The Saddest Song You Know — Some Thoughts on “Copper”

SPOILER WARNING: Heavy spoilers for Copper through Season 2, Episode 5. 

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Hope is dead in Five Points.

It died in the latest bloodbath of an episode, which held as much emotional weight as a season finale (but is less than halfway through the 13-episode run of season 2). “A Morning Song” begins the way the entire series began: with a shootout over money. And through a series of brilliantly-played and staged tableaux, the major themes of the show come into stark relief.

I wasn’t going to write this post. I already tweet ferociously about the show and evangelize about it all the time in conversation. I don’t want to get boring about it. But I’ve got a “good story hangover” — that state where the story and its world stay with you even after the fun of consuming it is over — and I need to work it out of my system. So consider this my ode to a show that I think is one of the most interesting and (despite, or perhaps because of, the historical setting) relevant to our world today.

Instead of trying to write about the entire thing, I’ve picked out three scenes that I think are the heart of the episode and, indeed, the show so far. In doing this, I’m ignoring the growing importance of Donovan’s political machinations and his “dirty little side of the war” scene. I’ll let other pens dwell on the sociopathic brilliance of Keating and his speech about “handsome selfishness” and money being the only power. I’ll nod in passing to the small moments that made this episode, like O’Brien’s heartbroken plea to Maguire or Sarah’s prayer (seriously, can Dylan and Tessa have more scenes, please?) And I’ll forget that Eva, Robert and Elizabeth were missing entirely from this episode. (I like to think Morehouse was still cuddling that big mutt.) I’ll leave all of those and focus on three relatively small moments that illuminate the conflicts of the show and perhaps point the way forward.

The first season was about secrets being discovered — finding Corcoran’s wife, solving Maggie’s murder, discovering Maguire’s betrayal — and this was reflected in the police procedural part of the show. A crime was discovered and resolved. Justice was (mostly) served. The coppers could go home at night (or to Eva’s for a roll in the hay) knowing they did some good. But the secrets slowly came out until there was no more illusion that justice could be served in such a pat, open-and-shut way.

Season two has been about the violence that comes from those secrets. Violence that lives in every man and woman in the show. Violence done more to the soul than the body, though there are good few bodies racked up this season. The American Civil War is omnipresent, but so far in the run of the show has been a kind of backdrop. The experiences the men have had in the war have been veiled and referenced only in carefully small ways. But the strain of that violence is now spilling over and into the open. It’s no longer secret. It’s violence in a war for domestic liberty and security that can never be won.

Three specific scenes illustrate the themes that I think have been roiling in the background and are finally coming into the open. They work best when discussed in reverse chronological order.

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Corcoran and Maguire Face Off

Again. They’ve been here before. And that is the very point. The violence repeats, getting more vicious each time. Corcoran and Maguire have been fighting this “brother-against-brother” war since the beginning, though it was silent for much of season 1. But this episode brings it roaring to the forefront. Brother against brother is not just on the battlefield, it’s everywhere and it’s the open wound from which all the other putrid violence pours.

I think it all comes down to a simple, insurmountable fact: Corcoran went to war and Maguire didn’t. As tall as are all the other mountains between them, this is the most important, the one that can never be scaled. It’s why Corcoran cringes and protests when Donovan later calls Maguire “a soldier.” In Corky’s eyes, he’s not, since Maguire never fought a battle. In that final scene, it seems that Maguire finally realizes that Corky will never forgive him for that. The war has separated them in ways too deep to overcome. It’s why it feels like, even though Maguire is a detective once again and Donovan is forcing Corky to work with him, they will never be able to resolve what’s happened between them. Before the war, they might have been brothers. If Maguire had slept with Ellen then, there might have been forgiveness. But not now. Their experiences (or lack of) on the battlefield separate them. Their positions as lawman and outlaw separate them. Even their accents separate them, as Corky’s has become more and more “American” and Maguire’s brogue has become even thicker after his time with the Druids. This brief moment as they stand before the flag, locked in this never-ending struggle against each other, seems to say it all, and, from what we know of the war, must end with the destruction of one side or the other.

