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“Lights Out”, “Head Games” Review

Can I give you some free advice? You know, from someone who doesn’t give a crap?

If last week’s outstanding “Crossroads” was a big budget, action packed, Hollywood blockbuster, then this week’s “Head Games” is the quiet, independent, character study.

This week is all about the participants.

Last time out, “Lights” Leary scores a sensational KO over the villainous “El Diablo” Morales. In the joyous post euphoria he reunites with the Mrs, brother Johnny and his kids. Promoter Barry Word puts ten million bucks on the table for Lights to face his rival, current champ “Death Row” Reynolds. Trainer/Dad doesn’t like the idea, believing Light’s to be slow and his reflexes dulled and that more tune up bouts are needed. Lights disagrees and they part ways as fighter and trainer.

And once again, in this current episode, the writers continue to tip their hats to the real thing.

“Head Games” begins with Lights trying to change his father’s mind. The old trainer still refuses, ultimately confessing that for the past five years – Leary’s ring inactivity – Lights has been his son, not his fighter, and it’s simply too difficult to separate the professional and the personal.

Lights offers the old, retired fighter argument of resting over the past few years, no taking punches, no wear and tear. That Reynolds has been the one taking blows, that he will be the less fresh of the two.

In a good reference to the state of the sport at present, the elder Leary counters that Reynolds isn’t wearing down, that he’s “like <Floyd> Mayweather: no one touches him now!”.

Truth be told, the reason no one “touches” Floyd Mayweather -the (arguably) current best pound-for-pound fighter in the game - is 1) he has major legal troubles and fighting isn’t at the top of his to-do list and 2) the one guy who wants to “touch” him really, really hard and often, Manny Pacquiao, has been unable to get him to sign on the dotted line.

Father/son, trainer/fighter relationships are notorious in boxing for not working. The reasons can vary: underlying personal tensions (Floyd Mayweather Sr. and Jr.). If the father was once a successful fighter himself, he may try and mold his son in his own image, regardless if the son has the requisite skills (see Smokin’ Joe Frazier and son Marvis). A knee jerk reaction to a dramatic loss can sever ties  (Shane and Jack Mosley). Financial issues can come up.

And often, the father/trainer may make mistakes in his role as the lines get blurred: stopping a fight too soon (or too late). Pushing too hard or not hard enough. Letting emotions get in the way.

The elder Leary finally confesses, “I cannot watch you take punches anymore”.

This episode also leads to the introduction of Ed Romeo: a once successful trainer who now lives in relative exile in upstate New York. Leary seeks out his services.

Eamonn Walker is a spectacular actor (see his tour de’ force as Muslim Kareem Said in HBO’s prison drama “OZ“: a powerful, passionate, commanding presence). When I heard he would be portraying Romeo, I was both thrilled to see him back on the small screen and expecting a towering, Said-like figure.

Had I not known it was indeed Walker, I may not have instantly recognized him.

A classically trained, English stage actor, his voice is totally unrecognizable as Romeo: a gruff, hoarse, whisper.

His portrayal is that of a Zen-like, eccentric Yoda-ish character who, as is often the case with such figures in literature and cinema, lives in seclusion now, in peace, wanting nothing to do with the sport that made him.

He resides at his  farm where he mentors and trains troubled kids: “I work for the county now”, he says.

It’s all well done, due mainly to Walker’s believability.

At first he resists Leary, telling him he’s not the first fighter to make the long trek seeking his services.

The main reason he is so sought after: Romeo was once the head trainer of one Richard “Death Row” Reynolds, before they themselves had an ugly split.

Eventually he of course agrees to take Leary on. And we learn over the course of the episode that Romeo fancies himself as much more than a boxing trainer, or at least that the position requires more than just barking orders and critiquing punches.

The Romeo character is seemingly a combination of real life, legendary trainers the lateCus D’Amato and trainer/HBO commentator Emanuel Steward.

D’Amato trained champions such as Floyd Patterson and Tyson. Steward runs the legendary KRONK Gym in Detroit which has produced numerous champions including Thomas Hearns.

They both acted as father figures, mentoring and bonding with their most often fatherless proteges.

The fighters would live in their homes, receive guidance and counseling, become students of the trainers philosophies. The fighter’s diet, education, disciplining, sleeping habits: all would be monitored.

Romeo returns to Bayonne with Leary. And in a rather humorous scene, when first entering the Leary’s gym, is instantly confronted by a smiling Johnny and Barry Word.

Upon seeing the promoter Word, he instantly growls get me out of here now!

He storms out, Lights apologizes and soothes him and, in what is Word’s briefest appearance thus far, we see his reputation cuts a wide swath.

Romeo also takes an instant disliking to Johnny, telling him ”the best way for us to get along, is to stay away from one another”.

Romeo is invited to stay in the Leary’s home as he evaluates Lights.

This leads to some welcome insight into the Leary household, a plot line that had been somewhat pushed to the back of the room in the past couple episodes.

Oldest daughter Ava is going to the prom and bickering with mom Theresa about the after party: Mom wants it at home or aunt Margaret’s diner, Ava wants to spend the night at a hotel in the city.

What’s curious here is that middle-girl Daniella is suddenly Ava’s biggest advocate, promoting Ava’s improved grades and extra help around the house and that she be allowed to celebrate her first prom how she wants.

Like in the last episode, we wonder what Daniella’s motive is as last we saw, she had some noticeable disdain for her big sis.

Theresa is now uber-concerned regarding Ava’s future: that she doesn’t take school seriously, that she has no hobbies and just wants to go to the mall.

