After a Choppy Start, FX’s Snowfall has Grown into a Classic


By the close of its third season, FX’s Snowfall has matured from an uneven, dubiously-paced pot-boiler about the early 80’s crack trade in Los Angeles to an essential narrative exploring the dark side of the American Dream. Multiple factors have fed this transformation, from the masterful anchoring performances of series lead Damson Idris, Carter Hudson (Telly from Kids, no less) and Michael Hyatt as the young kingpin’s long-suffering mother, to the inclusion of the great Walter Mosely in the writer’s room, this series is a testament to what a show can do when given the room it needs to grow into itself.

When I first learned of the series in 2017, I wasn’t sure I cared to hear what it had to say about crack. After all, we are knee-deep in the throes of an opiate epidemic where, because most of the victims are white, our government suddenly sees addiction as a public health issue, and is willing to punish the entities flooding the market with product. No such consideration was given in the 80s when crack transformed neighborhoods across the country, and the CIA’s involvement in the epidemic was often swept aside as an urban legend, if not simple black paranoia. As soon as I learned that one of the principle characters on the show, Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson) was a career CIA agent tasked to raise money for an 80’s proxy war against communism, my interest was piqued.

The series handles the CIA and its activities well, showing us the nuances of plausible deniability, and how the government was able to claim its hands were clean even as its stake in the drug trade grew. The central character, Franklin Saint (Idris) is both a casualty of the government’s machinations and an actor with full agency in his own life. In this series, none of the stake-holders—not the CIA, the LAPD, or the drug kingpins themselves, escape a stark accounting of their sins—even if they delude themselves into believing events are unfolding differently.

I didn’t realize until long after I’d begun watching the series that Walter Mosely was involved from the beginning, lending his expertise as a crime fiction writer and his life experience during Harlem’s own crack explosion. In season 3 his name appears as writer for two episodes, the first of which, “Cash And Carry” takes the central character away from his South Central LA stomping grounds and out of the United States for the first time. The episode showed clearly how much Frankling had learned and grown throughout his crack-slinging career, and gave him a specific bit of leverage over another character who had held him at a disadvantage more than once. Mosely’s second episode, “The Blackout,” was the penultimate of the season. I won’t go into detail about the plot, but Mosely masterfully built the season’s plot elements into a perfect house of cards, and when the structure comes tumbling down, the tension intensifies rather than dissipates.

It’s impossible to discuss this show without noting the passing of the great John Singleton. He has left an indelible mark on cinema and television, bringing a side of the black experience to mainstream consciousness that had for too long gone unnoticed or relegated to blaxploitation. When I learned of his sudden death from a stroke at age 51, I was floored. I had naturally assumed that he would be with us at least another couple of decades, offering us gems like Boyz n the Hood, Baby Boy, and, of course, Snowfall. He may have died young, but his legacy is undeniable, and without him Snowfall couldn’t exist. I’m eagerly awaiting season 4, and I hope Mosely will return with it.