Procedurals often bank on the chemistry between two central partners to create long term appeal. Benson and Stabler, Mulder and Scully, Bridges and Dominguez—while all had their moments of initial doubt, heated arguments followed by playful cop banter, ultimately the stability of that friendship, the idea that each has the other to turn to in an unpredictable and violent world, anchors the storyline from case to case. While Copper has always been a little different in that Kevin Corcoran employs friends outside of the force as regular accomplices, those relationships tend to be more complicated. Despite his dependence on Freeman’s forensic knowledge, there is a restrained racial tension there that can easily erupt under provocation, as it did in “In The Hands Of An Angry God.” Morehouse may respect Corcoran, but his morals are loose and his loyalties questionable. With his partner Maguire, however, Corcoran finds an equal who not only has his back, but understands Corky’s life as a detective and an Irish-American. Recent episodes, however, have boldly chipped away at this façade of unwavering loyalty, and “Better Times Are Coming” has blown it up just as surely as Morehouse obliterated the rebels’ plan to set New York City on fire.
The fall of Francis Maguire started with him paying the pawn shop owner to lie about how the locket came into his possession in “The Empty Locket” (which, frankly, I did not initially understand to be a lie). Then in “The Hudson River School” he tells his friends that Mary Lockwood has run off with another man rather than admit that he has been betrayed (Which was also confusing; Copper could do a better job of making it clear when it’s letting the audience in on a delicious bit of dramatic irony). However, both of these transgressions could have been explained away by other motivations—Maguire’s desire to protect his friend, and a need to protect his pride, respectively. In this week’s episode the lies—not to mention evidence of criminal action—pile up to the point where neither the audience nor Corcoran can comfortably explain them away. Maguire lied about Mary leaving the country, he failed to mention her possession of the abortionist’s ledger that Corky so greatly desired, the bullet of his distinctive gun is found in Mary’s body and, most damning of all, he knew all along that Corcoran’s wife sat in an insane asylum right under his very nose.
While it is clear that Maguire has done wrong for reasons as yet undisclosed (for weeks now commenters have been guessing he fathered a child a with Corcoran’s wife, which she subsequently aborted), he continues to be a somewhat sympathetic character. His unluckiness in love has skyrocketed from unfortunate to tragic, and the reason he is so easily taken advantage of stems from a sweet sensitivity lurking under his more violent tendencies. Unlike his hard-working, hard-partying buddies, Maguire has expressed a yearning for a different life, one that not only includes a wife and children, but that takes him away from the frenzy of Five Points. He may very well have murdered Mary Lockwood, but seeing her dead body lying on the physician’s table, he is moved to look once more at her face and tenderly stroke her hair. It is because despite her betrayal, despite the brevity of their relationship, being with her—a seemingly pious woman of independent wealth and generous heart—was the closest he had ever come to realizing his dream of getting out of the hood. He must say goodbye to that nearly tasted dream as much as to Mary. Maguire is also appealing because he is the only character who has convincingly brought Corcoran’s shortcomings into question. On a show in which nearly every woman puts the protagonist on a pedestal, Maguire has twice now pointed out the man’s psychological instability and moral hypocrisy. The acknowledgement of these issues is satisfying, and brings an unexpected depth to their previously peaceful friendship.
The relationship between Corcoran and the other sad, dark horse in his life, Annie, also experiences a pivotal change in this episode. Seeing only the side of her that is wounded and vulnerable rather than the part of her that that has grown manipulative and dangerously obsessive, Corky allows the girl back in his home. She immediately starts playing house and tries to scare off Eva with stories of “their” man’s affection for her, casually mentioning that he doesn’t mind that she’s put on a bit of weight because “he likes a handful when he sleeps.” (Kiara Glasco’s conspiratorial smirk makes the delivery of such lines particularly icky.) Despite the fact that no responsible adult wishes for Annie’s romantic desires to be fulfilled, the fact that she is such a child that Eva could never possibly see her as a threat, and immediately sees her posturing as such, is heartbreaking in way. It highlights the disconnect between how others view Annie and how a broken childhood has made her see herself. Although Kevin has been naïve about her fixation on him, in part because Annie reserves her more disturbing comments for the women in her dear hero’s life rather than the man himself, Eva is able to convince Corky of the depth of the problem in a way the less savvy E-priss-abeth Haverford never could. By finally admitting that “That girl’s mind is still bent from her past”, he can also admit that he may not be in the best position to help her, as much as he would like to. Corcoran resolves to take her to the nuns for some straightening out.
