott), the ex of Leon (Isaiah John), who switched over to Man Boy and gave his people information to facilitate an attack on Franklin’s people. But it’s more sad than suspenseful, especially when we see Claudia twitching and snitching for a fix.

In “Snowfall” crime pays up to a point, then its characters must learn there is always a price to pay. This third season begins with the hustlers on the street and in the CIA learning that few things in life are free, much less power.

Snowfall” season three premieres July 10 and airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.