“Is this the last episode?” my wife asked midway through part four of Show Me a Hero, and at the point she asked, it was a totally reasonable question. After all, Mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) had just been defeated in his run for his second term, a clear casualty of the ugly fight over public housing placement in Yonkers, New York that had defined the campaign. (In all fairness, what kinda Democratic candidate trots out a loaded phrase like “silent majority”? Read a book, Nicky!) “I need an honest job,” he shrugs, after the first results come in on election night, not long before a wise journalist—always plenty of those on hand in a David Simon joint—drops the Fitzgerald quote that gives the series its title. And it seems as though he’s going to find one, at least briefly. From a writing standpoint, it’s an interesting structural move: to hit what seems a total dead end midway through hour four, barely halfway into the series.
Of course, there’s much more to Show Me a Hero than Nick, even if he were out of the fight—and it’s clear by the end of the episode, as he’s giddily visiting construction sites and announcing, “If I win this, I’m running for mayor again,” that he’s not. But if parts three and four of the show make one thing clear, it’s that while Wasicsko may be our entry point, he is but one of its many moving parts.
Part three focuses on the city governance elements set up in the inaugural installments: Courtroom dealings, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, middle-of-the-night phone calls. But it also becomes clear that Nick’s realized he can’t play the middle on this thing; with his increasingly firm pleas to the council, his draining patience with the jeering and near-riotous white residents, and analysis like “They’re lost balls in tall grass,” he knows this is a ship he’ll have to go down with—at his own peril, as is made clear by the very real danger and fear inside that rocking, knocking car, during what is less an exit from the final vote than a getaway.
But, title notwithstanding, few of these characters can be defined by such simple classifications as heroes or villains. Yes, sure, Alfred Molina’s Spallone is a villain, a cynical panderer sorely lacking anything resembling a moral compass, but the other “no” votes are written and played with at least some sympathy; they’re trying to do what’s their constituents want them to do. And, for that matter, we’re not lulled into assurances that their fears about the crime and drugs that run rampant in the projects are totally unfounded; the intimidating, wordless scene in the elevator near the top of part four is but the most effective of those moments.
But just as glimpses of humanity peek out from behind the ideologies of those council members, or of Catherine Keener’s Mary (her reasonable question, “What are we trying to accomplish?”, hints at a turnabout that’s one of the series’ few entirely predictable elements), match the complexity given to the handful of project denizens whose stories fill out these episodes. The fall of widowed mother Doreen (Natalie Paul) into addiction is gingerly choreographed, a reminder that not everyone who fucks up sets out to do so. Her story is a well-balanced contrast to Alma (Ilfenesh Hadera), who attempts to simply keep her head down, work as hard as she can to support her family, and assume the rest will take care of itself. And the quiet dignity of Norma (LaTanya Richardson-Jackson) not only gives us a window into the least-mentioned members of such communities, the elderly and/or infirmed; it’s through her outspoken friend that a key theme reveals itself. “They don’t want us livin’ over there,” she says of the all-white rabble-rousers at the council meetings. “But they don’t know us.”
Throughout the series thus far, Simon and co-writer William Zorzi have quietly folded in these stories, intercutting them without creating explicit interactions. Presumably those will occur at the end (it seems safe to bet most/all of them will become residents of the new public housing), but it’s admirable that we’re not seeing the kind of clean, schematic intersections typical of something like, oh, for example, Hero director Paul Haggis’s Crash. But people don’t collide like that in the real world; in the real world, these stories only intersect by co-existing. It just takes writers like these to draw the lines between them.