Before he was taking back a city on FOX's The Chicago Code, Jason Clarke was taking over a different one, starring as Rhode Island politician - and sibling to a gangster - Tommy Caffee in Showtime's Peabody Award-winning family drama Brotherhood (2006-2008).
And "Matthew 5:6," the series' fourth episode, was my lightbulb moment.
I'd watched the first three episodes with interest, seeing characters develop and plots emerge, but I wasn't entirely sold. That is, until the Secret Service executed a raid during the Caffee family's Sunday dinner. Then I couldn't stop watching.
You see, thanks to a tip from another gangster, the feds believe Tommy's rogue brother Michael (Jason Isaacs from The State Within) is dealing in counterfeit money. They're right, but they don't know that, and neither does anyone else at the dinner table. They'd all just like to know why they're having guns pointed at them in the middle of an innocuous family gathering. It's honestly uncomfortable to watch Tommy's wife Eileen (former X-Files actress Annabeth Gish) screaming for her husband's help, while their children hide in fear from the agents literally destroying mom Rose's (Fionnula Flanagan) well-kept house. I mean, how would you feel if people suddenly stormed into your home and put a loaded weapon in your face? The sequence does a great job of conveying palpable fear, confusion and even an undercurrent of dread. We know Michael's a guilty man, and Tommy's suspicions are confirmed for sure by his brother's complete lack of reaction to the unexpected houseguests.
The look that Tommy gives Michael at one point could kill, and it's not hard to understand why. Motivated by the terror of his wife and daughters, the State Representative doesn't sit still, whether it's asking brother-in-law Jimmy to make sure the feds have a valid search warrant, or calling his office to enact a little political revenge by knocking off his calendar business having to do with companies represented by the wife of the judge who signed it. Michael, meanwhile, decides he'll calmly and quietly finish dinner. It's infuriating, until you remember that Michael is a career criminal - no doubt unfazed by things like agents upending all the furniture. That doesn't make it any less upsetting, but reinforces how different these two men are. Tommy's quietly livid, but still can't bring himself to say he hates his brother. And Mom is no help, more of an apologist for Michael than anything else - at least until she sees that her beloved Elvis record was broken in the raid.
And the raid, with all its negative attention, couldn't have come at a worse time. Tommy is trying desperately to close his real estate deal, knowing that his family needs the money to make ends meet. Yet now, the Speaker of the House decides that he won't be able to push through the necessary tax credits, using the incident as part of his justification. Tommy reminds him that it's Michael, not him, who's in hot water but it does no good. The only thing that will change his mind is if Tommy sacrifices his most cherished principle - his independence from the political machine - and pledges his allegiance to the Speaker. Tommy is visibly perturbed at the idea of becoming anyone's pawn.
And though he gets some small measure of revenge - having the Secret Service contingent kicked out of their hotel - he begins to crack under the pressure. After getting openly mocked in the local diner, he gets into an argument with Eileen when he sees her set to return the expensive shoes she'd bought earlier. He tells her that it's important to him for her to have nice things; though she relents, he's upset at what he sees as his failure to properly provide for his family.
Consulting with his new "friend," power player Judson Fitzgerald (Len Cariou), only confirms to Tommy that he has no choice but to give the Speaker his loyalty. It's gutwrenching to see him at the Speaker's dinner table, asked to recite the classic Rudyard Kipling poem "If" - the poignant words of which he's known all his life - as little more than a party piece. As if that's not bad enough, Tommy arrives home only to look down the street and see Michael being welcomed by Rose with open arms. His expression speaks volumes about his hurt and frustration, wondering how he can work so hard and end up in such dire straits, while his criminal brother can seemingly be fine.
When Eileen finds Tommy, he's a broken man. He asks how long they can cover their mortgage. She suggests going to her parents for a loan, but he's too proud to think about that. "I swore to you I'd never let you down," he tells her, and that's when I start crying. "When you do, I'll let you know," she replies, shocked that he thinks he has. She offers her hand and he takes it, knowing that at least, they're in this together. By this point, we know Eileen's already cheated on her husband, but it's still hard not to smile knowing that she's there for him when he needs her most.
Meanwhile, Michael is driven by a need to exact revenge, and to make things up to his mom, in that order. With his new boss Freddie expressing disapproval at the federal attention and wanting to take business away from him as a result, Michael ditches a fed tail and sets out to strike back at Moe, one of Freddie's soldiers who's always been at odds with him from the pilot. He tracks down Moe outside a strip club and separates him from his prosthetic ear - leaving cop and family friend Declan (Fairly Legal's Ethan Embry), who was supposed to have eyes on the guy, speechless except for making a gunpoint attempt to cover up the situation.