“It’s as if she just wants to find some rich guy to marry” she tells Lights one night in bed.

“So what’s wrong with that?” he replies.

Could it be that Theresa herself found a “rich guy” to marry (she met Leary before he won the title, when he was on the way up and the $$$ were flowing in) and after his fortune was lost, she was lucky enough to have her career in medicine to fall back on, and that she’s concerned Ava will not be so lucky?

A very good scene takes place when Ava is readying for the prom, anxious and excited, and Theresa once again begins extolling the virtues of career and education.

It’s a good show by Catherine McCormack as Theresa and Meredith Hanger as Ava: you can truly feel Ava’s frustration due to mom’s constant harping.

In the end, she finally tells her mother right now, I just want to go have fun with my friends, that’s all.

Another interesting, refreshing element of this latest installment: for the first time in the series brief history, there’s no mention of money difficulties (lest for a brief moment when Leary is trying to use the financial windfall of the Reynolds fight to convince dad to train him). It’s nice to take a break from that plot line and focus on fighting and family.

Speaking of family, the Learys’ – Dad, Johnny and Margaret – are not at all pleased with the introduction of new guy Romeo.

Johnny as manager is concerned that Reynolds had fired Romeo and wants nothing to do with him. Margaret doesn’t like that she witnessed Romeo ordering Lights to trash the steak she’d prepared for him at the diner (“you are not eating anymore of that poison”, he tells him).

Before agreeing to train Leary, Romeo insists on a visit with former trainer Dad. When Romeo asks why he has resigned as trainer, Pops shows him  a recording of the Morales fight, once again insisting that his son’s reflexes are slow, shot.

When Romeo next sees Leary, he asks him “There was something wrong with your eye, wasn’t there?”.

Romeo could see the the real problem and dad couldn’t.

Then comes the family “intervention “: Dad, Johnny and Margaret bring Lights into the gym’s office. They are now a united front. Dad is suddenly willing to come back.

“I know about the eye. Johnny told me”, he says.

Margaret: “This is a family business, nobody can change that”.

This brings us back to an earlier scene in the diner with Leary and Romeo, when Lights was about to eat his doomed steak, and Romeo begins asking about the Leary family dynamic.

He purchased the diner for Margaret. He sent Johnny to business school. He bought his father the gym.

“How many titties do you got?”, Romeo asks him.

The Leary brood is starting to sense that the new trainer, his influence over Leary growing more and more, sees them as a distraction, if not outright hangers-on.

The question is, are they that? Are they concerned about the cash-cow or their brother/son.

Leary re buffs them, saying he likes the direction Romeo is taking him. And if you read my synopsis of “Crossroads”, you saw I made note of the growing tensions between father and son. How the eager-to-brawl Lights was becoming more and more resistant to his father’s continual preaching of boxing, slipping and moving.

“You were sick of yelling at me and I was sick of hearing it”, he tells his father.

Thus, the “direction” Romeo is taking Lights in is based in exactly what Leary wants to hear: that his father’s rigidness was a hindrance, that it made him tense in bouts, thereby by zapping his energy in later rounds.

A powerful scene shows the two standing on a rooftop. Romeo circles Leary as he shadow boxes, continually offering sage advice.

“Let it flow, let it flow” he tells the fighter (it’s reminiscent of Wil Smith’s instructions to Matt Damon in “The Legend of Bagger Vance”).

Leary is loving it, and buying it. Yet later in the episode, while reviewing a recording of the last Reynolds bout, Romeo tells Lights that while his wife and daughters are good for him – they’re “believers” –  dad, Johnny and Theresa need to go.

Leary naturally defends his family, but yet, we clearly see Romeo is getting to him.

Romeo continues to ingratiate himself into Light’s household. He wins over Theresa in both complementing her on her handling of Ava and in an early morning conversation in which he discussed his time with Reynolds, how he and his wife had taken the future champion in as a boy and loved him as their own. And how Reynolds eventually betrayed him.

“My wife died four years ago, and he didn’t even call”, he tells her.

He assures the skeptical Daniella that he will take care of her father. We see him semi intimidate  Ava’s prom date (the kid Leary had previously scared in the pilot) and snap family photos of Ava, the date and her family.

(Noticeably absent as of late is youngest daughter Katie: will she be this generation’s Chuck Cunningham???).

When Reynolds – rapidly becoming my favorite character – finally shows up at the gym one night while Romeo and Leary are training (Romeo is training him at night, to avoid Johnny, Word, Pops and others), Reynolds and Romeo exchange some cryptic words. Reynolds is there to see Lights.

I’ve stated before I wanted to see Reynolds become Light’s friend and confidant, regardless of the fact their ultimate conclusion most likely ends in destroying one another. And “Head Games” further stresses the notion.

Leary and Reynolds step outside. Lights demands to know why he’s come. Reynolds tells him of Romeo “you don’t want that dude messin’ around in your head”.

Lights dismisses him but then Reynolds presses, telling Leary to ask Romeo about “Chicago”.

What follows next is a bit confusing: Lights comes back in the gym, Romeo is first to bring up “Chicago” – apparently the last fight Romeo and Reynolds worked together. Romeo pulls up his sleeves, displaying two large scars running down each arm.

“This is life and death for me”, he tells his new student. Romeo is apparently damaged goods, so distraught over Reynolds firing him, he attempted suicide. Lights isn’t deterred.

“Let’s get to work” Romeo tells him.

Head games indeed.

“Lights Out” airs Tuesdays at 9pm  central on FX.

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