This City Shines Less — And More -With Every Season
City on a Hill Returns for A Brilliant Third Season
The term ‘frenemy’ didn’t exist in 1990s Boston, but its increasingly becoming the only word that works when you described the very complicated relationship between Jackie Rohr and Decourcy Ward, played by two of television’s greatest actors Kevin Bacon and Aldis Hodge in what is quickly becoming one of television greatest series Showtime’s City on a Hill.
When the series debuted back in 2019, the relationship between the upright Brooklyn-born Ward and the corrupt, immoral Rohr was at the center of the series. Neither man has ever trusted the other, but both thought they could use the other to their own ends. Ward thought he could bring down the corrupt Rohr in Season 1 but was completely outmaneuver by him at the season’s end. Rohr thought he could revitalize his career in an FBI that was increasingly lacking in allies, but all he managed to do was delay the inevitable. By season 2, facing dismissal he threw his badge in the Charles in the final shot of the season.
The series may have started out as a mirror of good and evil in the two characters, but throughout Season 2 it became brilliant because it showed both men inside the grey area. As Rohr’s career began to sink, interesting things happened. An unfaithful husband and a terrible father (he couldn’t handle it when his daughter overdosed in the middle of the first season), we began to learn more and more about Jackie’s childhood — and it made us more empathetic. In one of Bacon’s greatest scenes as an actor, he laid his soul bare and revealed a horrible moment from his childhood to Jenny and Betty, perhaps for the first time. When it ended, Betty silently walked up to her father and embraced him. No one would mistake Jackie for a saint, but ever since then; he’s become just the slightest bit more sympathetic and a lot better husband and father than he was before.
At the same time, Decourcy has increasingly become more intense. The same episode Jackie bore his soul; Decourcy and his wife Siobhan (Lauren Banks) were the victims of a shooting by a young man Siobhan was representing. The bullet intended for him hit his wife and killed their unborn child. Decourcy was more than willing to go down a vengeful path and do things you would have thought him capable of the first season. When the shooter’s brother ended up the victim of a prison stabbing at the end of the season, Decourcy was stunned at first but then admitted to Jackie that he’d known that would be his fate and he’d done it anyway. The ramifications are still being felt in the Ward household: Decourcy now carries a gun and Siobhan is still suffering from PTSD.
It’s not quite clear yet as the third season begins how Jackie and Decourcy’s paths will end up intersecting this year. The season opened with Jackie tending bar and Decourcy buying a drink. There were mutual insults (as always, Jackie’s cut deeper) but that was only a temporary situation. Jackie is now working security for one of his former bosses at the Bureau. (Corbin Bernsen finally gets to play a proper villain after decades of just playing sleazy character who were ostensibly good guys.) Donal gives Jackie some minor problems at first, but we know very quickly that Jackie’s real job will be cleaning of his dirty laundry. The first scene we meet him, Donal is raping an unconscious teenage girl who happens to be one of his daughter’s closest friends; he then goes to back to bed with his wife, who asks him: “Did you have fun?” When the victim has trouble remembering the events the next day, Donal brings a bottle of wine to her dorm room, says she seduced him, and that he was a happily married man. The next day she OD’s and his daughter, no fool, blamed him.
Interestingly, now that Jackie no longer is bound by the precepts of the law, he seems to be not only a better cop but have slightly more of a conscience. Last night’s episode begins with him querying the M.E. about the OD and working with former agents so that he can get information on how the victim died. When Donal’s daughter disappears, he spends the remainder of the episode hunting for her with only the slightest bit of his usual venom and more genuine interest in what happened than we ever saw him the first two seasons. You can never rule out that Jackie is working solely to protect himself (his self-interest trumps everything) but this is the first time in the series that we’ve actually seen him as a good investigator. It’s not going to take him long to fathom the truth; Donal’s bribing him with a BMW at the end of the episode notwithstanding. The question, what will he do?
Decourcy has been sidelined the first two episodes mostly dealing with his father, who has been suffering from pancreatic cancer and finally passed the last episode. (It’s always good to see what a fine actor Ernie Hudson is, even if he only gets small roles.) But he’s dealing with his own issues: his political boss (John Doman, who should have a masters in playing sleazy officials) is offering him a promotion to DA, and then forces him to compete against another minority in order to get it. Decourcy is still dealing with the fallout of last year’s police shooting of Anton Banks, the man who tried to kill him last year, and now the officer in question is facing life in prison. In the season premiere one of the key witnesses was killed by what seems to be a fellow cop, and now the officer in charge of the strike force (Matthew Del Negro) is dealing with being considered a traitor to his units and a monster to the dead man’s wife.
City on a Hill never walks away from hard questions and doesn’t pretend there are answers. In the middle of last night’s episode, Decourcy asks his brother, a Brooklyn cop what he would do if a man killed another cop. His brother doesn’t hesitate with his answer: “What are the circumstances?” To be clear, both men are African-American and if doesn’t prove blue will always trump black, I don’t know what will. In one of his last remarks to his son, Mr. Ward tells his father: “You’re not going to absolve Boston of its sin and vice.” The problem is, even with his father dying and after everything else; Decourcy will never be able to stop.
There’s actually a lot more going on then with Jackie and Decourcy. Both of their wives are very busy with their own storylines. Siobhan, who quit her high-powered law firm after the shooting and is now working for the ACLU, is currently in the middle of a lawsuit for a worker who suffered a major brain injury on a construction site where there was clearly safety violations and drinking on the job. Jenny (the always incredible Jill Hennessy) is in the middle of volunteer at a community outreach program and has yet again encountered the gadfly priest who she ran into throughout the first two seasons. (For a series that has moved on from many of the characters from the first season, I kind of wish they’d let this one go.) Jenny is still trying to deal with the trauma of her father, who spent years abusing her and when she tried to face him at the end of Season 2, refused to let her in the door. Near the end of last night’s episode, he shows up at the worst possible time, and (much like her mother did) shows no interest in making amends.
A few months earlier, I referred to Ozark as an ‘awards bait show’; one that puts together great actors, showrunners and producers but often doesn’t have anything new or different to offer. City on a Hill has all the hallmarks of one such show — all of the actors I’ve mentioned are among the best in television; the series is executive produced by Tom Fontana and Barry Levenson who brought us Homicide and Oz, and its executive producers include Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. The thing is, Showtime has produced a lot of series that could be considered award bait shows — I speak of the exceptional Brotherhood in the 2000s, Masters of Sex during its run, Billions in its first three or four years, and this year’s The First Lady. These series all have two things in common with City on a Hill; 1) they were all worthy of praise and awards and 2) they never got any. Such has been the fate of a cable network that has often produced series as good or even superior to work that we see on the eight-hundred pound gorilla HBO but almost never gets the credit from the awards circles it deserves. Such is likely to be the fate of City on a Hill which has no mind-bending human hosts or travels to the Upside Down or twisting journeys into what we consider corporate America. All it will ever have is brilliant acting, writing and directing and looks into traumatic issues we have never faced and probably never will. It will ‘only’ be one of the best shows of the year in my book, but considering the world that Ward and Rohr must live in, that will have to be enough.
My score: 5 stars.