It's one thing to produce one great episode. It's entirely another to have a great arc of episodes. Brotherhood's ninth episode was near-perfect - and the tenth episode continues a sterling conclusion to the first season of the Showtime drama.
Firstly, the episode has another shocking opening. I somewhat choked on my soda when I was greeted with the image of an unfortunate soul who's been thrown to his death off the roof of a building. Pete doesn't like the guy very much. Not that it matters as he's now in a pool of his own blood on the sidewalk below.
Rose and her friend later stumble across the crime scene, and the women of The Hill decide to do something about the declining status of their neighborhood. There's a certain irony in hearing her talk about what she believes the source of the problem is, while we know full well that her son and his best friend are the ones who threw the guy off the roof in the first place. That irony is there for a reason; at the episode's conclusion, Rose finally stops being an apologist for Michael and admits that he's a gangster. The revelation is more than due, and it's a neat trick to watch and realize that this first scene is a hint that makes perfect sense by the end. It shows that the writers aren't underestimating their audience; they're trusting us to find these clues and fit the story together ourselves, rather than telling us what we should take away from it. In a television landscape ever more geared toward short attention spans and lowest common denominators, I'm always glad to find a series that allows me to be an active viewer rather than a passive one.
Speaking of finding things out, life gets really awkward for Tommy, who's visited at the State House by his father Neal's live-in girlfriend. She's just dropped by to tell him that his dad has used his half of the family home as collateral on a bank loan. Jason Clarke ranks right up there with Nikita's Shane West when it comes to mastering the perplexed expression. You can literally see the half-beat it takes Tommy's brain to believe that this is not a cruel joke. It's a minor thing for sure, but I appreciate when an actor makes every moment mean something, even if it's just the pause before the next line.
Tommy brings this bombshell to Michael, spelling it out for him (and us): if they don't bail their father out of debt, their mother will lose her house thanks to this little ploy. Quietly incensed, he suggests to Michael that they pay their father a visit, to make sure that he signs over his half of the house once the debt is settled, and to stab him with the pen for good measure. We know by this point that it takes a lot for Tommy to get legitimately angry, let alone violent, so that last part is another hint that something big is going to go down. Not to mention that this scene is beautifully done; there's a two-shot with a support beam between the two brothers, a subtle reminder of the fact that there's always something separating them, even when they're now on the same side of a situation.
They take a road trip to a racetrack in Connecticut, the journey to which consists - as far as we see, anyway - of the two of them debating which one is more likely to commit aggravated assault. I normally loathe scenes like this, because many writers believe that simply because the audience hears something said about a character's personality or competency, we're supposed to take it as the truth. That approach works when we're discussing a non-negotiable fact, but not something which is subjective. However, Brotherhood backs up this scene with the next one, wherein it becomes very clear that Neal Caffee (Kevin Conway, who's played a jerk in almost everything I've ever seen him in, and therefore is probably a very nice man in real life) is a guy who deserves to be stabbed with a pen. It takes me all of a minute to want to do it myself.
The scene is something I appreciate almost more as a writer than as a fan, because it's less about what is said and more about what isn't. If you want a really good example of how actors elevate a script, this is one of them. Watching the facial expressions of Jason Clarke and Jason Isaacs adds a whole other dimension beyond the dialogue as the brothers confront their father for the first time. They run the gamut from massively uncomfortable, to painfully disinterested, to probably thinking of ways to kill him and places to bury the body. You can write cues into a script all you want, but there's no substitute for actors who can express those intangibles, and these two do it so well here that there's no doubt what's going through their heads. We don't have to be told. We just get it.
Neal coerces his sons to drive him home under the pretense that he'll sign the papers if they do, but once they arrive, not only does he resist the idea, but he also reveals that he has a much larger debt than they know. If you thought that it was Michael who'd snap first, you'd be forgiven for thinking so, but you'd also be wrong; it's Tommy who loses his cool, the final straw coming when Neal uses several choice words to describe Rose. At that point, he gets a much deserved fist to the face and Michael has to pull a seething Tommy from the house. While there's no doubt that Neal totally asked for it, there's a ferocity to Tommy here that's a certain degree of terrifying, because it's something we're not used to seeing from him, except for episode seven, and this far exceeds that. (At the very least, it confirms to me that I don't ever want Jason Clarke angry at me.)
Michael tells Tommy to go home, and let him deal with the situation. It's become clear to Michael that he's going to have to handle things his way - and although we're predisposed to think of that as the wrong way, the violent way, the way that means things are going to get ugly - there's a pretty big part of me that says I don't care because Neal so obviously deserves it. It's a feeling that's poignant because it's also clear that Tommy has the same realization. When you can see through the eyes of your main characters, for better or for worse, that's talent all around.
