With Show Me a Hero, writers David Simon and William F. Zorzi and director Paul Haggis have flourished in the miniseries form by delivering a nuanced and controlled narrative about the complicated, real-world effects of a divisive political issue. The balance they strike is masterful in how they portray all the key players in the 1980s Yonkers housing crisis — from the politicians, both for and against, to the protesters against low-income black families moving into the “white” neighborhoods, to the many families themselves — with empathy and even-handedness, as well as how they look at the situation through both an intimately personal and a broadly political lenses.
Show Me a Hero’s greatest strength in the current political climate of extremes is its subtlety, its near journalistic balance, and its delicate commentary on modern racial issues.
Despite the constraints of the six episode format, characters and plotlines that felt initially rushed or poorly paced — from Nick (Oscar Isaac) and Nay’s (Carla Quevedo) awkward romance to Mary Dorman’s (Catherine Keener) sudden ideological shift — started to blend into the fabric of the narrative as the other smaller pieces began to blossom. The testament to this meticulously crafted framework is in the cathartic payoff of the fifth and sixth episodes. when the relatively minor characters we’ve seen struggle over the course of several years in the series’ timeline are finally given relief in the form of brand new townhomes in East Yonkers. Scenes of the new residents opening their acceptance letters, winning a spot through the housing lottery, and gawking at their new homes in a safer section of the city are endlessly satisfying after hours of degradation, political mischief, and injustice — an emotional payoff that escaped even the dense narrative infrastructure of The Wire‘s bittersweet conclusion.
Mary Dorman is given a conclusion to her arc befitting this ending. White, middle-class, and once a fierce advocate of segregated housing, Mary is allowed the opportunity to shed her ignorance by joining the housing committee tasked with making the integrated housing as smooth a transition as possible. In meeting the west side families, getting to know their needs, desires, and hopes, Mary grows in her ability to relate to them and thus normalize them (people she had previously othered) within her mind. She visits the projects for the first time, replacing her inexperienced resentfulness with the far more powerful wisdom of involvement. Mary’s emotional path mirrors that of the audience: after so much frustration and underlying rage, we’re given the catharsis of that corrosive ignorance washing away — not completely, of course, but enough to make a significant difference.
Nick’s arc, in contrast, is far less rewarding, both by design and not. No longer mayor and no longer supported by many of his friends, he angrily lashes out against anyone he can to make certain he’s not forgotten or ignored. This, of course, only burns more bridges, driving him further into feelings of loneliness and worthlessness. His childishness — a trait visible all the way back in “Part 1” — comes to dominate him, and as a result he goes on a destructive crusade to divide himself from both political allies and personal friends. His story is the inverse of Mary’s, who, outside of the political landscape, learns how to embrace the spirit of unity against the tantalizing simplicity of prejudice and ignorance.
Nick tries his hand at coming together by turning down another mayoral bid to showcase his loyalty to the Democratic Party and a new candidate, but the move is unsatisfactory for him, and only leads to greater animosity. His goals are superficial and selfish, and as we begin to see the west side residents given the renewed hope of the townhomes, Nick’s infantile political tribulations begin to feel more and more frivolous. We’re shown that political games — which so often rely on bald-faced antagonism between people — are wholly at odds with the goals of societal tranquility, even though they’re ostensibly engaged in the same dialogue.
Nick’s undying idealism failed him again and again. The Yonkers housing crisis, like all government and social policies, had only moral and political grey areas. The eventual success of the desegregated housing project was a product of compromise at every step of the way, and even Nick himself — despite what he believes his courage award says about him — was no ideological purist on the issue. In the end, he’s dismissed and ignored the same way the non-white citizens of Yonkers were, but only as a product of his own fatal self-interest. He goes to the housing lottery hoping to be recognized and maybe even championed for his efforts on the issue, but he never is. Eventually, when he is recognized by one of the townhouse tenants (by the legally blind Norma O’Neal, ironically enough), it’s for being spit on.
The ideas we carry around about the American dream are only myths for many in this country. Nick Wasicsko never abandoned his idealism, and that contributed to his ultimate dissatisfaction with both his life and his career. Politics isn’t about doing good in the world, it’s about power and celebrity. Any difference that’s made in the world as a result of those processes are achieved in spite of that fact. Show Me a Hero’s conclusion, too, is bittersweet, but it’s also uplifting. There are things we can do, and they can make a difference in people’s lives; a series like this can make sure we don’t forget that.