Roush Review: Crossing a Moral Borderline in Brutal ‘Coyote’

Michael Chiklis Coyote CBS All Access
Cate Cameron/Viacom CBS

No good deed goes unpunished in the arid moral desert of Coyote, a grueling melodrama situated on the border between the U.S. and Mexico — and, more metaphorically, on the thin line that separates civilization and chaos.

The Shield‘s Michael Chiklis is in his pugnacious element as Ben Clemens, an unhappily retired border agent who finds it hard to let his guard down after 32 years on the job. This anything-but-gentle Ben is a stickler for immigration laws until violent circumstances compel him to help a pregnant Mexican teen, on the run from abusive cartel thugs, cross into America for asylum.

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Their harrowing trek occupies the first two episodes (tautly directed by Breaking Bad‘s Michelle McLaren) of the six-episode season — shortened from the originally announced 10, as the series migrated from cable’s in-transition Paramount Network to streaming on CBS All Access. (All six episodes are available for binge-watching.) The much-debated border wall looms as both barrier and beacon as they dodge hired sicario killers in a race to freedom, while Ben learns to appreciate that this young refugee (Emy Mena as Maria Elena) is more resourceful than she appears.

Too bad for Ben, though, that this mission of mercy ends up putting his own estranged San Diego family at risk, and to save them, he must start doing the bidding of his sworn enemies. As with Bryan Cranston‘s conflicted judge in Showtime’s Your Honor, the more Ben tries to fix things, the more calamitous his situation becomes.

Coyote Season 1 Michael Chiklis

(Credit: Cate Cameron/Viacom CBS)

Coyote benefits by stronger plotting, an authentic sense of place and a more rounded portrayal of the crime family that traps Ben in their internal power struggle. Throughout, Chiklis maintains an attitude of fury, guilt and dark humor, at one point griping at his new boss, “If you’re gonna kill me, can we do it without all the hiking?”

It’s hard to imagine how long Coyote can convincingly juggle its both-sides-of-the-border intrigue, especially where Ben’s in-the-dark family is concerned. But a climactic twist introduces new elements that could add up to an even stronger second season — if there is one.

Coyote, Series Premiere, Thursday, January 7, CBS All Access