But Michael's not done. Together with a friend, he frames Moe for arson. With his missing ear found at the scene, Moe is soon arrested, and with their star witness discredited, the federal agents have no choice but to abandon their investigation, much to Declan's amusement. Michael celebrates with college student Shannon (NCIS guest star Scottie Thompson), who's getting tired of being that girl he meets in a hotel. He's incensed, but offers to take her for sushi and she agrees.
The next Sunday, Eileen tells Tommy that their two younger daughters are scared of going to dinner, lest there be a repeat of what happened. While they consider staying home, oldest child Mary Rose shows she's spent a little too much time with Uncle Michael - she intimidates her younger siblings into compliance. Eileen and Tommy have no idea how their kids have changed their minds, but think nothing of it as they rejoin their family for a thankfully uneventful Sunday dinner. Except for that kind of awkward hug between Tommy and Michael.
I'm really impressed with Brotherhood. I remember wanting to see it when it was airing, except for that I didn't have Showtime, and somehow I never got around to buying the DVD's until now. Well, I certainly have some remorse over that decision! The series started slow for me (albeit a necessary slow, as I needed to know almost everything I'd learned from the past three episodes to properly understand this one), but this is the episode that hooked me. There's a lot going on from a purely dramatic standpoint, but more importantly, it's fascinating to see how Michael and Tommy react to the situation, what that says about each of them, and how different they are. In particular, watching Tommy as he's put through the wringer professionally and personally is sort of like a beautiful train wreck - it's painful to watch but I was completely absorbed.
That's down to Jason Clarke, who gives just as strong a performance here as he does each week on The Chicago Code. Though he doesn't get to strangle anyone on this show either (unfortunately; I admit I kept expecting him to beat someone up at first), he's still magnetic. Tommy Caffee doesn't have the same forceful personality that Jarek Wysocki does, but both have that strength of character and Clarke brings the same gravity to the table. He's just as compelling without raising his voice or getting to kick in the door. And in this episode we see him take Tommy through so many emotions - from shock and anger to self-loathing and eventually acceptance. I was truly speechless. I was watching the collapse of a person within one episode, and Clarke moved through every step beautifully. Tommy is, to me, the definition of the term "working-class hero," and I love the guy.
And then there's Jason Isaacs, who is equally as on his game as he was in The State Within, just a lot less polished. He has presence, and he makes Michael certainly someone I'd never want to cross (or maybe even know). Yet though he is by definition a Bad Guy, he is not without his good qualities. He's infuriating when he seems to not care that his family is thrown into disarray, but the look he gets when Rose finds that broken Elvis record - you know it finally rings true to Michael that he's done real damage. While making it up to his family isn't his primary motivation for revenge, it's at least good to know that he's conscious of their hurt, and isn't completely a lost cause. If he were just a careless thug, I wouldn't want to watch him, but he's not. As much as I love Tommy, I'm equally as conflicted about Michael, and that's the point.
That's something I think a lot of TV shows miss these days. It's in vogue to make the protagonist an antihero - the guy with superior intellect but horrible behavior. We're supposed to let him get away with being a miserable person because he's clearly so much smarter/better/successful than us. But writers seem to mistake that bad behavior as a substitute for good characterization. Michael does some really horrible things, but there are never excuses made for his actions, and he retains a humanity. He's not another successful jerk we're supposed to smile at.
Clarke and Isaacs make a great pair together. It's easy to believe that they're brothers and they have that chemistry, but they also contrast each other very well. The amazing thing is that neither of them are American actors (Clarke is Australian and Isaacs is British). Seriously. These two guys play Rhode Island working-class guys note-perfectly, and neither of them are even from this country. Now that is talent, and I don't just mean the accents.
Brotherhood is a smart, subtle show. I've heard it compared to The Sopranos; I'm sure that I'll get hit for this, but The Sopranos never did anything for me. I do love this series, though, because I've been sucked into these characters, and because I'm so locked into their world I also understand the underlying themes that are at work. And those themes exist without us being beaten over the head with them. Yes, the show is built on the idea that Tommy and Michael are fundamentally different, but this is an exploration of who they are, not who TV would expect them to be. So many shows would find some obvious moment to show us that Michael is still a good guy. Well, he's not really. This isn't going to play to your expectations.
Brotherhood is great character drama: strong performances sucking us into the complicated hearts and minds of these two siblings. If you're enjoying Jason Clarke's work in The Chicago Code, you need to take a look at this show.
I just have one question: how did the guy who created and wrote for this amazing show go on to be one of the executive producers behind NBC's horrific Law & Order: Los Angeles? That, I still can't wrap my brain around.