Throwing an epic party is a classic TV technique to ramp up feelings of anticipation for an impending major event or plot twist, allowing the entire cast to collide with relatively little contrivance. If class barriers make it unrealistic for all of the characters to be seen busting a move together, there are plenty of creative ways to get around that. On Gossip Girl, a show that culminates in a major féte every other week, a “poor” but interesting (read: attractive) person like Dan or Jenny Humphrey is brought into the inner circle by a wealthy new significant other and/or frenemy. On Downton Abbey, the servants supply the labor required to have a fashionable soireé, and while the personal dramas below stairs may be invisible to their employers, they are captivating to the audience. And on Copper, where the blue-collar characters are pseudo-lowlife Irish detectives who wouldn’t even have a suit to wear to a charity ball for the 20th Colored Regiment of the Grand Army of the Republic? Have hostess with the mostest Elizabeth Haverford hire them as security against a local gang who want to steal the donations box and rob wealthy philantropists, obviously.
While the boys are successful in this particular endeavor—introducing the fascinating element of organized crime in Five Points along the way—the party feels strangely flat. It is lacking that exciting buzz of possibility, that delicious departure from the typical day-to-day business that party episodes can have (think of the spectacular birthday-party sequence in the Mad Men episode “A Little Kiss”). At this party, everyone continues to behave more or less as they would at any other time, only in fancier dress. Corcoran knits his brow and presumably pines for his wife while lusting after Elizabeth, Morehouse smirks and gets drunk, Eva offers a wealthy banker sexual favors in exchange for a loan, and Annie continues to provide evidence that she is not the sweet little orphan everyone wants her to be. In the wake of Molly’s shocking murder last week it seemed as though the show might be heading in a more proactive direction, but unfortunately, they’re stuck vamping, preparing for all the grander things like war and race riots and elections that are casually referred to but never fully arrive.
However, the show does continue to exhibit a talent for action choreography and amazing opening sequences. The boxing matches that Morehouse organizes and Corky referees had been mentioned in passing but never actually appeared onscreen before now, and the buildup was worth it. The show immediately launches us into a tight, pulsating crowd congregated around a bout so intense you can practically smell the sweat. The elegant motion of the camera evokes, as Frederick Wiseman did in Boxing Gym, the raw beauty of the fight, while the grungy underground locale and sick thwak of punches reminds us of its brutality. The scene conveys a few key points in a short period of time and with uncharacteristic restraint; that Corky, who seems at his element here, is still a bit of a rough type no matter how rich the ladies are who love him, and that upstanding Matthew must be under some strange spell when it comes to his mack-daddy uncle, because he supports the man’s tutelage of Jasper against Sarah’s wishes and his own conscience.
Uncle Marcus turns out to be a real cad, groping Sarah in a drunken rage later in the episode—in the middle of the day no less. The transition from Mrs. Haverford’s house party to scenes at the Freeman home is forced, but it’s preferable to shoehorning Matthew into a party he would never realistically receive an invitation to, despite the fact that its goal is to raise money for colored soldiers. This little bit of irony highlights Matthew’s separation from his friends in many respects; while the coppers may be attending the party strictly as employees, at least their presence is desired in the first place.
The miseducation of Annie Reilly is also handled rather well, growing ever more disturbing with each passing episode. The fact that she is still maladjusted to civilian life is made clear in an early scene that shows her tarting up her little doll with rouge and dark eyebrows (coal rather than kohl, in this case), just as she was made up during her life as a child sex slave. It is brave to head into this kind of territory, acknowledging the deeply uncomfortable notion that the victim of a sex crime might have tastes shaped by their experience, however coerced. There is a further layer of symbolism in the use of the toy; Annie feels like Mrs. Haverford’s doll, with no control over her current behavior or dress, so she exerts control over the one thing she can, an inanimate object and, later, the men around her who might be vulnerable to blackmail. Annie cannot enjoy innocent things like tea and dollies because her innocence has been taken, and her tastes now run more toward trying to seduce grown men (Corcoran), political intrigue (telling Morehouse, who may or may not have done it with Annie once at Pompidou’s brothel, that Elizabeth entertained a Confederate soldier), and just generally stirring shit up (her “slipping” it to Eva that Molly and Corcoran had a tryst now seems very much intentional, which means Annie played a small part in the woman’s death). As Annie also tells Morehouse during the ball, she does not see herself as a child even if everyone else does—she sees herself instead as an experienced woman.
One character who experiences a significant turning point, rather than exhibiting typical behavior, is Maguire, who seems awfully cheerful for a man who has just lost his fianceé. That would be because he immediately finds comfort in the arms of the abortionist’s sister Mary Lockwood, rather saucy for a mission lady in that she asks Maguire to travel Europe with her with the inheritance received from Mrs. Grindle. This is the same Mary Lockwood who has been blackmailing men all up and down Five Points with the aid of her sister’s invaluable client list, so the true source of her wealth is rather suspect. Although Maguire is now dangerously betrothed to a woman far more mysterious, devious, and intelligent than he, her love gives him the confidence to confront Corky about his life choices. In the first time Maguire has ever stood up to his best friend, he chides him for wallowing in the past rather than accepting that his wife is gone, as Maguire has reached that stage of grief, and says Corcoran has no right to judge others with so many demons of his own. Before this moment, Maguire’s loyalty to his pal seemed blindly unshakeable, trumping even his love for Molly but not, it seems, his love for this new woman. Watching someone take Corcoran to task is satisfying, but given Corky is the show’s hero and Ms. Lockwood a gothic witchy type, I suspect they are setting this up to be a bad thing, perhaps even the beginning of a tragic rift.
As with most episodes of Copper thus far there is an issue with the uneven personal drama overshadowing the far more interesting big-picture issues before the latter have had a chance to be properly established. The events of “La Tempête" swirl around issues of the Civil War - a kind of a big deal thing that the show often allows us to forget is happening - but does not address them directly. Many shows with a significant historical backdrop either ignore that context entirely, so it is simply not the point, or use it as a point of entry before narrowing to its characters’ personal dramas, which are given greater meaning as a result. Copper started with the tiny, specific world of back channel Five Points and in theory will gradually expand to address national issues as they affect the local community, in reality neither here nor there. The novel approach is a good thing, but the inability to commit to it is not.
- Three choice bits of awkward, artless dialogue this week:
- When Elizabeth wins Mr. Morehouse over to the idea of co-hosting a ball, Robert announces “the winner is Elizabeth, by a knockout.” Oh, right. Because he just came from a boxing match. Cute.
- Maguire shows how much he would like to have a farm, by talking about farms, while on a farm: “The world would probably be a better place if it were just farm animals.”
- Mary Lockwood’s incredibly sensitive response to Maguire’s uncertainty in being over Molly before the body’s gone cold wins him over with logic: “Your Molly’s dead. I’m here.”
- Elizabeth is at times shrewd and clever, as when she wraps both Morehouse and Captain Sullivan around her finger through flattery and manipulation, but at times filled with rich girl naïveté, like when she lightheartedly refuses to believe Corcoran regarding the violent gang making their way to her party.
- A few moral quandaries and drawing the line at having sex with a 13-year-old does not make Corky a saint. He has a disturbing predilection for torture before any kind of—oh, what’s that word again?—evidence, and still schemes to collect money through illegal channels.