“Better Times Are Coming” also advances the political storyline introduced last week; it in fact takes place on election day, particularly significant to a country at war, and nicely timed for a contemporary U.S. audience still buzzing about the first presidential debates which aired last Wednesday. The contrast between modern-day voting and what the same process was like in the 1800s is on-the-nose but still fantastically funny. Voting was far from private, written down on a paper ballot in front of anyone else who happens in the room, and the area immediately outside of the venue is depicted as overrun by a raving mob where eager members of both sides continue to plead their case with speeches and flyers, and occasionally by fist-fighting one another. The election places Morehouse, unintentional Union spy, in a dangerous position. The rebels want him to bankroll the purchase of more Greek Fire to set the city ablaze, and his handy double-crossing leaves Corcoran wondering whose side he is really on. With quick thinking, Morehouse is able to save the day, attending the purchase of the Greek Fire with his new rebel friend, but surreptitiously setting it alight in the middle of the woods, where it can do no damage. Morehouse continues to be a winner in the romantic department, too. The dirty, ravenous look he gives Elizabeth when kissing her hand on the street is positively blush-inducing, and their regular discourse suggests that this may be a more lasting relationship than the one between her and Corky.
The election also allows the show to point out that that while characters of many backgrounds mix often on Copper, segregation and distrust was still very much the norm between members of different races and classes in 1864. Morehouse’s wealth and open belief in classist social boundaries (he glibly tells Corcoran “You can’t bring Five Points up here where it doesn’t belong” when discussing how the detective ruined Elizabeth's painting) makes him vulnerable to the accusation of cozying up to the Southern rebels. The coroner calls Maguire a “Mick,” showing that racism at this time involved more than just distinction according to skin color. The slight, strained nod between O’Brien and Freeman reminds us that this particular copper is less tolerant than Corky or even Maguire, as evidenced by his quickness to side with fellow Irishmen when they wanted to lynch the black preacher in “In The Hands Of An Angry God.” O’Brien doesn’t even support Lincoln; he comically assists one Boss Tweed with election fraud by assigning people in costume false names, à la this recent episode of Bunheads, so they can vote a second time. Even the progressive Elizabeth, frustrated by the price of war, asks “Is emancipation really worth all the lives lost?” It seems her liberalism does not hold up in the face of real consequences and personal inconvenience. She wants to forget fighting for racial equality when the fighting of others lands on her doorstep, just as she forgets her desire to bring order into Annie’s poor, cruel existence after just a few weeks of difficulty. While Corcoran is, as always, consistently moral when it comes to anything but bribery and torture, the fact that the far more ambiguous Morehouse is the only other major character who is 100 percent on the right side of history is a great twist.
If “The Hudson River School” broadened the scope of the show, making the historical context of the war vital to its reality, “Better Times Are Coming” deepened it, on both the political and the personal level. For the first time this season, Copper has presented two solid, well-constructed episodes back-to-back, proving to fans that earlier inconsistencies may just have been a question of the show finding its footing, struggling with awkward exposition before really getting down to business. As with many episodes of Copper, the title here is more than a little tongue-in-cheek. While Lincoln has won the election, better times are not coming for the people on the show any time in the near future, as they are left to deal with the fallout of their dramatic actions. Better times do, however, seem to have come for those who have stuck with Copper thus far.