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The Chicago Code: "Cabrini-Green"

Illustration for article titled The Chicago Code: "Cabrini-Green"
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There were some real powerhouses involved with tonight’s episode of The Chicago Code. The script? Co-written by Jon Worley (one of the main scribes on Terriers) and Tim Minear (another Terriers hand, a stalwart of multiple Joss Whedon shows, and co-creator of the short-lived Drive). Behind the camera? Jean de Segonzac, cinematographer-turned-director, who helped define the style of the TV classic Homicide: Life On The Streets. And do all these A-team-ers make a difference in the persistent B-ness of The Chicago Code? I hate to sound like a broken record, but no, not really. Or at least only in part. “Cabrini-Green” does feature a rich central metaphor and some solid plotting, but it’s soured by some of the same clumsy dialogue and dramatic shortcuts that keep holding this show back from what it could be.

Specifically, “Cabrini-Green” features maybe the worst Liam scene yet, with our not-so-favorite undercover cop meeting Superintendent Colvin in the dead of night, so they can swap some stilted lines designed solely to explain to us that the black gangs in Chicago resent Alderman Gibbons’ ties to the Irish mob and mean to send him a message by disguising a hit on Gibbons as a gang initiation. No offense intended to Billy Lush, who I’m sure is a fine actor in other contexts, but he isn’t exactly crushing this role. It’s an unconvincing character to begin with, and his line delivery is starting to make every scene he’s in reek of phony. (Judging by the previews, next week’s episode is going to be Liam-centric, so maybe the character will come off better once he’s the center of the action. Or maybe next week’s Chicago Code will be the first to drop below a B.)

I also could have done without the broadly sketched version of ‘60s radicalism in this episode. “Cabrini-Green” has a strong case-of-the-week, based loosely on Bill Ayers and The Weather Underground. Wysocki and Evers are investigating serial bombings that may be tied to the defunct activist organization the Chicago Liberation Army. Most of the CLA members have either been on the run or incarcerated since their involvement with similar activities 40 years ago, except for one member, David Argyle, who has always claimed that he left the CLA before their more violent activities began and in the years since has become a respected education advocate (and author of the book Too Many Children Left Behind). With Argyle back in town to receive a civic award, the timing of the bombings looks suspicious. And so our heroes take a tour through the remnants of the city’s yippie scene—including the outcasts and second-generationers—which means we at home are treated to some clichéd power-to-the-people-speak.

What makes the Liam scene and the aging-angry-young-man talk so frustrating is that once again, aside from those flaws, “Cabrini-Green” is a really good episode. I liked Wysocki pushing Evers—and even leaning on him, to some extent—to use his intuition and smarts to make the connections between the bombings and Chicago history. (“I do not have time for your ‘Aw Shucks’ routine,” Wysocki hisses.) I also liked them piecing together the story of the CLA one disgruntled and/or disgraced ex-member at a time. (One gets dismissed early because he converted to Islam and thus probably “spends his day listening to Cat Stevens LPs.”) Eventually, they find bomb-making materials at the home of a Linus Westermeyer, who leads them to Trey Stein, the son of two CLA-ers: one of whom is dead and the other of whom is in prison. Stein straps a bomb to Argyle, but then Wysocki gets the bright idea to call Stein’s mom in jail, so that she’ll scare her son straight. Instead, in a great twist, she tells her son to bomb the bastard… though not before Evers can sneak up behind Stein and take away his detonator.

While all this excitement is happening, Alderman Gibbons is dealing with that trouble back in the old neighborhood that Liam and Teresa allude to so flatly midway through the episode. Gibbons is visiting his favorite barbershop when the joint gets robbed by a teenager named Blake Simms, but because Gibbons is such a badasss, he pulls a piece out from beneath his smock and shoots the kid in the leg. Then, when the press shows up—along with Colvin and some cops, who confiscate his gun—Gibbons pledges to pay Blake’s medical bills and reassures the adoring crowd that even though his pistol has been taken, “I have several more that are of equal quality.”

Even though Colvin knows that Gibbons’ shooting of Simms was justified, she’s still sure that there’s more to the story and that the alderman’s criminal connections are in play here. Hence the awful, awful scene with Liam, which confirms her impressions. But there’s not much Teresa can do about it, not while Ronin is cozying up to Blake in the boy’s hospital room, buying him a big-screen TV and an Xbox, and saying, “You and I gonna be friends, man.” Eventually, Gibbons finds out that Blake was ordered to shoot him by a man named Darius, a.k.a. “Little Monster,” the leader of the South Side Mafia. Gibbons arranges a meet with the Monster and finds out that all the gang-boss wants is the same deal the alderman is giving the Irish (in a scene that essentially repeats the info that Liam gave us earlier in the episode, thus rendering a terrible scene irrelevant). Inevitably, the episode ends with Darius dead in the street, the victim of a “gang hit” that doesn’t lead immediately back to Gibbons, unless the superintendent pursues her lead in the weeks to come.


I was thinking while watching “Cabrini-Green” (and after seeing the preview for next week) that The Chicago Code has some similarities to Lost, in that it opened with an episode introducing the perspectives of multiple characters, and in the weeks since has narrowed its focus. I think this is the smart way to handle serialized storytelling. We still haven’t met Wysocki’s fiancee, nor have we seen his ex-wife or son since episode one. There’s been no revisitation of Wysocki’s hunt for his brother’s killer. Evers’ backstory remains largely unknown so far, and while we know a good bit about Vonda and Isaac, they haven’t played a major role in the last two episodes. I appreciate the sense of control there, of being willing to hold parts of the story back.

That said, I think that the show should have had a “Walkabout” kind of episode by now, one where our preconceived notions are flipped and we learn that some characters in the story have secrets that the others don’t know. Instead, the focus has been on the characters’ larger motivations, which is fine too, if not as grabby. This week, for example, we saw the contrast between the single-minded Wysocki—who arrests Argyle at the end of the episode for confessions he made while trying to aid the investigation, “Because I’m a cop, you broke the law, that’s how things work”—and Gibbons, whose reasons for doing what he does are far more complex.


Which brings me to that powerful metaphor I spoke of up top: the one so strong that it elevated the episode despite all its missteps. The Gibbons subplot of “Cabrini-Green” is woven through narrated flashbacks to his upbringing in the titular project, which once stood for social justice and progress to poor families and then became a symbol of corruption and decay—much like the Chicago Liberation Army. Gibbons is proud that he had a hand in the razing of Cabrini-Green, which he calls “a prison” for his people, although he fails to mention that the vacant lot will be filled by properties that his companies will have a hand in building. And while the shooting of Little Monster advances the alderman’s interests, I’m sure part of him also thinks of killing a black gang-boss as being in the same vein as demolishing the projects (or, for Trey Stein’s mother, in the same vein as getting rid of that rat Argyle). We find out in this episode that Gibbons became alderman because his father was being bled dry by the alderman before him, much like Colvin became superintendent because her father was driven out of business by politicians. Everyone’s ideals keep getting ground up in this system, until they run the risk of becoming a symbol of what they once despised.

Stray observations:

  • Nice tying of the incidental action to the main story when Gibbons uses a sneak attack on the Xbox game he’s playing with Blake.
  • Increasingly, my favorite parts of The Chicago Code are the little unremarked-upon bits of business, like Wysocki recovering from being next to an explosion by chasing aspirin with Red Bull, and Argyle being interrogated by Wysocki while wearing a borrowed CPD T-shirt (to replace his blood-spattered suit).
  • Was that a Trail Of Dead song playing over one of the big heading-to-a-crime-scene montages? Whatever it was, it had that sense of big rock grandeur that matches the score for this show.