In its finale, Show Me a Hero does successfully pull something off that’s perhaps unique to the history of television: it begins and ends as two separate shows. The first four episodes of the series focus on the almost exclusively white half of the cast, showing how legislation creating new public housing town homes finally made its way past the racist and intransigent Yonkers government. It’s a fascinating journey, with heroes and villains and drama, and everything you’d hope for, but it also tacks on stories of the people who might, perhaps, one day live in said housing. With the final two episodes of the show, those houses are real and it’s simply a matter of moving people into them and creating a non-hostile dynamic between the new residents and the old ones, which is a much more difficult task than it may seem. Here, the white characters’ stories feel tacked on, and the end of Oscar Isaacs’ Nick Wasicsko offers a strange conclusion to a story that really isn’t about him, and hasn’t been for the last two hours.
In a way, it’s natural that Hero’s story is bifurcated in this way. This isn’t the story of one person, or even one house; it’s the story of the way large groups of people and institutions affect other large groups of people. The spotlight has to shine on what’s relevant to the houses, it’s just that this leads to a nontraditional story structure that never quite gels. With these last two episodes, every time Nick’s story gets another few minutes of screen time it’s hard not to wish we could get back to the plight of those moving into the new townhouses, but that’s a tribute to just how well these final episodes dig us out of the first four’s hole.
Simply put, practically every problem the show had in depicting people of color disappeared in these last two episodes. From Billie’s heartbreaking story of being kicked out of her home because of her deadbeat boyfriend, to Norma’s acceptance of moving out of her high rise, these stories no longer felt rote or melodramatic. Carmen being passed over for the housing was the most heartbreaking scene of the entire series, while watching her move in, while cross-cut during the funeral made even that obnoxious choice feel meaningful. We watch as these new residents take control of their own fates and make these new housing projects into a community, and it’s absolutely inspiring in the best possible way. The optimism here doesn’t feel misplaced, it feels naturally arrived at from the growth of something better happening in these characters’ lives.
The obvious question is whether this could’ve been the case if we hadn’t had four episodes of intermittently jumping to these characters’ rote stories first. I don’t know the answer to that, though I do feel that perhaps with more time they could’ve been depicted as richly throughout the series as they were here. But then, there’s also something magical to watching everyone finally interact, to having all of the parts bouncing off each other as, for instance, Nick canvasses the townhouses and finds that only Norma is willing to even speak with him. David Simon’s shows always feel better as they get going, and many people stopped watching The Wire after the first few episodes because the connections weren’t there yet. When they happen, and the pieces finally fit, it’s an aesthetically breathtaking experience, and while I’d prefer a 10-episode or so version of Hero, that doesn’t detract from how well these last two episodes pull this off.
Even smaller things, such as Nay Noe’s previous lack of a personality or goals of her own, were addressed. Nick became more real, and Nay Noe became a fascinating figure trying to struggle through her husband’s selfishness, but unable to get through to him. Hero became a show of strong and complex women, and by the last episode the only male character really acting as a positive force was Clarke Peters’ Robert Mayhawk, who is already done with his job, having set up a self-governing system within the townhouses. While much subtler than the show’s racial dynamics, its sexual dynamics are just as progressive and as much a part of the show’s identity and “message.” While it’s overly simplistic to say that men got Yonkers into this problem and women got the city out of it, that’s certainly an underlying subtext, with Mary Droman’s (Catherine Keener) reformed racism contrasted against her male counterparts’ continued crusades for intolerance.
The only real demerit would be the continued staginess of Haggis’ directing. Characters pose for the camera, they direct their actions toward the audience rather than each other, and scenes always feel choreographed. We don’t need to see Nick’s suicide three times over the course of the show, and we don’t need to have his funeral be the most important event in the city’s history. The cast and writing are so strong that this element barely interferes with the show, but it is still there and it often creates a feeling of proselytizing rather than simply letting elements speak for themselves. Haggis doesn’t do a bad job in a traditional sense, but he’s more than a bit tone deaf to what the best part of this writing and acting really is. He’s too afraid we might miss the importance of every single scene to allow us to decide for ourselves what really matters, and this hand-holding is too simplistic for a show that relies on the idea of real suffering.
Hero is one of those shows that’s so good, you want it to be just a little bit better because then you could love it with no reservations. It’s not. There are rough edges all around, and a strange lack of cohesiveness within all of its elements that’s absent in all of Simon’s previous works for HBO. The whole, however, is greater than the sum of its parts, and the end of Hero is every bit as powerful and loud as it attempts to be. This is truly adult television: smart, political, moving, and—more than anything else—human, and it’s something we’ll all be returning to for years to come.