There are times when Copper makes it difficult to remember that as the characters live out their various personal dramas, the American Civil War is still blazing away; in fact the year in which the show is set, 1864, marks some of the most significant events of the war, including General Sherman’s burning of Atlanta on his march to the sea, and the re-election of Abraham Lincoln. The war is often spoken of as the cause of past events—such as the unlikely bond it forged between Corcoran, Morehouse, and Freeman—or the reason why a bit-player single mother is without her man. Alternately, it will be referenced in speculations about the future—such as when Morehouses junior and senior discuss the impending shift in racial demographics and real estate opportunities when the war ends—and they always seem to imply that it is practically over. Untouched by directed conflict due to New York’s distance from the battle fields, the present is left to stew in its own juices.
In “The Hudson River School,” however, the war is very much in the present, encroaching swiftly on the lives of those in Five Points and the rest of New York. Although the show begins with the clumsy banter of “Elizabeth And Corky: The Morning After,” the more personal intrigue of Annie’s whereabouts dovetails with political intrigue on a national level as the city gradually tenses with each new rumor of Confederate spies in their midst. In a nod to the false feelings of safety or even complacency in his fellow New Yorkers, Robert informs his father that spies were wreaking havoc all the way up in Vermont, and are said to have a presence in several other Yankee strongholds. When business causes Morehouse to cross paths with an alleged French-Canadian with a questionable accent, he quickly realizes this man may not be what he seems. In order to find out he first gets him drunk at Miss Eva’s brothel and mentions “sweet Atlanta,” the razing of which would surely have wounded the heart of every Confederate (or fan of Gone With The Wind). Next he goes into a rather convincing diatribe against Lincoln’s politics, spouting proto-Jim Crow ideas about being separate but equal. The final step, utilizing Robert’s encyclopedic knowledge of where a gentleman can go to pay for some action, is to propose a toast to Robespierre’s, the best cathouse in Montreal. As it turns out, Morehouse made the place up to test his drinking companion’s knowledge of his supposed hometown; caught in the lie, he drops the ridiculous accent and reveals plans to burn down Manhattan.
Despite Morehouse’s generally shady, “What side is he on?” vibe throughout the season, he is in many ways the unlikely hero for this one episode, especially in contrast to a Kevin Corcoran, who seems broken by the discovery of Elizabeth’s betrayal. Morehouse cleverly uncovers a plot to burn New York to the ground while Corky is embroiled in his personal obsession with saving one young girl. He is cool and collected where Corky is “a mad dog,” staring hollow-eyed up at Elizabeth’s nude painting before cutting it to shreds and threatening its owner. The moment is satisfying but definitely depicts Corky as unhinged. Robert even gets the girl this time around; that is, the very same lying, snooty but nonetheless comely girl that Corcoran had the night before. Morehouse has always seemed distasteful not for his hedonism but for the lack of conviction beneath it, the way in which he criticizes from the sidelines. But if he steps up to commendable action, what makes him less of a complex, morally questionable hero then Kevin, who is flawed in his own ways and not half so smart?
Annie, too, is required to show courage after her abusive old husband (or father, if you ask Elizabeth) kidnaps her and chains her up in the barn of his farm Upstate. While she runs to Corky for comfort eventually, it is she who came up with the scheme to trick Ben Reilly into releasing her, the strength of mind to kill him, and the physical strength to walk all the way back to Five Points. Corcoran forcing/encouraging Annie to kill Haverford when he struggled, one leg useless, to help her break out of Countess Pompidou’s brothel in “Husbands And Fathers”—the episode that introduced the idea that, in Annie’s traumatized mind, those figures overlapped in a very disturbing way—is more meaningful in hindsight. It prepared her for the moment when she would have to kill a man again, acting totally alone. Disappointed by Eva, abandoned by Elizabeth, and ignored by Corcoran, Annie has no hero left to extricate her from her situation. She has to kill the bastard herself.
