Thursday, February 20, 2020

For Life 1x01 Review: "Pilot" (From Inmate to Lawyer) [Contributor: Thomas]

Original Airdate: February 11, 2020

After finishing The Good Place, I was searching for a new show to watch. As a fan of 50 Cent’s transition into film, I heard about his moves with the STARZ network and his production company, G-Unit Film and Television. This is how I first found out about this new series on ABC, For Life.

The story is loosely based on the story of Isaac Wright Jr., a man who was falsely imprisoned and became a lawyer while incarcerated. This series’ main character is Aaron Wallace. He is imprisoned with a life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. He has spent the last nine years incarcerated and is shown entering the courtroom where he was charged — but this time no longer powerless.

British actor Nicholas Pinnock brings a Denzel-esque performance to the role where, as a viewer, you understand the gravity of the situation. He has a raspy voice and it’s believable that this man has done almost a decade inside the pen. Wallace is shown suited up and entering in the courtroom with a purpose. What I enjoy about this opening moment in the series is it shows the difference between the prosecutor and the defendant. Wallace is a lawyer and, as prison rep, he is helping his fellow inmates like Jose Rodriguez. We can see he cares about the people he represents, as he’s shown greeting Rodriguez’s grandmother as they enter the court.

The prosecutor, in contrast, has been handed this case last minute as a favor for a friend and is not concerned about the outcome, even telling the person on the phone to “order the drinks, give me 30 and I’ll meet you there.” Dez O’Reilly served under Glen Maskins before he was District Attorney for New York. Now as Assistant District Attorney himself, O’Reilly is surprised to see the opposing council is a person he put away nearly a decade ago. O’Reilly and Maskins took Aaron's life and freedom away from him and being a lawyer is how he proves his worth and fights back.

In a Sorkin-style “walk and talk,” Maskins and O’Reilly are befuddled how Aaron was even in that courtroom. This is a vehicle to understand Wallace’s journey from inmate to lawyer: He worked for the paralegal association, representing other inmates he also gained degrees from online. Wallace found a loophole and took the Vermont bar, which is the only state where you’re allowed to “sit for the bar exam with a degree from an unaccredited law school.” From there, he applied to have his license accepted in New York where he is currently housed. We learn there’s a “morality test” and as, a convicted drug dealer, Aaron had to have someone who advocated for him. This sponsor was a former colleague of Maskins, Henry Roswell, who's a retired state senator and former public defender.

The first case for Aaron Wallace is Jose Rodriguez, who’s sentenced to 20 years for rape and attempted murder. Allegedly, the girl he was with OD’d on pills that he gave her; but the drug dealer changed his story and Judge Tanaka is looking at each lawyer’s case to determine if a retrial is necessary.

In the prison we find out Aaron Wallace’s motivation. He’s a complex character; he’s not just being prison rep because it’s a good thing to do. Instead it’s a way to protect himself inside, and being a lawyer is the way Aaron sees to get out of this prison. His goal is go at the D.A., case by case, bit by bit proving that Maskins is unjust and that they “worked” him over. Ideally if all falls right, he’ll be able to go back home to his family.

As Wallace’s narration says at the beginning: “I was just like you,” and spoke of having a family, businesses and friends. Under the RICO law, he’s imprisoned and taken away from his wife, Marie, played by Get Rich or Die Trying’s Joy Bryant, and his daughter Jasmine, played by Tyla Harris.

There’s a scene between Aaron and Marie in the visiting room. As Marie is entering, you can see prison doesn’t just affect the incarcerated but those who love and care for them. There’s crying from children and arguments between visitor and inmate. This all sets the scene for what follows: life doesn’t stop when you’re on the inside. Jasmine, first shown as a little girl during the opening monologue, is prepping for her SATs according to Marie.Aaron still has to sign her report card, and that gives reason to why Marie is there. You can see she cares for him; she brings him ties to wear for when he stands in front of the court as a lawyer. But there’s some obvious tension that explodes when he sees Jazz’s grades. Marie feels that the pressure is on her for Jasmine to succeed, while Aaron believes Darius — Marie's new boyfriend — is too soft on Jasmine. But when confronted, Marie tells Aaron that she’d throw Darius out “if you came back home; but you’re not 'cause you’re locked for life.”

This is a hard scene to watch. There’s conversation about how Aaron denied a plea — that instead of being locked up for life, he could’ve seen outside in the next three years. Aaron tries to reminisce and is remorseful about not being home with his family. It’s too much for Marie to stand, and she leaves as he calls after her.

