The last two episodes of Show Me a Hero were both invigorating and depressing, as the housing actually gets built and the lives of the families in the projects rise, and Nick’s (Oscar Issac) star begins to twinkle. His name has become political poison, and the Democratic Party isn’t behind him when he wants to run for mayor again, with his nomination for a JFK Profiles in Courage Award in hand. The new pick is Terry Zaleski (Daniel Sauli), a fresh-faced and ambitious politician who sees the mayoralty as a stepping stone to Albany and Washington, but little else. Nick decides to run for councilman in a different district, and wins a close battle, but can’t take being second banana (or worse) to the new mayor. Zaleski has it comparatively easy; the housing crisis has been mostly accepted, even though a pipe bomb damaged one of the buildings, and Jack O’Toole (Stephen Gevedon) keeps fighting the war.
Even Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener) has moved on. HUD has sent a consultant to organize transition assistants to help the families chosen to live in the new townhouses fit into their new neighborhood, and that consultant, Bob Mayhawk (Clarke Peters, who played Lester Freamon on The Wire) knows what he’s doing. He asks for names of residents who fought the housing, and goes recruiting. When he visits Mary’s house, he’s polite without being patronizing; she serves coffee and cake, and he carefully wipes the crumbs from her coffee table onto a napkin. Once he has his team together, the story shifts to focus on them, and their important role in the modest success that Yonkers became. The camera is sympathetic of Mary’s fears; she’s one of the few whites in the group, and when Mayhawk compares a neighborhood to a watering hole on the African veldt, it looks as though she might bolt from the room. But she sticks with it, and by visiting the families who applied for the townhome lottery, she sees what they are trying to escape. Instead of cementing her fears, it helps blossom her empathy. She sees they have more in common than not, that they are just like any other people trying to raise a good family.
The transition doesn’t go smoothly for everyone. Carmen (Ilfenesh Hadera) and her children don’t make the lottery, but her niece does; they get to watch her move in, and she gets mugged at the projects after work, bringing home gifts to them. Nick goes to watch the lottery, which is run like a Bingo game, but this victory, for which he sacrificed so much, is not enough to satisfy him. He wants back in the game, and he’s tired of taking Zaleski’s scraps. He plays political football with his wife Nay’s position at the parking authority, and she loses her job. The Democrats respond by gerrymandering his district to be majority Hispanic, and running a Latino councilman against him in the primary. He’s a nobody again, but instead of teaching, or hanging up a shingle as a lawyer, he mopes at home and connives ways to run again, even though as a 2-time loser he knows his chances are slim.
Doreen (Natalie Paul) turns a new leaf and becomes a Tenant Representative at her building, and finds she excels at being a community organizer. Norma’s (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) health deteriorates, and her friend Pat Williams (Patricia R. Floyd) talks her into applying for a townhome; as a legally blind applicant, she’s at the top of the list. Billie (Dominique Fishback) has the most trouble; Johnny is in jail again, and she applies for the lottery alone. The transition consulting isn’t all roses, either; the applicants have to endure a long lecture on what violations can get them evicted, down to condescending demonstrations on how to properly tie a garbage bag, and the warning that a “Neighborhood Watch” will be keeping an eye on them. Doreen stands up and asks, “Will the residents get a lecture on how to be good neighbors? And will the Watch be watching them, too?”
When they move in, the neighbors line up to give dirty looks and stares, and Mary stares right back. She’s had time to get to know her people, and the Jack O’Tooles, who say “they live like animals” embarrass her.
Nick was the strongest part of the early episodes, but his downward spiral is harder to watch. By age 34, politics has burned him out. Seeing Zaleski get credit for his work galls him so much that he betrays his last friend, Vinnie Restiano (Winona Ryder) and runs against her, in a pathetic campaign he must know he’ll lose. While the new townhome tenants deal with their own obstacles—racist epithets hurled from cars, neighbors who dump trash on their lawns and don’t clean up their dog mess, and the new-found, terrifying silence of the evening, which when you’ve lived in a noisy part of town, begins to feel like a scene in a horror movie. There’s a cute scene between Doreen’s son and a snooty lady with three poodles that has just enough edge. We don’t know if she’ll soften or be cruel, or if the dogs will bite. It’s played perfectly well. Not so well is when Nick stops by the townhomes to introduce himself as man who sacrificed his career so they would happen. Only Norma recalls him. “You’re the man they spit on.”
There’s a crisis when Johnny gets out of jail, only briefly, only to fall further. He becomes a symbol of the residents’ fears, and drags Billie down with him. Nick descends into paranoia and while Carmen and her children get good news and start moving in, he falls into a pit of despair he can see no way out of. The scenes at the cemetery come together; they’ve all been this one day, Nick’s last, under the withering gaze of his father’s ghost. We get a final roll worthy of a last episode of a season of The Wire, with where-are-they-nows, played over Nick’s funeral. He was 34 years old. The show, and the book it was based on, stand to inform us of his legacy; an issue we’re still fighting over. As a story, it was informative and never boring, like a brief spinoff of the show David Simon is best known for. Perhaps it is diminished in comparison to The Wire, but it sure beat this season of True Detective. It told a more complex story, with at least as many characters, in two fewer episodes, with no flashy action or sex to keep our interest piqued. Watch and learn.
Thomas Pluck is the author of the World War II action thriller Blade of Dishonor, Steel Heart: 10 Tales of Crime and Suspense, and Hot Rod Heart: A Noir Novelette. He is also the editor of the anthology Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT and hosts Noir at the Bar in Manhattan. His work has appeared in The Utne Reader, PANK Magazine, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Hardboiled, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Crimespree, and numerous anthologies, including Dark City Lights, edited by Lawrence Block. You can find him online and on Twitter as @thomaspluck.
Read all of Thomas Pluck's articles for Criminal Element.