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The Shadow Must Eat Its Own Self

And destruction is exactly what Freeman sees coming. For a season now, the shadow of the battlefield has been looming. Freeman’s speech in this episode pulls it into the forefront and connects it to what’s now happening in the precinct. In a quiet moment after operating on the police chief, Freeman looks dazed as he sits down hard in his chair and says,

I don’t know why, Sarah, but there are days when a shadow descends upon a place. A dark, bloody paw, same as on the battlefield, same at the precinct today. And yes, one can fight it with all his might, but it’s almost as if the shadow needs to beat its own self to down, eat its own self before it fades away. There are days this world makes no sense to me. None at all.

And there it is. That dark shadow of something putting it’s bloody paw on all that’s gone on in Five Points. The shadow that must devour itself, that cannot be beaten away or boozed away or fucked away. As Freeman says, a man “can fight it with all his might” but that won’t do any good. And yet, neither Corky nor Maguire can kill the other. As many opportunities as they’ve had, something keeps them fighting through it.

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The Saddest Song You Know

And we’d like to believe that that something is love, that somewhere in the midst of their hate Corky and Maguire remember that they love each other. But violence kills love quite openly in the scene that I think holds the key to the entire episode and maybe to the whole show thus far. It’s in the title of the show, after all: “A Morning Song.”

Keating, the villian, asks his captives if anyone sings.

Keating: What’s your name?

Felix: Felix the tenor, sir.

Keating: Why’s that?

Felix: Because, sir, my name is Felix and I sing tenor.

Keating: Well, Felix. I want you to sing me the saddest song you know.

Within a beat, Felix begins to sing. The song is called “The Lark in the Clear Air”, and though the tune is heart-wrenching, the lyrics themselves are about the hopefulness of love. The singer is fond of a woman who has finally smiled at him. He sings of being up with the dawn in order to declare himself to her.

Dear thoughts are in my mind
And my soul soars enchanted
As I hear the sweet lark sing
In the clear air of the day.
For a tender beaming smile
To my hope has been granted
And tomorrow she shall hear
All my fond heart would say.

I shall tell her all my love
All my soul’s adoration
And I think she will hear
And will not say me nay.
It is this that gives my soul
All its joyous elation
As I hear the sweet lark sing
In the clear air of the day.

Traditionally, the lark is a symbol of hope, love, and the dawning of something new. Yet this is the song that Felix chooses as the saddest song he can think of. He only sings out two lines before Keating cuts his throat. It’s a callously violent act that took me by surprise. Upon a second watch of the episode, I noticed that it’s also the first time in the episode that Maguire looks visibly unsettled. Even in the midst of so much violence (quite a number of people have already died or been shot), this death seems different.

I wrote this post mostly so I could talk about this scene. It has stayed with me in a very visceral way. And the more I think about it, the more it grows in importance. For such a short and seemingly insignificant (or gratuitous as some Tweeps have called it) scene, it contains multitudes.

Felix’s death feels empty. There’s no reason he has to die. And with his death, it becomes clear that hope, the saddest song you know, is also dead. Hope, and with it the possibility of love in all its forms, has disappeared from Five Points. And so, though not outwardly wounded from the war, there are deep wounds of the soul still open, even in those who didn’t fight in battles. It’s a collective trauma from which no one can escape. And now even hope has been cruelly cut down.

Each person in this show has fought for love and hope. It’s why the Morehouses are together and Ellen is still with Corky. It’s why Corky clings to Annie so tightly and why Maguire wanted, in spite of all his personal experience, the security of marriage and friendship. But love, as Felix sang, is the saddest of all songs in Five Points. And love suffered a death blow this week.

The teaser for next week hints that hope might be coming back in some big ways, with Eva heavily pregnant and Sarah’s mother rescued from slavery. But I have a feeling Copper will keep demanding that we pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears. I’ll be there for the ride.

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