Michael does what he does best, and not only does he settle Neal's debt and save his mother's home, but he intimidates him into leaving Rhode Island and staying out of everyone else's lives for good. As much as part of me wanted to see Neal beaten to a pulp, the final confrontation between father and son is refreshingly nonviolent, and I think that's a much smarter choice on the part of the creative team. As I've said on many an occasion, any actor can play malice. It doesn't take much creativity to raise your voice, or throw something, or lash out. It is much harder to create a legitimate sense of menace and inspire fear. Letting Neal get smacked around would have been satisfying, but the easy way out. Not only is it almost more frightening that Michael doesn't attack him, but it proves that he doesn't have to resort to violence all the time to get his point across. That would be so one-dimensional of him.
Let's stop and consider this for a moment. Many TV characters have miserable excuses for parents, particularly fathers. I'm sure we can all name a few. This is not a novel idea. What makes it work, however, is that the writers do not use Neal as an excuse for how his kids turned out. He's a complete waste of space, but we never hear that it's his fault Michael grew up to be a gangster, or that both of them probably have some anger issues. All too often, bad parents end up being a false justification for why characters are less than great people. I'm so glad that's not the case here. Tommy and Michael are who they are because of the choices they made. While I'm sure their upbringing is a factor somewhere, they're held responsible for their own actions. We're even spared the usual "he's a jerk, but he's your father" rhetoric. Likewise, Neal is judged by his actions, and not given a free pass because he's related. It's a refreshingly objective approach that invigorates an overused idea.
Back in Providence, Tommy has his own issues as a parent to deal with. He discovers that oldest daughter Mary Rose is working for Michael, and in the resulting argument, Mary Rose lets slip about finding one of Eileen's joints. The fact that this puts Tommy one step closer to discovering his wife's drug abuse is almost an afterthought. He's no idiot; again in this episode, you get the sense that he's already fairly sure she's lying. I hate to go back to the same thing over and over again, but if you watch Jason Clarke's face when the subject comes up, Tommy's reaction to Eileen's lack thereof is extremely telling. (Anyone else answer for her when he point blank asked her if she was on something after he got her out of trouble with the cops a few episodes back?)
The real point is that he takes Mary Rose's working for Michael as another sign of Michael taking over, like his daughter is a pawn in a contest between them. He's totally missing the point, but his brother issues have been well established. Especially in this episode, he's cognizant of what his brother is capable of. Just because he realizes that Michael is right in dealing with their father doesn't mean that he has to like it; in fact, it probably scares him a bit. He's protecting his daughter, and in so doing, he's also protecting himself. When he tells Michael that he wishes Michael had never come back to Providence, you wonder if he means literally, or metaphorically in terms of what disorder Michael has brought into his relatively stable world, or both.
Meanwhile, Pete is still trying to convince Eileen that she has a problem and that she can get help for it without ruining her husband's political career. This storyline, in particular, is genius because it flips the script when it comes to the two characters that I was least concerned with. Up to this point in the season, I hadn't made up my mind on Pete, who seems like the kind of guy we should dislike were we to meet him. I was also still not that fond of Eileen, in part because of my attachment to Tommy and in part because of my honest hatred of Annabeth Gish's character on The X-Files. Yet what do we learn from this storyline? Pete's not completely beyond redemption, and Eileen, for all her floundering, is at least forming some sort of empathy with him.
Yet even in the glimmer of hope, there's a sadness to this as well: while Pete tries to save Eileen, he ends up losing himself. Pushed to the brink by one more misstep, he gets drunk, kills a kid who's made the mistake of shortchanging him, and turns up to see her in desperate need of help. Situation reversed, she doesn't know what to do with him. In fact, by episode's end, she's enabling him. After lying to her husband yet again, no less. But why should she have a clue? Pete's world isn't hers; it's just the one that she stumbled into. Just like Tommy with Michael, she's realizing that her side is not that far removed from the other side, and it makes her more than a bit uncomfortable. But that's one of the underlying themes of this whole show: good and evil, or whatever you want to call it, aren't as far apart as we like to believe, and they often intersect.
There's a concept that I like to refer to as "setting the table" when it comes to the end of TV seasons. There's a common belief that season finales are supposed to be huge deals; these days, it seems like there's more and more pressure to pack them with plot twists, big explosions, or some sort of cliffhanger, sometimes in lieu of an actual proper conclusion. With that in mind, the episodes before are sometimes (or at least, common sense dictates they should be) used to "set the table" for the big final installment. Something I like about season one of Brotherhood is that it bucks that trend. I view the final three episodes as one great sequence, culminating in a satisfying finale that, while it has its big moments, doesn't feel like it's trying to be a showstopping number. It's more concerned with properly finishing the story that the season set out to tell. This episode both builds on the momentum from "Ecclesiastes 7:2" and leads into "Matthew 22:10." And never do I get the sense that it's trying to make one last huge play for my attention; the writers are confident enough in their show to know that they already have it.
I think the best thing I can say about this episode is that it exemplifies the intellectual appeal of television as an art form. In my academic career, I was priveleged to take, and later to contribute to, a course on cinema as literature. I never looked at film the same way. If I were teaching a course on television as literature, I could make an entire unit around this show. I could use it to teach others how great television is anything but a passive experience. And that is pretty awesome.
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