5 Screenwriting Takeaways: 'Your Honor' Considers the Grey Areas of Morality
January 11, 2021
Your Honor is a crime drama with incredibly high stakes that can’t help but be reminiscent of Bryan Cranston’s turn as Walter White in Breaking Bad. This time around, Cranston plays another father-with-nothing-to-lose as prominent New Orleans judge Michael Desiato. Desiato is recently widowed, after his photographer wife was shot dead in the Ninth Ward while taking pictures. On the anniversary of her death, their son Adam has an asthma attack that causes a hit-and-run after his blue Volvo careens into the brand new motorcycle of the son of the biggest mob boss in the city, and Desiato soon finds himself breaking the law to protect Adam from the grim consequences of inadvertently killing the son of a big-time criminal.
It’s a brilliant set-up and there are many great takeaways from playwright Peter Moffat, who adapted the Israeli show for Showtime. Here are 5 screenwriting takeaways from Your Honor.
1. Stakes Upon Stakes. Moffat clearly lives by the writer’s creed throw everything in but the kitchen sink, and leave no ideas on the table. Your Honor’s motto could easily be Murphy’s Law — whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, especially when your lies become bigger than you. As Cranston’s character tries to do everything in his power to protect his son, the stakes seem to rise by the minute and it soon becomes clear that Michael and his son Adam are on the Titanic with no life raft. The stakes are the hook of the show in this case. One tunes in simply to see what else could possibly be thrown at Michael and Adam next. When Michael asks an old friend to help make his Volvo disappear, his friend provides a fall guy for the crime. When that fall guy ends up dead, and the car is quickly tracked back to Michael, Michael’s web of lies soon starts to unravel. Meanwhile, Adam’s guilt causes him to constantly tempt fate and the viewer knows that lies can only provide a buoy for so long. While some of the impossible stakes seem inevitable, it is the writer’s trick to make them all believable. Your Honor often succeeds in large part due to the talent of Cranston; one shouldn’t be rooting for the man using his judicial power to break the law, but one also understands why he does it. In a round table discussion on the series, some of the actors described the show as the ultimate “what would you do if…” Moffat plays this game again and again, masterfully and incessantly reminding the viewer almost no decision is truly just black and white.
2. Political Commentary. Moffat often touches on race, inequality and white privilege in Your Honor. Adam’s fall guy is a poor Black kid from the Lower Ninth whose mother Desiato recently helped escape a faulty drug charge in court. Moffat draws circles around a city that puts great emphasis on where you are from. He does not hesitate to point fingers at a corrupt police force that is likely rooted in reality, as New Orleans has long been mired in scandal. What is not clear, however, is Moffat’s ultimate thesis statement here. He paints certain parts of the city as a circle of Dante’s inferno and gives little hope for escape. Perhaps that is the point? That at the current time and place of the events of Your Honor, there is little hope of escape from places like the Lower Ninth, and no one is truly on your side (even if they try to convince you otherwise). Either way, Moffat paints a city at war with itself. One can only hope that the future offers more paths leading to change.
3. Rich Setting. New Orleans is absolutely part of the story's fabric in Your Honor. Hope Davis’s character, mob wife Gina Baxter, states it best: “New Orleans is a place where everyone is connected.” One living a privileged life in the Garden District or Lakewood may not think their life is connected to someone in the Lower Ninth, but Moffat sets out to defy that thought in every which way imaginable. There is another great moment where a character poses the question, “Why are graves above ground in New Orleans? So the dead can know what you’re saying about them.” Your Honor — and the city itself — ties the dead to the living and does not allow those still alive to outrun the dead they have wronged.
4. Crime Drama Tropes. Your Honor is undeniably a crime drama at its core. It uses tropes to its advantage while sometimes subverting and updating them. There isn't a lead male detective, but there is the sexy young lawyer who used to clerk for Desiato whom he recruits to defend Kofi Jones (Lamar Johnson), the kid taking the fall for his son. The lawyer, Lee (Carmen Ejogo) is smart as a whip and doesn’t let the case drop after Kofi is killed in prison. Meanwhile, she’s falling in love with Michael, and, of course, the last person who needs to know the truth is the one Michael Desiato is falling for the hardest. There is no young rookie cop, but there’s a very good female cop in Amy Landecker’s Nancy Costello, who happens to be a little too good at her job. There is also the faceless lady in Michael and Adam’s loss. The loss of the wife and mother haunts them both, clouding the meaning in their life as both question how far they would go to save themselves. Moffat does a good job of balancing expected tropes mixed with the unexpected, while Cranston’s performance of tortured anguish keeps one watching even if crime drama experts can see some details coming.
5. The Case for Coincidence. While some writing teachers and veterans may say coincidences in writing can become predictable disasters, others say embrace it — movies and television shows were made for just that. Some even say every story can only have one coincidence. On the flip side, Your Honor makes the case for connection and coincidence, reminding us that seemingly unconnected lives can quickly become intertwined for better or worse. Additionally, if your coincidences are making life harder for your protagonist, they are often excused. Perhaps that’s why the coincidences within Your Honor almost feel rewarding for the long-haul watcher. The first coincidence is the jumping off point. Of course the most prominent judge’s son commits vehicular manslaughter with the son of the most dangerous criminal in the community. Coincidences do work well as jumping-off points, and can make great hooks as they do here. Screenwriting challenge: watch Your Honor to count the coincidences and see what feels earned and unearned.
Final Takeaway: Your Honor is a case for the power of coincidence, and the engrossing "can’t look away" drama of a terrible accident. There is also plenty to admire and study with the intricate inner workings of the dynamic and haunting city of New Orleans, that are all tied together by the power of Bryan Cranston and his ability to remain a human you root for, despite the most insanely horrific choices they are presented with and choices made in their deepest moments of desperation.
Written by: Lindsay StidhamLindsay holds an MFA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute. She has overseen two scripts from script to screen as a writer/ producer. SPOONER, starring Matthew Lillard (SLAMDANCE), and DOUCHEBAG (SUNDANCE) both released theatrically. Most recently Lindsay sold PLAY NICE starring Mary Lynn Rajskub. The series was distributed on Hulu. Recent directing endeavors include the Walla Walla premiering (and best screenplay nominated) TIL DEATH DO US PART, and the music video for Bible Belt’s Tomorrow All Today. Lindsay is currently working on an interactive romcom for the production company Effin' Funny, and a feature film script for Smarty Pants Pictures. Lindsay also currently works as an Adjunct Screenwriting Faculty member at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. You can follow her work here: https://lindsaystidham.onfabrik.com/