Copper: “Arsenic And Old Cake”
C

Copper: “Arsenic And Old Cake”

C

Copper

“Arsenic And Old Cake”

Season 1, Episode 6

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Once again the opening sequence of Copper is a well crafted little gem that represents the best the show has to offer in terms of style and staging, and this week’s opener is even more intriguing than usual thanks to a delightfully strange departure in tone. Rather than start with a wide action setpiece such as the broken glass and barroom hijinks of “The Empty Locket,” or the sweat soaked underground boxing match of “La Tempête,” “Arsenic And Old Cake” starts with a close-up of O’Brien from an odd angle while a breathing mask is applied to his face. As the camera pulls back it is revealed that he is about to have a tooth pulled by a loopy dentist who enjoys a nip of the ether himself. Ah, the misadventures of 19th-century dentistry. What follows is a sequence with all the absurdist comedy of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and campy danger of an episode of American Horror Story. In a series of rapid, perfectly timed beats, the dentist falls to his knees, his wife pulls the wrong tooth, everyone giggles, then he freaks out and slaps her in the face.

If only the risks taken to create this surreal, stylized non sequitur were indicative of an equally clever show to come. On the contrary, the quality of this and past openers actually surpasses rather than reflects the quality of each episode as a whole. They are like a rueful reminder of what the show could be—consistently original and carefully put together—and that there is no reason for the hokey dialogue and shallow plotting that mar Copper’s refreshingly ambiguous characters and seedy charm. Immediately after the dental mishap, the show slides back into more comfortable narrative territory, with a particular focus on a case which, lo and behold, involves Dr. Giggles himself. 

The Sargent is the first on the scene when the dentist is discovered dead in his office, so he takes the opportunity to rifle through the dead man’s belongings and callously eat a slice of his delicious fruit cake. Then, in yet further proof of how little attached Copper has to its secondary characters, he promptly vomits and dies. The shot of him lying on the ground playing second fiddle to his pool of sick, foregrounded in all its orange glory, is a particular humiliation. The boys take the news pretty well, and set about solving the case. It turns out that the dentist has been offering free services in exchange for sexual favors from all kinds of ladies in need. But in an ironic twist that the show’s detectives find far more hilarious than it actually is, it was the dentist’s attempt to kill the butcher schtupping his wife, not his own dozens of sexual transgressions, that boomeranged back to kill him.

In a poorly constructed “meanwhile, back at the ranch” scenario, “Arsenic And Old Cake” cuts back a few times to Jasper’s boxing match with the Irish alderman. The timeline of the match seems terribly off from the show’s concurrent plot strands, continuing for an impossibly long time like some goofy, unintentional spoof of that van that falls off a bridge for 20 minutes in Inception. Since this is not, in fact, an altered reality of nested dreams, it makes no sense that in the time that it takes Morehouse to force Jasper into throwing the match with the use of a crooked ref, the detectives traipse all over Five Points threatening suspects and cracking jokes, Maguire takes so much abuse from the Dentist’s wife he runs off to his fiancé’s house just to see her up to some sketchy shit with an unknown man, and Annie goes all the way to Miss Eva’s brothel from her gilded cage on 23rd street and back. Is Morehouse allowing hour-long snack breaks between rounds at this show? Is this a battle between actual gods that will last for all of eternity? How long could this fight possibly go on? More importantly, considering several characters on the show have referred to what a powder keg this match is in terms of black-Irish relations and the possibility of rioting, this should have taken precedence over the case rather than being relegated to the sidelines.

Still getting plenty of screentime is the ongoing battle between Elizabeth and Annie, whose preternatural maturity is starting to border on Orphan territory. When Mrs. Haverford brings home a Catholic priest to try and reach her, she sends him running out of the room by suggestively reading the rather disturbing story of Lot and his daughters from the bible, then pushes her adopted mother to the ground. After running away to Eva’s place of ill repute, she claims it is because she suspects Eva is lonely without the recently departed Molly. This statement sounds innocent on the surface, but knowing Annie is no naive little girl, she is most likely referring to Eva’s involvement in Molly’s demise in order to unnerve her and then prey on her guilt. Despite these actions, however, there are still times when the true child sparkles beneath Annie’s damaged exterior. When she fervently hugs Eva and tells the grizzled older woman that only she can teach her the things she needs to know, it feels more sincere than manipulative, and Eva’s rejection of her affection clearly stings the girl deeply. When Elizabeth contacts Annie’s "father" to take her away, the sheer terror on the girl’s face is heartbreaking, suggesting her abuse may have started long before she arrived in Five Points.

Although the exploits of little orphan Annie can get a bit repetitive from episode to episode, the choice to follow through with her post-rescue story was smart and surprisingly sensitive. When the show began I was concerned that breaking up the child-prostitution ring and delivering Annie from evil would be a far more drawn-out endeavor, and the sole purpose of introducing her into the world of Copper. Not only did the show veer away from that quicksand of a plot, it didn’t leave Annie’s storyline on the temporary high note of adoption, exploring the complications of trauma and even the idea that the adoption is not the huge boon for Annie that people like Eva, who long for wealth and comfort, imagine it to be. Copper dares to explore the uncomfortable question of “what happens now?” when the victim of horrific crime has been rescued, a point when many procedurals would bring the victim’s character arc to a close. And as it seems as though Annie is once again need of rescuing, the show has the opportunity to ask about her sad, complicated, unstable state for a second time: what happens now?

Stray observations

  • Corcoran and Elizabeth finally get it on, and once again, the detective is moved to romantic action by a fresh tragedy in Annie’s life. This guy is really turned on by the sad.
  • Meanwhile, Maguire is taking things just a little more slowly with his lady friend. As he excitedly confesses to Corky early in the episode: “Last night we held hands for over two hours.” Adorable.
  • Marcus is still out and about despite his drunken transgression with Sarah last week, which means Freeman must be a little bit spineless.
  • Also, Freeman is the only one who calls Morehouse Major, even though Corcoran also served with him in the war and would therefore be familiar with his rank. This is a clear nod to the power disparity between the two men due to race.
  • Annie isn’t the only girl with a broken heart on this show. When Corky says Annie needs the kind of love you can’t get from whores, it’s also clearly referring to the fact that he will never see Eva as a viable replacement for his missing wife, though she is so in love with him she was driven to kill her favorite girl Molly over a hand job.

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