Standing at the center of this mess is Oscar Isaac as 28-year-old Nicky Wasicsko, the city councilman who becomes mayor by separating himself from the incumbent on the thinnest of divergences (a vote for an appeal that the current mayor knew wouldn’t land anyway), and immediately finds himself stuck in the muck, gasping for air. Perhaps the most interesting character arc that we’re seeing develop over these first two episodes is the question of Nicky’s devotion—it becomes clear over the course of the first episode that he wants to be mayor not to make a difference, or to bring a city together, but just to be mayor (something he’s always wanted, he confesses, though he can’t seem to articulate why). He’s got his feet up on the desk, literally puffing a cigar, when the call comes in that the appeal he hung his candidacy on has been denied, and the assurance that “they can’t blame you” will prove small comfort in the days and weeks ahead. (I’ve never quite tuned in to the oft-made comparison between Isaac and young Al Pacino, but it’s impossible not to hear, in his line readings, that thin, reedy voice Pacino had in Dog Day Afternoon.)
That election is the primary thrust of the first episode, the single-episode through-line that’s taking place with the considerable table-setting of the season-long housing desegregation story in the background. What’s great about this stuff—as it so often is with Simon’s work—is that Simon and Zorzi don’t oversimplify or overexplain. They instead let you decode and interpret, putting situations and conflicts together; these are shows that demand, and reward, up-close viewing.
Episode two ratchets up the tension and, especially, the volume. With the appeal denied, Nicky actually has to lead, which looks initially like a poor fit; his sole contribution to the council’s first post-denial meeting is an empty “That’s what they pay us the big bucks for!”, and when he complains about the gig (“Hey, this mayor thing? When’s the fun part start?”), he seems to mean it. But there’s a wonderful moment during the roll call vote midway through the episode when Haggis pushes in slowly on Isaac’s profile, and you get a feeling that he’s steeling himself; he knows the fight that’s ahead, and he’s getting ready for it. And when the city is held in contempt thanks to the pandering and cowardice of those next to him, it’s still his picture on the front page of the paper.
A fair amount of the second episode—and the show thus far—features a recurring image that’s not exactly period-specific: Furious white people shouting at their representatives at ugly, angry public meetings. (I also can’t help but draw a line from Alfred Molina’s character to the kind of inflexible, blowhard Tea Party Republican who sees any compromise as a betrayal.) The barely-coded language of their objections to public housing and “these people” who “don’t live the way we do” is, of course, far from a period relic; witness the shocking audio tapes from a 2013 public meeting on Missouri school desegregation on a recent This American Life.
Among those mouthing such objections is an unrecognizable Catherine Keener, whose Mary Dorman is already looking to have rather a predictable change of heart, quietly admonishing fellow protesters that “I don’t think it’s right” to “make this all about religion.” Her reluctance, even her (dare say) reasonableness, is a key factor in the scene that closes this double-header: the quiet, fascinating phone call between her and Nicky. Unexpectedly finding his voice, rather than that of an underling, at the other end of the line, she’s forced to talk to him (and vice versa) not as opposition or as a figurehead, but as a person. And when she asks him why he won’t say what she wants to hear—that the ruling is wrong—his answer provides a key to the character, and the series. “That’s not what a leader’s supposed to do,” he explains. “A leader’s supposed to lead, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
When the phone call ends, the camera sits on each of them, contemplating the situation, for a few moments before cutting to black. And maybe that’s what makes Simon’s work so special—because even when he’s tackling these giant issues and political hot buttons, these stories are still, ultimately, about the people on the other end of the line.