We've come to the end of season one of Brotherhood. This is the episode that's affectionately referred to as the show's "[Robert] Altman film." I call it a season finale that is not a season finale.
What do I mean by that? I've noticed a trend over the years, wherein season premieres and season finales are expected to be huge affairs. Things explode, mysteries are created, cliffhangers are written, et cetera. For some shows, that works. At other times, the need for a huge event comes dangerously close to eclipsing the actual point. Thankfully, Brotherhood's first-season finale is not one of those productions. It's much simpler: a fundamentally good episode concerned only with completing the story that the series set out to tell. Take note, TV creative teams everywhere.
The entire episode is set in and around one heck of a wedding reception. We all know that putting large amounts of people in a room with alcohol is interesting enough, but this also allows for all our major characters - and therefore all our available plotlines - to intermingle. This is the smart play - there's no chance that someone or something is going to get passed over - but also risky because the writers have to ensure they do justice to basically, the bulk of the entire series to date. They waste no time in setting things up: within the first seven minutes, we know that Moe Riley (Billy Smith), somehow not dead yet, has been enlisted by Freddie Cork (Kevin Chapman) to kill Michael, that Declan (Ethan Embry) is there to mind Marty Trio, who's wearing a wire for the U.S. Attorney, and that Tommy (Jason Clarke) is considered collateral damage. All this comes out quickly and efficiently, something I appreciate more as I see shows that handle setting up their stories like something to be glossed over en route to the second act.
After ticking him off previously, Tommy takes a tongue-lashing from Judd Fitzgerald (the always great Len Cariou), who introduces him to U.S. Attorney Ellis Franklin. It's Franklin's idea that Tommy should give a sworn deposition about the criminal activities of Freddie and his brother. While Tommy reminds him (and us) that he has no knowledge of such things (suspicions don't count), Franklin says that testifying will protect Tommy in the future should anyone use his brother's rep to attack him. As much as I want to slap the guy every time he appears on screen, he has a point. After all, we saw how much harm Michael's reputation did to Tommy in episode four. After Franklin leaves, however, Judd tells our boy wonder that, should he testify, it's not committing perjury if he honestly doesn't remember certain things. He's a crafty one.
The women take the scheming and dealing of their men in reasonable stride. Eileen (Annabeth Gish) chats with the old friends she never sees, and begins to think that while her life might not be perfect, it's a damn sight better than theirs. It's all about perspective, and you can kind of see the lightbulb come on. Cassie (Georgia Lyman) is surprised that Declan is on the job, but takes it pretty well. And Rose (Fionnula Flanagan) gets drunk, which is exactly what most of us would do with an open bar.
Moe's first attempt at killing Michael - when he's having another tryst with Kath, whose husband is starting to catch on - is aborted when he realizes that Mary Rose, Tommy's eldest daughter, would be a witness to the crime. Okay, so sometimes he can make a smart decision.
Meanwhile, now that he knows Franklin is out to bring down Tommy as well as Freddie and Michael, Declan risks his neck to protect his old friend. Seeing Marty trying to cozy up to Tommy, he slips away and calls Tommy's cell phone to inform him that Marty is wearing a wire. Tommy quickly gets away from Marty, and meets up with Declan for an explanation. He's not pleased to know that Franklin is Declan's boss, given his earlier meeting with the man. Now well on his way to drunk (foreshadowing his problems in season two), Declan informs Tommy that he can't protect him anymore. He's feeling the screws being put to him on either side of a bad situation. After a brief confrontation with Marty, who knows exactly what just happened, he aims to get further smashed but Cassie won't let him. Ladies and gentlemen, Ethan Embry, slowly but surely taking over this episode. His work on this series is miles away from anything else I've ever seen him do, before or since. This role was clearly his golden opportunity, and he certainly made the most of it.
Having put the pieces together, Tommy brings his concerns about a potential double-cross to Judd. "I think he's out to get me and he may be out to get you," he says, but Judd is unmoved. Not only is Judd unmoved, this is the first time that Tommy (and we) are clued into the fact that he's slipping in his old age, as he claims to have known Franklin since the first grade, despite the other man being twenty years younger than him. The expression on Jason Clarke's face says it all: maybe we can't trust this guy's allegedly infinite wisdom like we used to. We understand Tommy's bewilderment and even fear perfectly. After all, he's aligned himself with Judd pretty heavily, so now he has to wonder if he's on a sinking ship - and given how much power Judd still wields, how much chaos is going to ensue when it sinks.
