City on Fire brings its mysteries to a steady simmer [Apple TV+ recap] | Cult of Mac

City on Fire brings its mysteries to a steady simmer [Apple TV+ recap]


Nico Tortorella in ★★★☆☆
William (played by Nico Tortorella) finds himself in hot water this week on City on Fire.
Photo: Apple TV+

TV+ ReviewNew Apple TV+ drama City on Fire, based on the book by Garth Risk Hallberg, tries to crack its central mysteries wide open this week.

William discovers he has a connection to the attempted murder of Samantha. Regan discovers she has more rats in her nest than she imagined. Charlie finds his allegiances tested as his sanity frays. Keith’s troubles are getting worse, and he still hasn’t even hit bottom.

Entitled “Land of a Thousand Dances,” it’s a good episode of the Dickensian potboiler, but it’s almost undone by rookie mistakes.

City on Fire recap: ‘Land of a Thousand Dances’

Season 1, episodes 4: Charlie (played by Wyatt Oleff) is having a flashback to the time he and Samantha (Chase Sui Wonders) went Christmas shopping for her anarchist friends. She buys an old book for Nicky (Max Milner), later a singer of her favorite band Ex Nihilo (formerly Ex Post Facto) and an arsonist, back when he was just a rabble-rouser in a squat.

She offers him a piece of advice he doesn’t heed. The key to meeting your heroes is acting like you don’t care. This was a few months before she was shot in Central Park by an unknown assailant, a mystery many people are trying to solve.

Charlie’s currently living with Nicky and his band of squat-living criminals, including Nicky’s sometimes sidepiece Sewer (Alexandra Doke) and her anger-prone boyfriend, Sol (Alexander Pineiro). Charlie and Sewer are handing out flyers to stop gentrification, which, like Ex Nihilo, is a front for the fact that they’re burning down abandoned buildings in Brooklyn. Or they are until Charlie sees a wanted poster with a drawing of his face on it, prompting a quick departure with the cops on their tail.

William’s bust leads him deeper into the mystery

They aren’t the only ones running for their lives, either. William (Nico Tortorella), disgraced artist and drug addict, is selling handjobs in a public toilet when he gives one to an undercover cop and gets arrested. Knowing he has but one card to play to stay out of jail, he puts in a call to detectives McFadden (Kathleen Munroe) and Parsa (Omid Abtahi), who are investigating Samantha’s shooting.

William’s boyfriend, Mercer (Xavier Clyde), was the guy who found Samantha’s body in the park. And he was wearing William’s suit when it happened, which means that the police found a bunch of heroin in the suit that belonged to William.

William knows he’s wrapped up in the murder beyond his boyfriend having been at the scene. He’s in the band that Samantha was obsessed with. (Minor point here: Would they interrogate a guy in a room with a big corkboard with all the pictures relating to an ongoing investigation? Seems like you wouldn’t want a criminal to see that. As Buck Turgidson would frantically tell us: “They’re gonna see the big board!”)

Plus, he knows all the players in the murder, between the band and his family, whose Upper West Side apartment Samantha was shot near. In a development that truly beggars belief, Parsa lets William go and gives him a file full of evidence on his way out the door. Now that seems like total bullshit, even in Bloomberg’s Manhattan.

A litany of dismaying discoveries

As for William’s family, they’re in their own hot water. William’s sister Regan (Jemima Kirke) is fighting a proxy battle for her father’s company with her uncle, Amory (John Cameron Mitchell). She’s also reeling from the fact that her husband, Keith (Ashley Zukerman), was having an affair with a college student (that would be Samantha).

Regan discovers something even more unnerving about the situation and needs Keith to see it. (Keith, like the guilty moron he is, was hanging around Samantha’s hospital room with flowers when Regan called.) Weeks ago, Regan received a note from an anonymous tipster with just the words “He is 1ying to you” typed on it.

Regan thought it was from Samantha, but she opened her son Will’s (Chaise Torio) little laptop and discovered it was missing the “L” key. So if you were trying to write the word “Lying,” and didn’t have an “L,” you might reach for the 1. So this means a few things. Will knew Keith was having an affair and he wanted to hurt his dad. This answers a few questions but poses a good deal more.

