The first two acts of Show Me A Hero have skillfully built an intertwined story in which very few of the characters from the narrative divide of City Hall and Public Housing actually intertwine. (Nick and Doreen had a near miss in the first installment and this installment suggests another, but they’re two leading figures who never exchange a word of dialogue.) Part of that is the sense of capricious, vicious history that David Simon, William Zorzi, and Paul Haggis are trying to reconstruct: Everyone is the center of their own story, and Doreen and Nick’s arcs meet only at the edges. In fact, Doreen proves herself far more invested in community affairs than Nick; Nick sinks into the politics and never comes out. It’s Mary, already bridging the divide by being Average Citizen, who comes closest to standing in the middle. But otherwise, the troubles of those caught up in City Hall are without solution, and those in Public Housing with whom our hopes lie.

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A scene early in Episode Six offers a crossover of sorts, as the families preparing to move into the townhouses attend a tenants’ meeting at which they’re given an increasingly punitive set of restrictions (expertly cut into a wave of minor humiliations, from the police right down to the garbage bags). And in case anyone in HBO’s viewing audience was unaware what respectability politics looks like, Show Me A Hero is happy to provide, with Bob Mayhawk responding to the tenants’ frustration with a thinly-veiled reminder that to be accepted by the white people who are so firmly set against them, they’ll have to be twice as good to get half of what they have.

After two installments in which the public-housing residents moved increasingly to the fore, we’re invested enough to feel the sting. And the City Hall politics at the heart of these arrangements affect everyone in ways we can see coming: Billie, whose story plays out in ambivalent silences without even an incidental score to sympathize; Carmen, who tearfully loses the housing lottery that was her best hope of safety for her children; Pat and Norma with a scene-stealing dynamic that gives us our first sense that someone, anyone, will come out of this all right.

Haggis gets brilliant tension from the integration of the neighborhood. We know enough of the animosity bubbling against the new arrivals that the early nights—understandably tense for Norma, Doreen, and Billie—are even more so for we who know about the graffiti and the bomb. (It’s sad to realize that it feels like some kind of comfort when people “only” shout slurs and let their dogs take shits on the townhouse lawns; while nearly every beat of this series feels timely, the tension between present and past stands out most in moments like these, where we worry for them partly because we know better what they’ll still be up against.) It’s part of what makes Mary’s journey, which could easily become White Lady Saving the Day, stay largely in the more understated dynamic of White Lady Waking Up. She changes her mind because away from the rhetoric, she realizes public-housing residents are individuals and not a set of negative statistics; they offer guests the best cups, and they want safe lives. She helps them because it’s the right thing to do, and if it seems almost an overdue change of heart, Mary looks as if she knows it.

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And as everyone settles in, there are nuanced, difficult moments of conflict from unexpected quarters. The townhouse children miss out on a municipal outing, having been re-zoned into a Them and not Us; Norma feels uncomfortable eating in a restaurant that’s otherwise white. And after Carmen’s niece is robbed during a visit to the projects, she assures the officer she doesn’t leave here any more; it’s a rift in lifestyles that plays out in seconds across Carmen’s face. It makes the final moments of seeing her all the more satisfying, but the reminders are everywhere in Show Me a Hero’s final hours that no one has an easy road.

Which brings us to the tragedy of Nick himself, who—this installment seems to suggest—just wasn’t smart enough to outwit the pit of vipers that sits in every City Hall and offers the same slippery business as always: gerrymandering, nebulous promises that vanish when you call them in, traps that ostensibly stroke your ego but end up turning you into someone else’s stooge. Oscar Isaac visibly swallows bile when Nick announces he’s not running for mayor, but half the depression that begins to creep up on him comes from the deep-seated fear that he can’t aim high and win.

That suspicion is borne out just enough that the doubt gnaws at him as he tries either to ingratiate himself into the new power structure or remind himself of the only thing he ever fought for. But nothing works, and he ends up so boxed in he’s striking against Vinni. It’s a betrayal she rightly calls him out for (though her final minutes feel like an oddly forced note from otherwise-organic conflict). But all his attempts at mattering backfire, in the sort of inevitable tangle that Simon has often presented when it comes to politicians—a powerful, obligatory mess there’s no way out of. And it’s exactly the kind of downward spiral you hire Oscar Isaac for; his impotent rage about the investigation and his tremulous call for his brother are polar-opposite energies that are both riveting, and make a tragic hero out of a man who knows, deep down, he’s not.

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Given the hints throughout and the tenor of these moments, Nick’s ending wouldn’t be a surprise even to people unfamiliar with events. But Isaac makes you ache for him, and it’s part and parcel of this series’ greatness that the preparation doesn’t make it any sadder, that our sympathy for him doesn’t make the moment feel any less hollow. The series has succeeded in providing the full scope of the decision without much historic ceremony (it’s been, at times, almost a hilariously grinding affair), and to touch on the personal in ways that enhance the whole. Amid shots of Nick’s funeral, politicians shake hands and grumble without skipping a beat, and life in the townhouses goes on happily for people who have never given Nick a thought.

Show Me A Hero is a deft portrayal of a community, and one that doesn’t rely on a narrative of great moments or two sides reconciling; it’s a narrative of a piece of impossible machinery that accidentally sent something useful down the conveyor belt, and how that thing affects the community around it. The crux of what makes it timeless is how little that machinery has changed, and how much we still need those useful things; they’re our happy ending, as far as it goes.

Stray observations

  • It’s the hallmark of just how precisely this series is assembled that a single misstep can feel disproportionate. Here, it’s a single phone call, as Vinni tells Nay her husband’s been unfaithful. Nay says nothing about it. (That’s not the moment this subplot fizzles: Nay having any faith at all in Nick is just another moment of kindness in a role characterized almost entirely by it). This subplot fizzles before the call is ever made, outside the bar where Nick and Vinni almost kiss. The phone booth where Vinni viciously burns her last bridge with Nick is just the reminder that not even a work as well crafted as Show Me A Hero is free of tropes: Vinni’s arc gets gendered, and no reason the series has time to suggest (professional hatred getting personal? Vengeful ex? Liars all around?) seems to hold up. Unnecessary at best, off-balance at worst.
  • Alfred Molina appeared for a cumulative three minutes and still made me laugh twice. I assume Oscar Isaac will be getting his due in awards season, but I hope the cast as a whole receives some recognition. They’ve earned it.
  • The case was settled in 2007. The series so nimbly covers time that you understand the slog of it all, but the reality of the case petering out for another dozen years hits somewhere between absurdly hilarious and totally depressing. Right where Simon and company intended, no doubt.
  • I was all prepared to make fun of the amount and frequency of Springsteen in this one, but it was restrained, and made for a fitting end. You win this one, Bruce.

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