That moment of empowerment aside, however, Annie’s disturbingly adult crush on Corcoran remains intact, most likely because she feels earning his romantic and sexual desire will also ensure his protection which, though offered freely up to this point, has hardly been consistently effective. Considering her sad life experience thus far, this is a logical conflation in the interest of self preservation. By the same token, perhaps it is actually Corcoran’s refusal to see her sexually, despite her fervent urgings, that could restore her sense of safety and alter her bitter view of the world, far more than another relationship with an older man, even a consensual one, ever could.
Meanwhile it seems as though Elizabeth might be driven by the same motivations as her former ward. When married to a snake like Haverford she turned a blind eye to his crimes with all but Corky, one must assume in order to keep her societal and financial standing. In “The Hudson River School” she claims she lied to Corcoran for no real reason but it is clear that she wants to end his anxiety over Annie so he can once again focus on her. When she finds out the truth of Annie’s situation, Mrs. Haverford visits the farm on her own despite little love for the girl, not just out of a crisis of conscience but also in a desperate attempt to keep Corcoran around. She succumbs to the seduction of Morehouse, who puts in minimal effort by essentially pointing out that they are both rich so they should do it, then mildly peer pressuring her into taking opium (“All the right women are trying it”). While Elizabeth might have turned to Corcoran predominantly out of genuine affection and Morehouse out of a need for comfort, it feels as though there is something more going on here. Her erratic morals and need to find a new companion as quickly as possible could also be explained by self-preservation, knowing, as Elizabeth must, that a single woman in her position is imminently vulnerable. Ironically, Mrs. Haverford may not be so different from the girl she gave up on because the child’s behavior was so odious to her.
Even while moving beyond a model where personal stories are prioritized over historical context to the point that the latter is irrelevant, Copper is not allowing those stories to be subsumed by widening scope. The time spent with each character is relatively even in this episode, and the movement between the various storylines is smoother and more organic than usual. Between Morehouse saving the city and Annie saving herself, Maguire finds out that, like his best friend, he has been deceived by a woman. Eva fills the Madame power vacuum with upgraded digs and zingers like “I don’t care how much French perfume Miss Pompidou used to spritz around, that bitch still smelled like the New Jersey swamp she was born in”, and Matthew finds his wife is with child just as sickening illustrations of lynchings are distributed among the black population of New York. Each of these strands are either fully realized or left on such a primed note that we are eager for more. If Copper can continue to strike the balance between the world within Manhattan and the warring nation without, and to weave the many characters’ stories together in a way that neither contrives in connection nor isolates in disconnection, it could bring the wavering quality of this show to solid ground.
- Props to the hilarious title of this episode, which refers to a major American landscape painting movement, and thus the less-expensive of Mrs. Haverford’s paintings. The more expensive nude, of course, suffered a violent slashing at the hands of the copper.
- Post-coital advice from Kevin Corcoran: “A man finds himself in ironed sheets, he needs a bit of crystal with his drink.” Word.
- It was nice to see a playful and tender moment between O’Brien and his wife for once; thus far his marriage has been used primarily as comic relief, with O’Brien as the butt of jokes among his cop friends, or Mrs. O’Brien showing up to nag at high volume with a vaudevillian lack of restraint.
- The only thing creepier than Freeman telling his wife “I did a thorough examination while you were asleep,” is him following that up with a description of her bloody undergarments and tender breasts. Gee, thanks for groping my unconscious body, Marcus?
- Seeing Eva’s snarky quips and sassy ingenuity in action I wished, as I often have, that she wasn’t merely one of the many girls in love with Corcoran, and given as much time to develop independently of him as Freeman or Morehouse. Her recent admission of desire for a better life and societal acceptance, to try and climb the social ladder right out of the gutter to the very top, showed a vulnerability that makes her story engaging enough without a love interest.
- This episode left me wondering if Kevin Ryan, who plays Maguire, is the best actor on this show. The scene in which Corcoran finds the unlucky-in-love (to put it mildly) man having a psychotic break in Molly’s old room required sensitive but over-the-top stuff, and Ryan made it completely sympathetic and believable. The authenticity of his Irish accent was the cherry on top.