Charlie’s name on wanted posters makes him a topic of some consternation in the crust punk commune. Sewer and Nicky want him to stay, but Sol is getting sick of the little guy. Sewer tries to kiss Charlie that night when everyone else is asleep, but he says he can’t give any part of himself to her while he’s worried about Samantha. She is a little hurt but has to admire it, so she just hugs him and tells him her real name: Larraine.

Charlie redoubles his efforts and though Sewer makes a show of caring, she also notices he’s not giving his full energy to the cause of the commune. He’s too busy looking for Samantha’s missing camera. He doesn’t find it, but he does find a very well-hidden roll of film.

A mysterious meeting

The following morning, Nicky excuses himself from breakfast to go meet with someone in private, which arouses Sol and Charlie’s suspicions. However, it’s only William, who was staking out the commune, who follows Nicky long enough to see what he’s doing.

And what he’s doing is meeting with Amory, who has been paying (or promising to pay) Nicky and the rest of the Ex Nihilo gang to burn down property in the city. Of course, the last time they did it, they used a bomb. So now the authorities think it’s terrorism, not just bad buildings past inspection catching fire.

Amory fires Nicky, who then threatens to go to the cops, but Amory isn’t worried. Who are they gonna believe? Some punk or the fifth- or sixth-wealthiest man in New York?

Tit for tat

In retaliation, Nicky sends Sol to rob Keith and beat the hell out of him, basically in front of Will. Keith was Amory’s bagman, the guy dropping cash off to Nicky for a job well done. And though they can’t kill Amory, they can at least hurt Keith. Plus, they’re all still smarting from the fact that he, in their eyes, seduced Samantha.

Keith apologizes to his son, who comes clean about writing the letter to his mom about Keith’s affair with Sam, but it’s gonna be tough for them to get past this, especially when something else comes out. Parsa and McFadden stop by to talk to Regan at her office but don’t get very far before Amory interrupts them and tells them to come back with a warrant.

Before they leave, the detectives impart one last piece of the puzzle. Samantha was a freshman, so barely, if even, 18 years old. Regan calls Keith, furious about it and though he can’t deny anything about how gross that all is, he does get one crucial out from the raft of accusations.

She says she doesn’t think Keith shot Samantha … after all, where would he even get a gun. Well, funny she should say that. Keith did have a gun. He was doing very illegal things for Amory in seedier parts of town, so he felt he needed it. The trouble is, that gun isn’t where it’s supposed to be and Keith thinks he knows where it might have gone.

Say Say My Playmate

I have a grievance with modern TV editors. Music supervisors go to all this trouble to get them music, and then they just clumsily edit around the songs for the clip. In this case, it’s “Wolf Like Me” by TV on the Radio, a song that’s been used in more movies and TV shows than you could count on two hands.

Why would the City on Fire team secure the rights to this song at all? (It was recorded in 2005, and appeared on an album in 2006, while this show is set in 2003.) But more importantly, why would the editors jump from the intro to the middle of the first verse, then leapfrog to the last few seconds?

Maybe you should start the song earlier? Time the scene to the song instead of the other way around? Or find a song that’s a better fit for the scene? (By the way, they do the same thing with Interpol’s “Hands Away” like two minutes later.)

Good mystery, so-so action

It’s a minor complaint, I guess, though it hints at the show’s uncertainty in handling its action beats. City on Fire just never builds a head of steam as a gritty thriller. As a mystery, it’s frequently quite good. And I like that they’re finally getting to the part of Hallberg’s book where William becomes a detective, even if they handle getting there quite hamfistedly.

It shouldn’t be this hard to write a transition from William having lost himself to drugs to finding himself in the middle of an investigation. But it really feels like they forgot about it, and at the last minute just drove over the median to get there.

Overall, City on Fire is an engaging show. I just wish the writers trusted that we could wait a minute for a plot development.


Watch City on Fire on Apple TV+

New episodes of City on Fire arrive Fridays on Apple TV+.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Watch on Apple TV

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper and But God Made Him A Poet: Watching John Ford in the 21st Century, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at


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