Fans of the 1860s Five Points era of New York City, thick Irish accents or detectives for whom police brutality is part of standard procedure were left disappointed this week as BBC America announced it was canceling Copper at the end of the show’s sophomore season. It’s a sad fall from grace for a show that was dubbed at the time of its renewal the highest-rated drama series in the history of the network, but found itself eclipsed in the public attention by shiny new offerings Orphan Black and Broadchurch, and was unable to recapture its footing in either ratings or conversation. Copper now winds up just one more body in the increasingly crowded and cutthroat world of television dramas, left slumped and forgotten in a back alley while the new shows drink and brawl in the busy streets.
Circumstances may have kept Copper from being the cornerstone of BBC America’s scripted drama slate, but its badge was fairly tarnished even without clone antics and moody seaside murders. In the grand scheme of things, Copper’s biggest enemy has always been itself, fittingly for a show where the majority of its characters were on a path to self-destruction they rarely cared enough to deviate from. As Phil Dyess-Nugent pointed out in his review of the season premiere, Copper has never shown an interest in being anything more than a costume police procedural, and the occasions when it’s tried to be otherwise have come across as clunky at best. The show never committed itself fully to the journey of Detective Kevin “Corky” Corcoran or his friends; it was simply interested in cycling through various obstacles and tragedies for each character without a thought to personal growth on anyone’s part.
The second season of Copper proved to be in many ways as problematic as the first. For the most part, the performances kept things on the level of engaging, but other than Corky’s continued downward slide with the loss of his wife—an arc that landed as devastatingly as the reveal of his daughter’s death last season—there was little sense that these were stories that had long-term repercussions. Various subplots—Freeman’s stymied efforts to work real social change in Five Points, his wife Sara’s tortured relationship with her mother (Alfre Woodward, delivering strong work as always), Robert Morehouse’s money troubles, his new wife Elizabeth’s opium addiction, Eva’s pregnancy and the baby’s parentage—all operated in separate spheres from each other, moving glacially for a few episodes and then picking up the pace unexpectedly. The storytelling even became revisionist at times, choosing to hit the reset button on Corky’s ex-partner Francis Maguire by turning him into a Tammany Hall plant rather than a rising criminal star, a backtrack that reeked of the writers being unwilling to commit to this path for the character.
That said, season two was an improvement from the first, thanks to higher production values that increased the reality of Five Points and the addition of Donal Logue to the cast as ruthless ward boss General Brendan Donovan. The latter gave Corky both a mentor and a cautionary tale, learning from someone who had come up the ranks and lost the scruples he himself was never able to shake. And once the show committed to making Donovan a true antagonist bent on profiting at the expense of his neighborhood, it allowed the scattered details of the season to coalesce behind one story, a move that forced Corky to acknowledge how important Five Points was to him and call on all his resources to defend it. The last few episodes centered on that arc, and the growing cooperation and tension between characters amid an increasingly claustrophobic New York generated the strongest stretch of the show to date.
Unfortunately, that conflict was resolved in the penultimate episode with Corky’s murder of Donovan and his brokered peace through Billy Baldwin’s Tammany Hall fixer “Wild” Bill Eustace. As such, “The Place I Called My Home” feels less like a proper conclusion to the Copper narrative and rather an discursive epilogue. With the reveal that President Lincoln has been assassinated, Robert Morehouse—who entertained the Booth brothers at his home earlier in the season—swells with patriotic fervor at the thought that Booth and a co-conspirator are still at large. Over several bottles of whiskey, he proposes that he, Corky, and Freeman rejoin the army one last time, heading south to apprehend the murderers. This means a return to Virginia and the battlefields of the Civil War, places where all three men lost whatever innocence they had left over.
The obvious parallel to “The Place I Called My Home” is Mad Men’s penultimate third season episode “The Grown-Ups,” which also dealt with the repercussions of a presidential assassination. However, while “The Grown-Ups” used the death of JFK to throw characters even further out of their emotional orbits, “The Place I Called My Home” uses it as an excuse for a road trip episode (or a train/horse trip episode as it were). The majority of the action is spent on our central three male characters, getting drunk and trading old war stories, talking their way out of scuffles with Kentucky ex-soldiers or extracting information with a Confederate flag noose. Aside from a few scenes of Eustace negotiating for Donovan’s incriminating files with Morehouse Senior—yet another character the show chose to hit the reset button on—New York isn’t the setting for the majority of the episode, a move that undermines much of the season’s work to establish Five Points as being every bit as alive as its residents. True, the shots of fields and forests are pretty and provide a nice change of scenery, but given that this is the last time we’ll be spending in this world, it’s hard not to feel robbed of one last chance to spend time in it.
