Apple TV+ thriller series City on Fire runs down its best leads this week. William has escaped an attempted murder, and flees to the one place he knows he might be safe. Nicky and Sol have one more trick up their sleeve to get even. And Charlie finds some disheartening things that put him even further in jeopardy than he was a few minutes ago.
Entitled “Annus Horriblis,” it’s a fine episode, even though it gives in to some of the very silliest tendencies prestige TV has to offer.
City on Fire recap: ‘Annus Horriblis’
Season 1, episode 6: Artist, musician and newly recovering drug addict William (played by Nico Tortorella) is floating in the East River when he comes to, awoken by memories of swimming with his sister Regan (Jemima Kirke) when they were kids. He’s in the filthy water because his old anarchist pals and bandmates, Nicky (Max Milner) and Sol (Alexander Pineiro), tried to kill him at the behest of William’s uncle, Amory Gould (John Cameron Mitchell).
Amory’s been up to all manner of shady real estate fraud, like paying Nicky and Sol to burn down buildings all over New York. This resulted in not a few fatalities, the latest of which was William’s former manager, Bruno (Felix Solis]). After that, William threatened to finally take down Amory.
As a result, William found himself in the center of a mystery involving the attempted murder of Samantha (Chase Sui Wonders), an NYU freshman and former lover of Nicky’s. Samantha was around when Nicky set a fire that killed someone. William was one of Samantha’s idols, because he once sang in her favorite band (Nicky took over as lead singer).
When William was arrested for solicitation, he saw a mountain of evidence in Samantha’s case at the police station. He offered to help, feeling touched by the case in a way he hadn’t been touched by anything in a long time. When he found out his hated uncle Amory might be involved, he got overzealous and spoke too loudly about the case. And that got William tossed off a boat and left for dead.
Searching for a shooter (and building a bomb)
William isn’t the only one investigating the crime against Samantha. Charlie (Wyatt Oleff), her one-time high school classmate and current would-be-boyfriend, has been living with Nicky and his crew of arsonists looking for clues. He’s faintly aware that Samantha’s one-time criminal crew and band friends are probably responsible for her getting shot.
Charlie found a roll of undeveloped film in Samantha’s old room — and in it, a clue to one of Nicky’s crimes. He does a little digging and nails the photo to a specific arson and the death of a clerk in the blaze.
When he goes back to the commune, Charlie finds Nicky, Sewer (Alexandra Doke), D.T. (Dylan T Jackson) and Sol building one huge-ass bomb. Nicky tells him the bomb is going to get him revenge on the guy who shot Samantha. Doesn’t that sound intriguing?
Amory comes by to see Regan, only to discover William’s boyfriend, Mercer (Xavier Clyde), commiserating with Regan over William’s disappearance. NYPD detectives McFadden (Kathleen Munroe) and Parsa (Omid Abtahi) came to the site of the fire that killed Bruno, and relayed the information that William had gone missing.
Amory isn’t too happy to hear that there’s even a shadow of a doubt that William could be alive. But he can’t exactly let that be known. So, with a thinly veiled threat to Mercer, he takes his leave.
Regan lets Mercer stay the night. And in the morning, he has an epiphany: the family house in the Hamptons. Turns out that’s exactly where William is. He stole a boat last night after he extricated himself from the river, then sped up there in the middle of the night, passing out on the lawn.
A plot in the Hamptons
Now it’s just William and the groundskeeper, Jacob (Brian Keane), hanging out up there. Jacob only remembers that William was a wastrel and a drug addict. However, he loved William’s mother before she passed away, and is bummed about what’s happened to the family since then. So he’s all ears when William says he’s interested in nailing Amory.
One summer, Amory paid a guy (John Bubniak) to seduce and abandon Regan, though it turned into more of a full-on sexual assault. A year later at their dad’s wedding, it came out that Amory was giving that rapist a seat on the board of directors of his company. So Regan told her dad, and he removed the guy and gave his seat to her.
What William wanted but didn’t get was for Amory to be excommunicated from the family. No one would listen to him, though, so he just left the wedding and didn’t speak to the family for 15 years. William and Jacob rifle through Amory’s file cabinet at the Hamptons house and discover he has files on everyone. They learn that Regan got pregnant after the guy assaulted her, then had the kid and gave it up for adoption.
They also find a file on Nicky, which includes a recommendation that he be included in something called the L.H. program. Mercer and Regan arrive and are thrilled to find William alive. They still have to tell him Bruno’s alive, but when they do, Regan and William finally embrace for the first time in decades with nothing but love between them.
I received your message in full a few days ago
It’s an absolute howler this week on City on Fire when Regan flashes back to the halcyon days at the Hamptons house and she’s dressed like ‘mid-80s Madonna and William is dressed like George Michael. Then we meet the guy who attacked Regan, and he’s played by John Bubniak, who looks about 18.
These people are almost 40 — they do not pull this off. It’s absolutely hysterical, right out of Wet Hot American Summer. I have no clue what year it’s supposed to be, but the impression is that it’s somehow 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1989, simultaneously.
Also kind of funny: When Charlie sees the enormous bomb that Nicky made — which might as well have TNT written on it and come out of an Acme Corporation box — he incredulously, and in a tone suggesting a first-time realization, asks Nicky, “Do you even care about gentrification?”
If it was intended as a joke, it’d be right up there with Jeff Sadecki’s harried, “What, there’s no book club?” from season one of Yellowjackets. Come on, man. You’ve been living with these psychopaths for weeks now. You can’t just be catching on that Nicky’s not all there.
It’s a perfectly fine episode otherwise, but man, we endured some pretty silly stuff this week.
Watch City on Fire on Apple TV+
New episodes of City on Fire arrive Fridays on Apple TV+.
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Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. 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 Patreon.com/honorszombie.