Near the start of the new season of Copper, an angry Irishman named Buzzie Burke (Noah Danby) bursts into the frame. He’s come after Eva (Franka Potente) in the Five Points, Manhattan brothel where she conducts her business. Seconds later, another man arrives, equally violently. It’s 1865, and Eva’s ex-lover, Detective Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), isn’t bound by laws protecting anyone’s Constitutional rights.
Inserting himself so violently between the thug and the madame, the Civil War veteran Corcoran faces a darkness that permeates much of this premiere episode of Copper‘s second season, a darkness that obscures distinctions between lawful and illicit activities, the city’s Irish and African American communities, just and unjust intentions. In part this darkness is a function of a broader political context—Abraham Lincoln’s assassination is just months away—but it is also premised on the increasing influence and corruption of New York’s Tammany Hall, embodied here by General Brendan Donovan (Donal Logue), new to the series this season.
Darkness seems to follow Donovan from frame to frame. Back in New York after a stint in the Union Army, he’s arrogant and tough. As he puts it, “I’m the kind of man who likes to think everything suffers in my absence.” When Donovan first strides into the Sixth Precinct, his face is obscured by heavy shadow as he berates the young officers and beats one of them for no apparent reason.
As it becomes clear that Donovan means to reshape the city’s fledgling police force, Corcoran’s place in this developing political landscape is yet to be determined. On the street, at work, he seems at ease with shadows, but at home with his wife Ellen (Alex Paxton-Beesley), where the rooms are brightly lit, he remains distrustful, keenly aware, as we are, that she’s still recovering from last season’s ordeal, that is, the affair withorcoran’s best friend, Maguire (Kevin Ryan), the accidental killing of her own child, the forcible confinement and drugging in a mental institution.
The irresolution of this miserable past is underlined when the camera takes us deep into the maze-like city jail, where Maguire sits in a particularly dim corner. His glass eye catches a ray of light, reminding us that the man who killed two women and tried to destroy Ellen might yet create havoc in the coming season.
One sign of this havoc is Corcoran’s own conflicting feelings about Maguire. It may be that his confusion results in his violence against criminal suspects, including Buzzie Burke, or that it is a result of his loyalty to his fellow Irishman. This struggle between light and dark works as a metaphor for Corcoran as an individual and the Sixth Precinct as a whole, and vividly emerges in the era’s virulent racism.
This season, as before, Copper focuses this theme through the experiences of African American doctor and war veteran Matthew Freeman (Ato Essandoh) and his wife Sara (Tessa Thompson). Here, when they move outside the city for their own safety, their sense of dislocation is represented in the shadow of the urban skyline that’s visible from their new home.
Corcoran’s friendship with Freeman, based on their shared experience during the war, appears to influence his attitude on the job, which is to say, he doesn’t discriminate when it comes to using his authority to mete out his own brutal version of justice. In this, Copper reveals not only the grim living conditions of 19th century New York, but also the implications of unchecked police power.
Though he turns a blind eye to some crime, especially at Eva’s brothel, Corcoran appears the Sixth Precinct’s most admirable representative. He keeps his distance from high society events and political schemes. Amid such dishonesty and manipulation, Corcoran is a romanticized figure, much like the cops who populate so many TV shows set in the 21st century. Because he tolerates petty crimes, it seems that he’s defying Tammany Hall’s plan to clean up the streets, which constitutes another, more enduring sort of brutality. Whether that defiance can last remains a question.