One of the most central scenes in this installment is a relatively uneventful one, with planner Oscar Newman sitting in for a site discussion with Judge Sand and advocates so exasperated with the entire thing that they’re essentially on the same team. To the surprise of no one, Yonkers can’t decide on something: this time, a replacement site for the houses that were going to be hosted by the Diocese before the congregation began to vote with their wallets. Sand selects a location offhand, and Newman puts his foot down: too crowded for townhouses.

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And townhouses, it turns out, are essential. Newman explains, with the blend of cynicism and optimism of a forward-thinker who’s survived red tape this long: Issues in the public housing high-rises begin with the nebulous spaces for which there’s no easy-pinpointed responsibility. People will fight to defend what’s theirs, but without something concrete and sacrosanct to hold on to, it’s just empty spaces waiting for desperation to creep in.

And that’s exactly what we’re in for with these episodes. People on both sides of the parkway believe in what’s theirs; one side of the parkway now has to face the inevitable, and realize what their fear actually says about themselves. The first two episodes of Show Me A Hero felt, in the broadest sense, like watching someone get badly scraped while starting a totally avoidable brawl. It’s the aim of parts three and four to ruthlessly pick at that scab until we understand the true depth of the wound.

One of the most important underpinnings of this miniseries is the no-bones-about-it repudiation of the Great Man theory of history. Despite being on the right side of history, Nick Wasicsko’s no visionary; he’s more wrapped up in scrambling to the top of the political heap for its own sake than in any of the ideology behind the housing. (His self-satisfaction about the Profile in Courage nomination is charming but empty.) His willingness to accept it plays out in moments filmed like a political thriller rather than a City Council meeting with a foregone conclusion, but that’s half the point: From the inside it’s a cyclone that’s beginning to define Nick’s life, and right now he’s adrift within it.

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Some people fall more decisively on one side or the other—Sand and Sussman among the progressives, Spallone among the teeth-grinding conservatives. But David Simon and William Zorzi know that most people are some combination of benevolent instinct, scheming, and cowardice, and that’s exactly what we get. It makes for a fascincating segment. When the measure finally passes, it’s because the two moderates can’t deal with the layoffs that would accompany the enormous contempt fines. The Yes vote comes down to someone’s guilt trip over a backyard barbeque; to a man who demanded that a city implement defensible space and refused anything less; to a judge so fed up he imposed a daily-double fine that sounds like a riddle in a fairy tale.

It does not in particular owe its existence to Nick. It ruined his career, but aside from that Profile in Courage, there’s nothing to show for it. He’s missed the chance to build something that lasts. Oscar Isaac, who’s one of those actors you dutifully think of as amazing and who still surprises you with the depth of his performances, manages to make Nick’s moments of self-pity and sadness understandable without dismissing the sneaky truth that right now he’s just about as empty as the house he shares with Nay. Without politics to give him something to push against, he stalls out, and as soon as he’s not mayor any more, he’s not much of anything. Simon and Zorzi even ignore any of the jobs he had in his real-life political interim in order to make him seem that much more aimless; their Nick is a well-meaning guy who still can’t fix a blown fuse. He’ll defend politics to the death, but without something concrete to hold on to, the desperation is starting to creep in.

Doubt also rules the public-housing residents (mostly mothers), whose plights get clearer as their living situations get more claustrophobic—Paul Haggis shoots the apartments through doorways and into corners, as if the walls are closing in. With such good actors behind them, it doesn’t take much to connect.

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We’re introduced to Billie, whose attraction to the bad-news neighbor becomes a millstone—something we see coming so far away I wanted to reach through the screen and close the door in his face. With her husband dead, Doreen spirals out. (Her scene with her father and her moment of finally calling home are some of the most affecting of the series – great work by Natalie Paul.) Carmen undergoes the stress of being separated from her family and unsure if one situation is any safer than another, which Ilfenesh Hadera handles ably despite having two tearful airport reunions in a single evening. And Norma applies for home aide, but can’t convince anyone to actually make it to her. LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s half-comforting, half-resigned reactions to disappointment condenses to a single understated moment the many invisible pressures they’re living under; technically she’s gotten the help she asked for, and yet as with so many silent disadvantages, here we are.

Even Mary’s drops of doubt are slowly wearing away at the rock. (And it’s quite a rock to wear down; when a reporter suggests the new residents might treasure their homes, it momentarily floors her.) They come at strange times—she feels more uncomfortable that they’re marching past done-deal construction than that they’re marching with effigies—but her growing disillusionment with the Yonkers politics is palpable. Haggis balances these moments carefully against the public-housing scenes in part to keep us from feeling too sorry for a common-sense moral awakening, but also to remind us that solidarity, like politics, rarely happens because someone one day wakes up noble. It happens because someone slowly wakes up to the idea that the system is broken, and begins to look around for other breaks in the system. It’s an awareness of shared humanity that one stumbles on rather than commits to; Mary is still teetering on that edge, and it’s a fascinatingly human evolution. (Hats off, again, to Catherine Keener.)

But not everyone is willing to see reason; some people can’t see past their defensible space. The final shot of the evening, a cop staring at KKK graffiti on one of the townhouses, deliberately racks focus until it’s a blur of lights and a flimsy fence, a fading Polaroid of something that’s not new to any of us. The property values and economic arguments are a smokescreen; we know what’s at the bottom of it all, and now that someone’s made them say it, so does everyone else. What’s left is the David Simon special of cynicism with a dash of hope: whether anything Nick has done will satisfy him, whether the new townhouse residents will find any humanity in their neighbors, and whether any of these broken systems stand a chance of being fixed, or if they’re all just empty spaces, waiting.

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Stray observations

  • The report quoting the Fitzgerald line is kind of hilariously on the nose even for We Have a Title purposes, but the follow-up totally sells it, as Jim can’t contextualize it any further than the guy running after a slightly larger brass ring. Politics eats its own tail.
  • The telling details of this show continue to be stellar; the conservative crew driving past the projects and cherry-picking the most convenient tableaux is perfect.
  • The actors continue to be almost universally great, with the more recognizable faces fading nearly seamlessly into the ensemble. Even Oscar Isaac, who’s so good (that opening quick-cut!) he feels like he’s stopping by TV on his way to an EGOT, seems cannily downplayed.
  • That said, the best beat of the night goes to Alfred Molina, who’s gleefully gnawing at scenery in every scene as Spallone, and reaches DeVito-Penguin levels of not giving a fuck during the victory speech, where he parenthetically breaks his biggest campaign promise mere minutes after being elected.
  • I honestly lost track of how often Bruce Springsteen appeared tonight, but it was…a significant number of times.

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