Emboldened by large quantities of alcohol, Declan decides to come clean to Cassie about all the horrible things that he's been a part of since the beginning of the season. She's shocked and leaves him in the parking lot; their relationship is never quite the same again. While I can't blame her for being surprised, I don't feel completely sympathetic towards her, because he did warn her that she didn't want to know, and she insisted on being told. In that respect, she brought it on herself. But Declan has to lose Cassie somehow, because that's the last straw that causes him to begin a desperate spiral out of control. If anyone's really collateral damage, it's Declan.
Tommy confronts Judd's wife Peggy (Helen Carey, who's just perfect in the role) about her husband's mental state. She seems unbothered, but tells Tommy that he should do "everything you can to protect him." As if that doesn't give him enough on his mind, Mary Rose tells him that she saw Moe in the parking lot. After confirming that he is, in fact, still there, Tommy has another confrontation, this time with Freddie, who has no problem telling him exactly what he thinks of Michael. The two of them trade threats back and forth, but surprisingly, it's Freddie who gets the last word in. He takes Tommy back on his heels a little bit, which is a bit frustrating as we've come to embrace Tommy by this point - you can't believe that he's going to stand there and take that. But yet again, the bad guy is actually right. Isn't that frustrating? Well, it's supposed to be.
Downstairs, Peggy decides to have a word with Rose about her intentions (whatever they are) toward her husband. "I was jealous at first, but I got over it," she tells Rose. "Besides, it's not like you were the only one." Thankfully, Rose is saved from brooding by the appearance of son-in-law Jimmy (Bates Wilder). Jimmy may be a ridiculous screw-up, but as Rose points out, he's a really nice guy, as well as a counterpoint to all the drama everyone else brings.
Eileen wanders into the bathroom and find the blushing bride in tears. Seems she's pregnant and that's why she got married - but she's not sure that it's her new husband's baby. We learn that it's a familiar story for Eileen, who was married to Tommy at nineteen and was pregnant with Mary Rose either right before or right after their wedding. She does her best to console the young woman, while we can obviously see the painful parallels between her unhappiness and Eileen's. It's like looking backward at her own personal history in the (re)making. There are so many different things going on in just that one moment: Eileen knows that she's not alone in feeling how she does, can see how her own insecurities really are destroying her, and in helping the other woman, is clued in for the second time to how she really doesn't have it as bad as she once believed. For any or all of these reasons, she realizes that she has to come clean about her own feelings and the things they led her to do, no matter how difficult - and we know that it will obviously be difficult. Thanks to the previous episode, we know how much of a temper Tommy can have, and if there was ever a reason for him to be angry, infidelity would be it.
While everyone else is distracted, Tommy dispatches Mary Rose to get Michael's attention. It's time for them to have a conversation. The two finally meet in another room away from prying eyes and ears. Tommy asks his older brother what it would take for him to leave town. "You said you'd never hurt me, Mike," he says. "If you don't leave town tonight, you'll destroy me." He explains to Michael everything that's happened to him over the course of the episode. Michael, who doesn't want to go anywhere after being gone for the last few years, tells his younger brother that he should testify so as not to compromise himself. For all that Michael has done (and we know it's a long list), here he is at his most vulnerable. We can understand his desire not to abandon the home he's finally gotten back, and we have to admire that he's trying to do something selfless to protect his brother. At the same time, we know Tommy has to protect himself, if only to protect his family - and while he still recognizes Michael as family, there's a difference between Michael and the wife and children who are depending on him. There's an incredibly awkward hug before Tommy walks away, leaving Michael on his own both literally and figuratively. It's a point driven home by a beautifully staged last shot that has Michael standing there alone, the fact that the camera is shooting from above making him look smaller than we've ever seen him before. The shot also functions as foreshadowing for what happens next.
Michael walks into a very inebriated Declan in the parking lot, and lets him know that he plans to do something about Marty. Declan's response to this is to finally snap and administer a brutal beating that leaves Michael unconscious and bleeding from an egregious head wound. With all the enemies that Michael has made, it's shocking that it's a friend who does him harm (yet, like all the best surprises, it makes perfect sense once you consider it). It's also an interesting artistic choice. If you're counting, this means that Michael appears in only two major scenes, being left behind by his brother and then assaulted by a childhood friend. That only serves to emphasize both the character's apparent strength and actual vulnerability; in reality, the two people he's closest to have just turned on him, leaving him alone at least as far as the developing drama is concerned. Yet in everyone else's eyes (including ours), he's so powerful that you wouldn't notice he's hardly seen until you think about it. Everyone's talking about him. And that omnipresent feeling only makes his falliability at the end of the episode even more stunning.
