Judge Michael Desiato (Bryan Cranston) is a good and righteous man. Showtime’s new limited series “Your Honor” wants its audience to know that upfront so that when he starts doing some very bad things, all in the name of protecting himself and his son, he will be viewed as “a damaged man [who] loses himself for a greater good,” as Cranston puts it.
Creator and showrunner Peter Moffat first introduces Michael in “Your Honor” as he is peering into a home that is clearly not his own, which may raise some eyebrows about his character. But very quickly in the premiere episode that early morning excursion is explained as being a noble act: He went to the home of a woman who was being put on trial in front of him, to determine if the police officer testifying that he saw her hide drugs inside herself could have realistically seen what he claimed from his position outside the house. That intimate glimpse into his character and his thorough nature sets up what is to come, as while Michael was working, his son Adam (Hunter Doohan) accidentally hit and killed another teenage boy with his car, and then fled the scene. Adam confesses the act to his father, who at first tells him he has to accept responsibility and turn himself in, but when they learn the victim is the son of a crime boss, Michael changes his tune — and they both change course.
“He is very honorable,” Cranston tells Variety of his character, but “in that impulsive moment he decides to use his experience as a lawyer and a judge to retroactively reverse-engineer things: [he] knows he has to lie and destroy evidence and create alibis. He suddenly has to train himself quickly and switch his mind over to being a criminal, and I found that fascinating. To manipulate your own mind to what you know from a legal standpoint and defy your morality and go against what your gut feeling is in order to save what he feels is the lesser of the evils.”
In order to prepare for the role, Cranston shares that he spent a lot of time asking people in his life how far they would go to save their child’s life. “Would you become a criminal if you felt by doing so you would save your child’s life? I haven’t met one person who’s a parent who said no,” he says. “‘OK would you destroy evidence?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Would you lie?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Would you hurt or kill another human being?’ And that’s where it ends; that’s where they go, ‘Oh god wow, no.’ And that dilemma — that moral line we all draw ourselves — that’s where Michael Desiato has [drawn it].”
However, as the case unfolds within “Your Honor,” characters will be hurt by Michael and Adam’s actions, even if that was not their intention. Michael “must maintain the original lie in order to keep his son safe so it forces him to compromise his relationships with people that he’s close to,” says Cranston. When it comes to Adam, there is a deep internal battle of self-loathing that emerges, shares Doohan.
“After the crash he’s never the same and everything in his entire life is looked at through the lens of what he did. He just can’t help it and it affects every relationship he has and every encounter, everything he tries to do and his plan for his life — his future that his dad wants him to have and he feels like he doesn’t deserve anymore,” he explains.
While sharing this lie might necessitate both Desiato men coming together, the opposite will prove to be true in many ways. “The parts that are super interesting to me are when we butt heads on what’s the right thing to do,” says Doohan. “Michael comes at it in a more intellectual way: He’s a judge, he knows what he needs to do, and he’s right if they’re going to cover it up. Adam is much more emotional and he doesn’t think he’s going to be able to do it and when it starts affecting people’s lives outside of theirs, Adam is so wracked with guilt and doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t want to keep doing this, but it’s not just his life, it’s also his dad’s life, so there’s a constant strain throughout the season that pulls them apart.”
To get inside this mindset, Doohan spoke with multiple psychologists and read “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk. “To me Adam is someone who always wants to do the right thing and he’s very gentle and vulnerable. You will see him start to really lose it sometimes and sometimes he loses it on people who don’t deserve it or don’t know where it’s coming from,” Doohan says. “The further the story goes on, Adam is cracking under the pressure.”
Part of the reason Adam is struggling is because crime boss Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg) is having his guys investigate his son’s death, which leads to other, innocent people getting sucked into the web of lies. One is Kofi (Lamar Johnson), the son of the woman Michael helped in that earlier drug-related case, but helping her family now would mean destroying his own.
“There are characters in it that are completely devoted to the justice system, as flawed as it may be at times. Does it work for everyone? No. And this show will expose that frailty, the prejudice, that it bends its knees to those who are powerful or rich or have white privilege — all of which Michael tries to use to his advantage. In that way it is reflective of our times, and the complexity of racial relations and the unjust nature of being poor, Black or Hispanic in the system and how justice has more than one scale, depending on who you are,” Cranston says.
Adds Doohan: “Our show, especially in the second episode, gets into white privilege and the imbalance of power. The reason Adam is able to get away with it is because of who he is and who his dad is. I’m really glad that Peter Moffat included that because to do a show, especially now, set in the criminal justice world that didn’t touch on white privilege or systematic racism would be incredibly irresponsible and insulting.”
“Your Honor” premieres Dec. 6 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.