In the eventual annals of TV history, 2015 may very well go down as the year the tide finally turned on the white anti-hero protagonist. Which seems appropriate, given that Mad Men wrapped up its last episodes this spring, bringing to a close the story of the man who kicked off the whole trend. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but it can also be the quickest death sentence, as discovered by many shows that attempted to replicate that Don Draper feeling. So rather than continue in this futile vein, some limited series have pivoted to a more critical take on the popular TV archetype. It was there in the first seasons of True Detective and Fargo in 2014 but it found perhaps its most elegant expression yet in two excellent, underseen mini-series that aired this year: Show Me a Hero on HBO and Wolf Hall on PBS.
Though the two series are miles apart in terms of sensibility and setting, they share a remarkable amount in common. Both, for one, are essentially backroom political stories. Hall is based on the first two published novels of Hilary Mantel’s planned trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, the rare historical figure about whom much is conjectured but very little actually known. Thus the man presented in the series, as written by Mantel and expertly portrayed by celebrated stage (and, in the recent Bridge of Spies, film) actor Mark Rylance, should be accepted less as fact and more as creation, often his own. Cromwell served as the chief minister to the infamous Henry VIII and the bulk of the series dramatizes his attempts to engineer an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragorn so he can wed Anne Boleyn, precipitating England’s break from the Roman church and, once a male heir was undelivered, her execution. But viewers need not be well-versed in the specifics of history to be swept up in the intrigue of the royal courts and Cromwell’s plight.
That holds true for Show Me a Hero as well. Crafted with the same close attention to the complexities of systemic urban rot as Simon’s masterpiece The Wire, Hero centers on the explosive, protracted fight over a low-income housing unit set to go up in a wealthy, largely white Yonkers neighborhood and the ambitious, idealistic, newly elected young mayor Nick Wasicsko (played with his usual full conviction by Oscar Isaac) about to be crushed under its weight. There’s a lot of bureaucratic jargon thrown around in the city hall scenes as the city planners and councilmen involved in the negotiations break down the nitty gritty of its regulations and restrictions, which in the hands of less capable writers and actors could clog up the proceedings. Here, as was often the case on The Wire, the high-minded discourse of the politicians contrasts in devastating ways with the lives of the citizens on the ground, an underserved group of which Wasicsko sees himself as an advocate, though he lacks both the vision and the fortitude to actually back them up, particularly when the two sides are at an impasse.
It’s here that the two series begin to dovetail as deconstructions of Thomas Carlyle’s Great Man theory of history. Hero takes its title from the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, leaving out its crucial follow-up: “And I’ll write you a tragedy.” As both Hero and Hall potently demonstrate, the authors of such downfalls are often these great men themselves. Wasicsko is a classic dramatic figure, haunted by a dead father who never thought he’d amount to much, scrambling for the top of the political pile not out of passion but because it’s the closest thing in reach. He may be sympathetic to the concerns of his constituents but he can barely make the system work for himself, let alone the city splintering around him. He’s as empty as a campaign promise, and by the time movement is made towards building the housing his career has torpedoed. Any chance to stake his legacy on the promise of a new day for hundreds of hopeful residents has passed.
Cromwell, on the other hand, has few illusions that he’s helping anyone but himself, despite the regret he often feels at the carnage in his wake. Wolf Hall was an actual place but the name easily doubles as a metaphor for the merciless teeth-bared dealings of Henry’s court. Mantel’s novels are written from Cromwell’s point of view, often to the point of claustrophobia, which sets a considerable challenge for any dramatic interpretation to adapt. Rylance more than meets it, though; he’s present in almost every scene and the fleet movements of his mind are etched into even his subtlest expression. The flick of a single eyebrow, like the proverbial butterfly wing, can spell someone’s doom in the next installment. The son of a blacksmith who rose in the ranks due largely to his own guile and practicality, Cromwell knows exactly what he stands to lose by disappointing the king. He’s as trapped by the demands of a monarchical government as Henry but without the secure position that comes with royal blood. Not to mention a boss who, at any moment, could have his head.
As Don had his Peggy and Walter his Skylar, both Wasicsko and Cromwell find a foil in an unexpected feminine figure. While Hero’s catholic structure gives ample (and deserved) screen time to the myriad residents of the public housing complex, many of whom are struggling single mothers, it’s Catherine Keener’s Mary who emerges as the most indelible counterpoint to Wasicsko’s efforts. Mary begins the series as one of the most vocal opponents to the housing order, a blinkered and bigoted woman who grows increasingly disillusioned with the movement to which she’s dedicated herself, eventually breaking away to help the residents get acclimated in their new homes. It’s a moral awakening to our common humanity that feels true to life and also stands in contrast to Wasicsko’s eventual spiral into hopelessness and irrelevance. The two share almost no screen time but her conversion looms large over his story nonetheless.
Those who are better-read in British history than I am may not be surprised by the depiction of Anne Boleyn in Hall but one of the most misrepresented women in recent popular culture emerges here not as a simpering maiden but Cromwell’s cunning equal, whether acting as friend or foe. Claire Foy’s sneering pronunciation of his name becomes something of a running joke but there’s little doubt in Cromwell’s mind of her formidable strength as an opponent. He recognizes her ambition because it matches his own, and his begrudging respect for her shines through in their barbed interactions, even as he helps write her death sentence.
In the end, though, both men must bow to the systems to which they’ve pledged themselves. And while Hall and Hero have many lessons to impart to showrunners seeking to tell the stories of complicated men, they should be treasured by viewers for the mirrors they hold up to how we live today in a society that purports, falsely, to have rid itself of issues of class and gender. Our broken machinery can be fixed not by the efforts of remarkable individuals alone but the strength of shared community, and the happy accidents of history that give us the hope to keep trying.