Inside, completely unaware, Tommy is caught off guard by Eileen when she turns him and says the four words no one ever wants to hear in a relationship: "We have to talk." And when most shows would consider what happens next the payoff moment, Brotherhood ends there and leaves us wondering. The first time I saw this episode, I was definitely wanting just a few minutes more.
Besides working perfectly as a three-part arc when taken with the previous two episodes, "Matthew 22:10" works ingeniously as a season finale because it completes the season. When it's over, there's a sense of the season having told a full and realized story. Yes, the writers plant plotlines for a second season, but this isn't a setup for season two. They're not getting ahead of themselves. They're focused on finishing what they started, and they finish in strong fashion. Some characters reach inevitable points, others surprise us, and it all happens with only one major "moment" at the end of the episode. There are no shenanigans here, just good, old-fashioned solid storytelling. It's clear by the season finale that Brotherhood has a rich and fully realized universe. The episode takes its focal character - one of the two main characters of the entire series - almost completely out of play and everyone else carries the hour just fine. You don't even notice that Michael isn't around until you actually think about it.
Then there's Tommy, who's become our hero over the course of the season, faced with the complete collapse of everything he's worked so hard for. In other words, his worst nightmare and the thing he's been worried about the entire time. We see his career threatened by Franklin's vendetta, which also pushes Declan away from him. The one major ally he's had in his corner is no longer sound. And he's about to find out that his wife has been unfaithful. Tommy had it all when we met him, and now the sky is falling on him, a lot of it not even being his fault. Given that we're predisposed to root for him, this is painful to watch, especially as Jason Clarke does a great job of showing how Tommy gets more and more uncomfortable as things go on. And yet despite that, there's still a nobility to Tommy; as Freddie points out, he's gone from not caring what happens to his brother (in the pilot) to making threats if anything happens to him. Even when he has every reason to, he doesn't throw Michael under the bus. (It's worth noting that Tommy doesn't explicitly tell Michael that there's someone out to kill him, but given that he threatens Freddie with harm if anything happens to Michael, I can't believe that he deliberately omits that fact out of malice.)
And Eileen reaches the inevitable point where she has to face up to all the things she's done, and lied about doing. Let's face it, she had to get here eventually; it was either that or she was going to get caught. It would be unrealistic for her to continue to get away with her behavior forever, and a complete waste of dramatic potential besides. The question is what repercussions she'll face for it. By this point in the season, we've come to understand that her behavior is not a reflection on the failings of her family; it has nothing to do with them and everything to do with who she is and who she wants to be. But will Tommy see it that way? Or will he take it personally? Well, those are questions to be answered in season two.
Last but not least, there's Declan. I certainly couldn't have predicted that he'd be as major a character as he is by the end of this episode. The poor guy has been having the screws put to him all season, while just trying to do the right thing by both his own moral code and the people he cares for, so it's no wonder that he finally lost it (as well as his wife). What's surprising is his choice of target, although I suppose that taking his anger out on his boss would have been even worse for him, and Michael did himself no favors by telling Declan that he planned to go after Marty. It's generally not a good idea to tell someone employed by an agency you often work against what your plans are, even if they are a friend. And that's where the surprise comes from: Michael probably has a laundry list of people who'd like to see him hurt, but in the end, it's a friend and not an enemy who takes him down. He's prepared to face his enemies, but not his friends.
Every single major character has changed, for better and for worse, in the first season of Brotherhood. Yet they haven't changed too much; fundamentally, they're still the people we know and want to know. We leave them having resolved the problems of season one, while there's still a great journey left to take with them in season two. Everything comes together, and yet it all falls apart. Not unlike the ironic, sometimes duplicitous nature of the entire series. And that's why this finale is perfect.
Normally, this is where we'd close the book on looking back at a show. But there's so much more to be said about Brotherhood that I can't resist continuing to analyze the series. Read my exclusive interview with series creator Blake Masters, and join me next week as we begin looking at my favorite episodes of season two...