By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Safe Place

Who’s gonna protect me from you?
—Tammi (Mae Whitman)

Thief drew to its close this month with a somber, evocative, and very brief graveyard scene. While this first scene in the penultimate episode, “Flight,” set up for another splendid view of New Orleans’ statuary—angels, shadowed, viewed from below—it also reminded viewers of where Nick (André Braugher) was located, that is, immersed in death and mourning. Not only was his wife Wanda (Dina Meyer) killed in a car accident, but he was also responsible for the shooting death of a crewmember (Clayne Crawford). While the events seemed opposite—the abrupt loss of a loved one versus the dispatch of a crackhead punk who screwed up on a job—they became entangled for Nick, soon sucked into a storm of grief and risk.

Even before these grim developments, Nick’s life was hardly what you’d call stable. Neither was his identity, in any usual tv show sense. A thief by trade, though he told Wanda he was a car dealer, Nick was ever on the edge of chaos, about to be caught, about to lose trust with his men, about to lose control of an operation. And yet, he was good at what he did, juggling multiple lives and lies, while committed to Wanda and, to a testy extent, her daughter Tammi (Mae Whitman). Tammi distrusted Nick on general adolescent-stepparent principal (and, he suspected, because he was black), but their relationship launched into another dimension of tension on the night of the accident. As luck would have it, Tammi was witness to her mother’s death (she was in the car and then in the hospital during Wanda’s last moments) as well as to the shooting, she believed instantly that she was in danger.

She was right, of course, though she couldn’t know that Nick was the least of her worries. Insistently complicated and multilayered, Thief never let any single storyline hang by itself. Nick’s work made for all kinds of trouble, in particular a decision to take money from a San Francisco bank that belonged—unbeknownst to Nick and company—to a Chinese triad, drawing repeated fire from the assassins Vincent (Will Yun Lee) and Shrimp Boy (Parry Shen). From there, saving face and avenging perceived wrongs drove the two sides, even after Nick tried to return the cash. Corpses accumulated, and Nick’s surviving crew—Jack (Clifton Collins Jr.), Elmo (Malik Yoba), and Gabo (Yancey Arias)—began to question his judgment, regarding Tammi, the money, and their next job, stealing some $23 million from the U.S. government.

As its title suggested, various thieving actions took up much of the series’ energy. But Thief was more interested in the skewed angles from which individuals approached one another, whether their suspicions were informed by race, age, even legal and political parameters. Nick’s humungo heist involves all manner of imaginative feints, including posing as “Homeland Security” agents, art dealers, and cops. When Jack, shaken by the first episode’s murder, looked for comfort outside the group, he turned to the church, traditional home for rapscallions in search of forgiveness. Stubbornly self-reliant, Nick saw the turn as weakness. Jack’s suggestion that their job was collapsing because of some sort of divine retribution (“You reap what you sow”) drew only derision from Nick (“I told you to leave that holy roller shit at the door”), but the show allowed for some weird—or maybe just predictable—karmic cycle in motion.

At the same time, the New Orleans setting—post-Katrina, in ruins, if still grand and mysterious and strange—created a dense, nefarious, occasionally unreadable backdrop for the thugs and crooks who tried so valiantly to achieve control. At least enough that they might tell themselves they could handle what came next. But none of them could, and several were dead by the mini-series’ end. Some entered the action at obvious risk: cocky and lethal, the GameBoy-playing Shrimp Boy was yet juvenile, and unserious, seeing his work for his traditonalist Uncle Lau (Randall Duk Kim) as a means to test himself, to hone skills, to show off, to prove his worth over his “paper son” associate, Vincent. At the same time, Vincent, so brutal and so efficient, was vulnerable as well, in the early stages of Parkinson’s and looking out at an only diminishing horizon.

At still another same time, New Orleans Det. John Hayes (Michael Rooker) was looking to score, one last time, trying desperately to win back the respect, if not the love, of his supercilious wife Kim (Andrea Powell). “I sold out for you,” he moaned during the final episode, “In the Wind,” knowing that his official career was over, that his money couldn’t be enough, that he’d been used and outmaneuvered by everyone he knew. Deep in the shadows of their expensive home, she looked down on him, “Bullshit. You did it because you’re weak John. You always have been.” He was angry and desirous, needy and panicked, she was furious and disdainful: they ripped each other’s shirts off, had frantic, hard-breathing sex as the camera pulled away. By the time the scene cut back to them. Kim donning a new blouse, his chance was blown. “This does change anything,” she spat.

On a parallel track to Nick, John was less an antagonist than a foil, unable to change even as Nick was all about change. And Tammi was the sign of that change. As adults repeatedly showed themselves to be unscrupulous and selfish, she sought shelter, with her dad offscreen in Hawaii (who rejected her, repeatedly and profoundly), and then with her boyfriend, Keith (Michael Mitchell). Much as he thought he wanted to save her, though, Keith wanted his own “normal” life more, his senior year in high school, his bedroom in his parents’ home. At first, when he and Tammi took off on a road trip, their adventure seemed vaguely charmed, like in the movies. They woke after a night in Keith’s car, observed by young black children, their faces pressed to the window, reminders of the world the white kids didn’t know. “Do you ever wonder about the people that live around here?” asked Tammi. “What their lives must be like? I mean what do you think you would be like if you grew up around here?” Keith can’t even fathom the question, let alone imagine himself elsewhere. “I don’t know,” he said, pumping gas into the car. “I’d probably be the same.”

As he insisted on such a stable identity (and kept asking Tammi to use her cell phone so he could call his dad), she knew their adventure was over before it began. Having already survived a series of traumas that changed her sense of self absolutely, Tammi suddenly saw that Keith, for all his good intentions, was not her savior, that she’d be on her own after all. Nick’s version of this lesson involved a man who seemed trustworthy, his fence Riley (Albert Hall—and how are you not going to trust him?). Not anticipating this particular betrayal, Nick again left Tammi in peril. If Wanda’s death left him reeling, this new threat left him sure, for once, of what to do. He exchanged his millions for her, apparently without a moment of doubt.

Nick’s long, tortured journey from stoic and self-protective to resolute, led him to Tammi, a white girl who needed and disliked him. When, at last, they escaped with their lives and little else, she griped again about his plan, this one to send her to a “safe place,” a school. Her protest didn’t shift him so much as it made him speak, openly, for once. “I can’t take you with me, it’s not safe,” he said, his face focused forward at the road ahead. “A black man, a white girl traveling together on the road, it calls attention. For now you’re going to have to trust that I know what’s best.”

Still, she pressed, looking for more answers. “What can you tell me?” she asked. He could only promise what he had never done for her before, what he had not done for Wanda or his colleagues. “I will never lie to you, ever again,” Nick said, changed forever.

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