In its first season, the title of FX’s Mr. Inbetween suggested several things. The first was the niche its main character, Ray Shoesmith (played by the show’s creator, Scott Ryan), has carved out for himself providing violent, often lethal, solutions to other people’s problems. The second was the show’s careful perching on the line between drama and comedy, with each compact, under-30-minute episode mixing wry humor with much darker material. The third was the way that Ryan couldn’t seem to decide whether he was celebrating or condemning Ray’s behavior. On the whole, that first batch of episodes was entertaining but slight.
The Australian-produced Mr. Inbetween nearly doubled in length for its second season (which concluded Thursday night), jumping from six episodes to 11. Its ambition and sense of self increased even more than that, transforming the show from a well-crafted diversion into something much deeper and darker.
Season Two began in roughly the same tonal space as Season One, mixing stories of Ray beating or killing people for money with ones where he played dad to Brittany (Chika Yasumura), went on dates with Ally (Brooke Satchwell), and cared for his brother Bruce (Nicholas Cassim) through Bruce’s struggles with ALS. Ray was, as before, a badass whose unflappable demeanor was used as much for comedy — like him refusing to answer police questions, up to and including why he refuses to answer police questions — as for action. Slowly but surely, though, Ryan and director Nash Edgerton began raising specific questions about just how much the audience should be rooting for this guy, and broader ones about the impact violence has on the people who administer and witness it as much as on its direct victims.
The season’s chilling fourth installment, “Monsters,” finds Ray’s vigilante services engaged by a man who wants closure before he dies on his young daughter’s long-ago abduction and probable murder. Ray tortures a confession out of a suspect the cops couldn’t find enough evidence against back in the day, and the killer leads Ray and the father to an abandoned railway tunnel, where all we see of the girl’s remains is the suitcase in which he hid them. This should play like the show pointing out an instance where Ray’s violent behavior is for the social good, but it doesn’t. The old man looks as if, in hindsight, he’d rather have gone to his grave not seeing the contents of that suitcase. The ninth episode, “Socks Are Important,” finds an uncharacteristically frantic Ray searching for the daughter of a friend after she’s kidnapped from the store where Ray brought her and Brittany. He eventually tracks her down to the home base of some more monsters, who sell kids to child molesters — the episode ending with Ray pushing them into their own secret dungeon to give them what they deserve. But his rage-fueled behavior throughout the search is so reckless and wide-ranging, it winds up driving a wedge between him and Brittany, and between him and his boss Freddy (Damon Herriman).
Ray continues to attend court-mandated anger management support meetings. While he’s incapable of having a breakthrough, the season increasingly suggests the hurt he causes extends far beyond child molesters and deadbeats who owe money to guys like Freddy. The relationship with Ally ends after he hurls her brother through a sliding glass door at a family holiday party, all because the guy took a present meant for Brittany in a gift-swapping game. Ray tries to defend his actions, but Ally isn’t having it. She has no idea how Ray really makes a living, but has a lot of unfortunate romantic history with violent men who mistakenly think they have their behavior under control, and her verbal dressing-down of the title character is the closest the lean and spare Mr. Inbetween lets itself get to a mission statement.
Ryan and Edgerton are very careful about how much and in what context they’ll show Ray plying his trade. “Monsters” and “Socks Are Important” both end before Ray goes to work on their respective evildoers, so that we’re not placed in a position to be cheering him on. (The torture scene in “Monsters” goes on for a bit, but because the suspect is so old — and it’s not clear until the very end that he’s the killer — it’s not at all triumphant.) The action scenes that tend to play out at length involve Ray going up against fellow goons, sometimes in slapstick fashion, sometimes more brutally, like the one-on-one brawl to the death in the woods that unfolds midway through the season’s penultimate episode.
Ray carries himself like he thinks he’s a fundamentally decent guy who only brings pain to those who deserve it. He obviously cares about Brittany, Ally, his buddy Gary (Justin Rosniak), and Bruce. But in conversations like the one with Ally, or with a reporter looking to write about contract killers, it’s clear just how much willful self-denial is lurking underneath that angular skull of his. He’s not as hypocritical as TV’s most famous bald antihero, Walter White, but Mr. Inbetween Season Two thoroughly and often rivetingly deconstructed the lies he tells himself and others.
The season ends with Ray and Bruce in the wreckage of their childhood home, swapping stories of harsh parental discipline. Bruce has grown increasingly eager to escape the prison his body has become, and has finally talked Ray into helping him. Before Ray administers the fatal injection, then burns the whole accursed place down around his brother’s fresh corpse, Bruce first mentions a science book he once read. It taught him that all humans are made of matter, and also that matter can neither be created nor destroyed.
“We cannot cease to exist,” Bruce says, kindly trying to make Ray feel less guilty about euthanizing him. “We can only transform.”
Ray thinks about this, then smiles, and asks, “So nobody dies?” It’s like a weight has been momentarily lifted — not just about what he’s on the verge of doing to his brother, but about the ruthless life he’s built for himself on the deaths of others. But even as he smiles, Ray knows it’s bullshit. Bruce will still be as dead as the child molesters, the bikers who came after Ray, and everyone else he’s taken gun, knife, or fist to across a long and nasty existence. In this case, it’s clearly what Bruce wants. But even as the season concludes on Ray doing a good deed by killing a man, it doesn’t seem heroic.
A few scenes earlier, Bruce spends what he knows will be his final afternoon with his niece, reading Shakespeare together and letting Brittany paint his nails. He hugs her goodbye for much longer than she expects, because she believes she’ll be seeing him the following weekend. Over the course of the season, Ray’s actions cost this sweet girl her dog (killed during a botched hit on Ray), a caring adult friend in Ally, and finally her beloved uncle. Thus far, she’s made it through life surprisingly well-adjusted, but it’s not hard to think about what we’ve seen Ray do, and heard people like Ally and the journalist say to him, and imagine her becoming emotional collateral damage to it all.
A third season has yet to be ordered. Ray cathartically pouring gasoline all over his parents’ house wouldn’t be a bad note to end on, and it feels like Ryan said a lot of what he wanted and needed to say about the character over the course of these 11 episodes. But the huge improvement from an already solid first season to this tremendous second one has me wondering if Mr. Inbetween has another big leap in it — or if spending even more time in Ray Shoesmith’s world might force Ryan, and us, to start empathizing too much with this very dangerous man.