Where “The Place I Called My Home” is interesting is in providing some context for the behavior of Corky, Morehouse, and Freeman. The longer Copper has gone on, the more apparent it is that every single character on the show is a drunk, an asshole, or both, and that those traits win out even when the characters have seemingly noble ambitions. Here, we get a sense of what made them the violent, alcoholic, and frustrated men they are, the horrors of war they all lived through are finally illustrated courtesy of blue-filtered flashbacks. The scenes aren’t up to Glory levels, but the distorted nature of filming gives them a quality that reflects how horrifying those memories are to the men who share them. Ato Essandoh is particularly good in these scenes, conveying both Freeman’s raw grief at the violence he brought back to his old plantation and his present-day disgust at how little things seem to have changed.
The place where the episode doesn’t work is also attributed to one of Copper’s weakest points, the fact that it’s a show that too often told instead of showed. Characterization tends to come from long speeches rather than action, a consequence of plots that come and go between episodes. Some of the scenes work—the moment where all three of the men are revisiting the battlefield and trying to reconstruct the events that led to Morehouse losing his leg is solidly executed—but too many of the scenes as they are making plans to go south and weighing their options as Morehouse’s infection sets in are bludgeons of exposition. (This is I believe the first time anyone’s mentioned Corky wanting to be called an American, but the umpteenth time Freeman has made a speech about his feelings on the limitations of his freedom.) When both Corky and Freeman beg off Morehouse making some grand speech of friendship after the failure of their pursuit with the excuse “We don’t have to say anything to each other,” it’s hard not to see a bit of lampshading in the dialogue.
The finale does give us one last glimpse of New York as the three make their way back home and part ways, and Corky’s thrown immediately back into Five Points corruption. If one thing about Copper has remained consistent, it’s been the self-destructive streak within Corky, the series of losses heaped on him over the show leaving him with little more than anger and loyalty to those few left close to him. As such, it’s entirely reasonable that he chooses to ignore Tammany Hall’s summons to name him Donovan’s successor despite the threat of the organization, and entirely reasonable that Tammany would see this copper as a dog who needs a couple of whacks to be brought in line. This leads to a horrifying final sequence—Copper always trading well in graphic imagery—where he enters Eva’s bar for a drink, only to find Eva’s bartender and best girl filling barrels with their blood, and the pregnant mistress of the house nowhere to be seen.
The camera then pans out from Eva’s balcony and Corky’s desperation to pan over the unending sea of tenements in New York, showing just how small his problems are in the grand scheme of things, designed to leave the season on a moment of uncertainty. Sadly, with the show’s cancellation, it turns the story of Corky and his friends into one of hundreds of unresolved stories in the ramshackle world of Five Points. A disappointing end to a show that had more than its share of entertaining moments, yet something of a fitting end for Copper, a show that was never truly invested in its characters or story enough to have an interest in providing anyone—audience included—with a happy ending.
Episode grade: B-
Season grade: B
Series grade: B-
- Of course, there’s already talk of wrapping things up as a movie. There’s certainly plenty of material to fill a film, but… sigh.
- Other than the Corky vs. Donovan arc, my favorite episode this season was the fifth installment “A Morning Song,” an inverse Assault On Precinct 13 story where a gang of counterfeiters took over the Sixth Precinct. The siege setup and a flamboyant performance by Lee Tergesen as gang leader Philomen Keating made for the season’s most solidly entertaining hour, even if it contained Maguire’s retcon back to season one status.
- The opening shot of Corky, Freeman, and Morehouse taking a quiet moment with Lincoln’s body is meant to set the tone for their great adventure, but unfortunately feels too much like crowbarring our heroes into history.
- While production values were up this season, there was a fairly glaring recycling of scenery as it became apparent the producers were using the same set for every apartment, weakly explaining it away with identically constructed tenement buildings. One character even wound up lampshading it in a later episode when she mused it was like stepping into her old home.
- The moment where the three men look over the now-bucolic battlefield brought back more than a few heartbreaking memories of the Blackadder Goes Forth finale.
- Wild Bill Eustace was less captivating than Donovan—lacking in both thick Irish brogue and equally thick facial hair—but his gravelly tone promised a much more cold-blooded and dangerous foe for Corky and company than Donovan’s hands-on approach. Favorite line, delivered to Morehouse Sr.: “This could be a day of liberation. For your files, and your balls.”
- Fun detail: All three men easily casting Maguire as the fictional bank robber they’re pursuing south. Though I doubt he’d appreciated being referred to as “runty.”
- Robert, always ready with a quip: “Freeman, you poet! Are you trying to say you forgot where you buried my leg?”
- “I want to have a drink while I consider my options.” Story of everyone in Copper’s life.