Charlie finds a roll of undeveloped film that’s a missing piece of the puzzle surrounding the near-death of Samantha, the object of his affection. Nicky thinks he has the upper hand, but learns he’ll always be someone’s patsy. Plus, Keith and Regan follow a lead to a dead end, and Amory starts to sweat.
Entitled “Brass Tactics,” it’s an action-packed episode with few of City on Fire’s usual misplaced steps.
City on Fire recap: ‘Brass Tactics’
Season 1, episode 5: Charlie (played by Wyatt Oleff) has just discovered a big clue in his life-consuming investigation of his friend Samantha’s (Chase Sui Wonders) attempted murder in Central Park on the Fourth of July 4th in 2003. She hid a roll of undeveloped film in her room in the anarchist commune, which she lived in more than her NYU dorm. She shared the place with arsonists, criminals and musicians Nicky (Max Milner), Sewer (Alexandra Doke) and Sol (Alexander Pineiro).
When Samantha got shot, Charlie went to live with them to try and find clues about the crime. The roll of film is the first one he’s got (other than the conspicuously guilty behavior of the guys at the commune).
After Sol notices Charlie’s gone for most of the day, he threatens him. Charlie can lie well enough to get Sol to calm down for a minute, but Sewer (or Lorraine, which is her real name) knows better. Nicky goes looking through Charlie’s stuff and finds the photo shop receipt, and memorizes the claim number so he can get the pictures before Charlie does.
Keith’s in the hot seat
Charlie is a suspect in Samantha’s murder, but he’s not the only one. Recidivist rich guy Keith (Ashley Zukerman) was sleeping with her. And he did more than disappoint his son, Will (Chaise Torio), and his wife, Regan (Jemima Kirke) in so doing. He also aroused the suspicion of detectives McFadden (Kathleen Munroe) and Parsa (Omid Abtahi), who are in charge of Sam’s case.
They bring Keith downtown to talk about the alarming series of coincidences that make him look like the perpetrator. He was sleeping with the victim, a teenager. He works for Amory (John Cameron Mitchell), Regan’s massively rich and entirely shiftless uncle. And he was just mugged under suspicious circumstances (by Sol and Nicky, after Amory fired them; they were burning down buildings in the outer boroughs for him).
Keith wants to unburden himself because he already feels guilty about Sam getting shot. But before he gets anywhere with the police, Amory has him released, evidently having friends in high enough places that he can do that.
It’s confession time
Keith comes clean about everything with Regan. He says he suspects that Will took his handgun and shot Samantha in retaliation for what he perceived as an event that would break up their family. Regan and Keith talk about all this. And, though she’s exhausted, afraid and upset, rather than making Keith sleep on the couch she lets him stay in her bed for the first time in a long time.
When they confront Will in the morning, he admits he took the gun and sent a note to his mom about the affair to punish his dad. However, he says he used the gun to shoot a bird just to feel something. (Regan found the bird in the second episode of City on Fire.) That’s good enough for Regan and Keith. But after disposing of the gun, Regan comes back down to earth. This is still one terrible turn of events, even if no one in the family killed her husband’s teenage mistress.
William wants to find the attempted killer, too
Meanwhile, Regan’s brother William (Nico Tortorella), an artist currently getting himself off heroin, has decided that solving Sam’s attempted murder is his calling. Sam was a big fan of William’s old band Ex Post Facto. And when she was shot, the police found a bunch of records and zines talking about her love of the group.
The fact that she lived with the guy who replaced William in the band (that would be Nicky), and was supposed to be at their show the day she was shot, is too big a coincidence to ignore. William’s been tailing Nicky ever since, looking for clues. Of course, that’s not why he happens to be at a protest outside Amory’s office that Nicky and Sol organized as a front so they could quietly case the building. (They plan to blow it up or do something equally destructive later.)
No, William came to Amory’s office to tell him that he knows he was involved in Sam’s murder. He doesn’t know how yet, but he’s going to find out and take him down, to make him regret having stuck his greedy claws into his family’s business. (Amory sidelined William and Regan’s father, who is being indicted for financial crimes, in their business.)
As William is leaving the building, Amory calls Nicky and tells him that William is on his way out. If Nicky doesn’t want to go to jail, he should kill William right now. Nicky chases him to the Wall Street ferry and corners him there. William demands answers, but before Nicky gives him any, Sol puts him in a chokehold, then throws him overboard.
About those incriminating photos …
Charlie goes to get his photos, except that Nicky came by earlier, bribed the photo clerk, and stole the incriminating photos Sam took of him. And that means Charlie’s screwed — except for one thing. He remembers the day Sam showed him how to develop film.
He craftily steals someone’s NYU badge, and lets himself into the darkroom to develop the pictures himself. There Charlie sees proof that Nicky burned down a building with people inside. And worse, from Charlie’s POV, the pictures prove that he and Sam were an item before she was shot.
As all this unfolds, Nicky sends another of his guys, D.T. (Dylan T Jackson), to William’s studio to burn it down — and all his investigative materials with it.
William’s guru Bruno (Felix Solis) shows up, so D.T. kills him too. That’s a lot of damage from one office visit. If only William had kept his plans to himself.
New York cares … and City on Fire cosplays
I can feel City on Fire trying desperately to pander to me by playing Interpol songs as often as it does. I should be thrilled that there’s a show examining the milieu that meant so much to me as a teenager, but I too often feel like this one is cosplaying actual New York grime instead of really splashing around in it.
Still, this stands out as a good episode because it’s all plot. And you can usually count on an Apple TV+ drama to get out of its own way when the chips are down. Usually.
Here we get a decent opening, with Keith and the cops and the air of nervousness surrounding all the characters. And then the show just ricochets from development to development. The foot chase between William, Nicky, D.T., Sol and McFadden was a little sweaty, but it basically worked. And the triplicate unfolding of the studio fire, Sol trying to kill William, and Charlie breaking into the photo studio was paced just right.
It’s a shame City on Fire can’t just be the ’70s movie it so clearly needed to be in order to be fully successful, but as TV, it’s not bad.
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.