This show is great because it doesn't just show the prisoners' lives but the warden's as well. Safiya Masry is the warden who is shown as someone who cares. She’s married to Anya Harrison, who is Brooklyn’s District Attorney. Played by Indira Varma, Masry is immediately thrown into the action when she joins the guards after there is a fight in the prison. She isn’t worried about guards who don’t like her reforms; when she learns one quit that morning, she feels they’re better without him. Captain Foster, played by Glenn Fleshler of HBO’s Barry, objects and feels Masry is moving too fast with changes. Masry comes back with facts: violence is down 34%, suicide attempts are cut in half and drug usage has also dropped.

It’s refreshing seeing Masry as a warden who is about change and not just words; she wants to be among the people walking the yard and fostering a relationship with Aaron Wallace. Speaking of, on the yard we see prison politics at play. The neo-Nazis seek the favor of Aaron Wallace for Joey Knox’s release. This is antithetical to his community where Bobby and his best friend Jamal reside. The leader of the Nazis threatens to spread malicious rumors about the warden and Aaron if he doesn’t help.

Jose Rodriguez got his retrial. I really like that this show has both the prison element and the judicial element. We, as the audience, get to see both sides. And there’s an element of humanity in these moments where we see both Rodriguez and Wallace in civilian clothes, showing that inmates aren’t just property of the state but are still people with personalities, hopes, and dreams. Rodriguez is shown on the stand telling the judge his side of the story: there was an age gap in the relationship between himself and Molly Davidson, but her parents looked down on him because of where he was from. Molly came from privilege, and he was in a household of poverty.

For Life demonstrates that Aaron is still learning as a lawyer. He explains that because of the age gap in New York, once Rodriguez turned 18 years old it would be considered statutory rape, which explains that charge from earlier in the episode. But his point about the legality in other states is rightly objected because their laws don’t apply in this case.

There’s a distinction between these lawyers at play. For O’Reilly, this is just another case and — as he told Maskins — he believes he’ll run circles around Aaron. But for Aaron, this is the first case to help prove his point that the New York judicial system and, by extension the district attorney Glen Maskins, is crooked.

I didn’t expect what happened next. In response to Aaron going at Maskins in the press, somehow Maskins and O’Reilly got to Aaron's witnesses. The drug dealer, who sold the drugs to Molly, is now a part of an undercover case so he can’t testify. Officer Dawkins, who saw the suicide note, recanted his story. Aaron explodes after learning this development of events. Judge Tanaka threatens that he is close to contempt of court and could possibly lose his license if the outburst escalates.

Though defeated, Aaron explained to Rodriguez that he will never find another lawyer more motivated than him.

This is proven when Aaron uses Wild Bill’s forgery expert to manufacture an identical note to the original one written by Molly six years ago. He hoped this would prove her state of mind, and that Rodriguez is innocent which led to Molly being called to the stand. Filled with guilt, Molly then confesses after reading the words of the suicide note she wrote on the day of her overdose.

Aaron Wallace wins his first case as a lawyer and Jose Rodriguez is set free.

No good deed goes unpunished though. The neo-Nazis helped in this case is in exchange for Aaron representing Joey Knox, and petition for his freedom from solitary confinement.

For Life is enthralling and complicated with twists, turns, and interpersonal relationships. I’m excited to see where this show is going and agree with executive producer 50 Cent, who believes that by the second season, For Life will be the highest rated drama on ABC.

Quotes and Favorite Moments:
  • "I use to be just like you. I had a life I loved. I had a family and a home. I owned a business. I paid my taxes. I had my friends. Some of them were kinda friends you’d be better off without, maybe I should’ve known. The powers that be came down of me, So here I am now, nine years late. For the first time back in the same courthouse where they came to take my life away. Except today. No matter what anybody thinks about me, about who I am and about how I got here, today I’ve got a way to fight back. You can be damn sure that’s what I’m gonna do."
  • Most famously known as Wee-Bey from HBO’s hit series The Wire Hassan Johnson plays Bobby, a fellow inmate and friend of both Aaron and Jamal. It was a pleasant surprise, and I genuinely smiled every time I saw him. I like to imagine this is an alternative reality where Wee-Bey was transferred from Baltimore and is serving his life sentence in New York.
  • After Wallace went after Maskins in the press, Masry warns he was being foolish and that it threatens their relationship. Instead of risking Maskins making a fuss and going to the press about Anya and Masry’s marriage being a conflict of interest with Masry allowing Wallace to be prison rep, she recommends he wins the cases he has.
This review was originally posted at ELVNTWNTYSVN.


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