Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 3 of Sneaky Pete and for previous seasons. Not caught up? See our spoiler-free review of the first season.
“People remember things the way they do for a reason.”
So says Bernhardt matriarch Audrey (the wonderfully no-nonsense Margo Martindale) in Sneaky Pete Season 3, outlining the season’s exploration of whether it’s better to live in the comfort of false memories or in the truth, no matter how painful. While her husband, Otto, naively exhorts the call to top lying to one another, Audrey takes the alternate view that people are better off not knowing. As Jack Nicholson bellowed in a Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!”
We pick up straight after Season 2 – in which Julia (Marin Ireland) had discovered that her prodigal brother, Pete, was actually con artist Marius (Giovanni Ribisi, superb as ever). Just as she has a lot to lose if she blurts out the truth (Marius knows she’s responsible for smuggling a criminal across the border), Marius prefers his life as Pete to life as himself. And poor teen Carly (Libe Barer) realises she’s been lied to her entire life – her parents didn’t love each other and the car crash that killed them might not entirely have been an accident.
With Amazon announcing their cancellation of Sneaky Pete a few days ago, it’s unlikely the creative team knew the axe was going to fall. But, although the show could have gone on, this season does push its premise almost to breaking point. Just as Dexter never really recovered from his sister discovering the truth, with Julia in on the big secret, the already audacious plotting does stray dangerous close to the implausible.
It goes out very much on high, though, with a fiendish, twisty-turny plot and a cast of utterly loveable rogues. At the centre, of course, is Ribisi’s Marius – a career crim who can neither give up his old life nor that of his fake family. As his parole officer (Malcolm-Jamal Warner, excellent) insightfully puts it, “Men like you… When you get restless you turn into shitbirds.”
And it’s Marius’ struggle between his two selves that’s the focus of Season 3, represented by the two women in his life. Firstly, there’s Julia who – while not exactly law-abiding – has a moral centre. But, as Marius persuades her to come in on a con with him, he’s in danger of corrupting one of the few good things in his life. “If we’re going to do this together,” he says, “you’re going to have to sink down to my level.” On the other side of the coin is Lizzie, an uber-grifter and femme fatale Marius seemingly can’t say no to – and not just because of the sweaty sex. As the plots become entangled, we see Marius fighting, not just for the con (that is, after all, just the MacGuffin) but also for the man he wants to become.
Knitted into all this are equally compelling subplots involving the Bernhardt/Bowman clan, not least Carly pulling at the thread to uncover the dreaded truth about her mom and dad.
It’s a shame we won’t get any more Sneaky Pete but perhaps it’s for the best. Although excellent, it lacks the freshness that made its first season so much fun – the shark doesn’t quite get jumped, but it’s swimming our way. Worst of all, with the production relocating to LA, there are a few shoddy scenes in which New York is clearly green-screened in behind the actors. With all its great qualities, Sneaky Pete has run its course – better that it does what Marius never quite can: quit while it’s ahead.
Season 3 of Sneaky Pete is available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.