The moment when Show Me a Hero finally broke me comes late in part five, and I just wasn’t prepared for it. I should’ve been; after all, I’d read this piece by Alyssa Rosenberg, which beautifully captures the way director Paul Haggis subtly conveys, in his staging and compositions, the series’ theme of how the pride in one’s home is the unspoken bond that all its players share. She writes about the scene, earlier in that episode, where community organizer Bob Mayhawk (the exquisite Clarke Peters) comes to the door of Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener) and asks for her help. “Mayhawk takes exquisite care with the home Mary loves so much,” Rosenberg notes, “wiping his shoes carefully on her doormat, brushing up the crumbs from the pie she offers him and depositing them back on the plate so they won’t sully her rug.”
But later in the episode, there’s a symbolic bookend to that scene. Mary joins Mayhawk’s committee, and as part of her work on it, she’s part of a group visiting perspective tenants for the new townhomes in their current residences—in the projects. The hallways seem to confirm her worst fears about the kind of people who dwell there (“What are the bad stairwells for?”). But once she enters those apartments, she sees these people. She sees their families. She sees their photos. She sees their tea sets, for God’s sake. And when one of the women puts a teacup with a tiny chip in its rim in front of Mary, she quickly switches it with her own, because she wants her guest to have the good one.
It’s the tiniest moment. And it absolutely wrecks you.
The full transformation of Mary Dorman, from an angry voice at city council meetings to an ally and supporter of the townhouse tenants, is the more predictable outcome of Hero’s final two parts; we sort of saw it coming from the beginning, as Dorman wasn’t some sort of cartoon villain, and it’s written and played with the delicacy and subtlety required to make it work.
The more surprising outcome is that of Nick (Oscar Isaac), presumably the “hero” of the title. There comes a moment, about midway through the final part, when it becomes clear how thoroughly writers David Simon and William F. Zorzi are going to thwart expectations—because we’ve seen stories like this, and we know how it goes. Sure, he’s felled by hubris and angling for affirmation, his actions clearly motivated not by doing the right thing now, but by confirming that he did the right thing before. He wants the kudos, but not the complexity.
That’s what puts him into the back of the room during the lottery determining who gets that first round of townhomes—and propels him out of that seat before it’s over, when he realizes he’s going to have to see the people who aren’t going to get one. It’s what later pushes him to turn up unannounced, late at night, at the townhouses; he’s looking for thanks and congratulations, and he’s met with suspicion and confusion. In moments like those, it feels like Show Me a Hero gets, with astonishing clarity, what’s really driving politics and politicians: the desire to “do good,” but without dealing with the implications and complications.
But throughout its run, Show Me a Hero has been about those complications. That’s why the four tenant stories, so seemingly tangential yet granted comparable screen time, were so vital; these are the people those city hall fights were about, too often rendered into abstracts. Their stories and conflicts and hope and hopelessness are, ultimately, more important than Nick’s redemption (or lack thereof), a point driven home by Billie’s eviction, or Doreen’s advocacy, or Carmen’s heartbreak. The exact moment will vary, but any viewer will have a moment in that lottery scene when they realize everyone we’re rooting for isn’t going to “win”; anyone with an ounce of empathy will share Carmen’s sorrow when she has to gather up her kids and take them back to the projects, or her pride when, at long last, she’s able to break out that good cookware.
When watching a fact-based story like this, it’s tempting to Google the players and get ahead of the narrative. I managed to resist that temptation, so Nick’s eventual fate came as a genuine shock—again, as a result of the expectations we carry into a something like this. Sure, he’s been descending into a pit of self-loathing and obsolescence, running around ranting like a madman, causing scenes and burning bridges. But he has to come out ahead, right? And when he has his breakdown in the attic, we presume he’s seeing the light (literally, thanks to the way that sunlight takes over the frame), coming to a realization, pulling himself together. And that’s why it’s so stunning that he actually just chose to come the rest of the way apart.
These recaps have probably given short shrift to the work of Paul Haggis, who directed all six parts, but he’s partially to “blame” for that; his work here is so un-showy and so unassuming that it doesn’t call attention to itself, the way it does in something like his film Crash. (For the record: his follow-up films In the Valley of Elah and The Next Three Days are both quite good, even if you’re down or agnostic on Crash, as I am; hopefully his work here will put some new eyeballs on those pictures.) But what’s most admirable is the way he trusts his audience to understand the dimensions of these characters—as opposed to something like Crash, which in the process of screaming about reducing everyone to their race, reduced everyone to their race.
Not that Haggis can resist a juicy bit of symbolism here and there. It’s just that in Show Me a Hero, those touches land. At the end of the series, after all the wrap-ups and where-are-they-nows, when we finally see what Nick was up to in that wraparound scene at his father’s grave, Haggis cuts away—to the “for sale” sign in front of Nick and Nay Noe’s house, one more reminder that, when you get down to it, our homes aren’t just political pawns or neighborhood inconveniences. They’re us; they’re where we live our lives.