City on a Hill Recap: Cleaning Up By Getting Dirty

By Tyler Howat
Published: June 24, 2019 (Last updated: November 7, 2023)
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City on a Hill episode 2 recap: "What They Saw in Southie High"


“What They Saw in Southie High” continues the story set up in the pilot by further showing the entangled, intertwining web of corruption, crime, and general crookedness in Boston.

This City on a Hill Episode 2 recap for the episode titled “What They Saw in Southie High” contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.

What’s become clearest to me after watching the first two episodes of City on a Hill is that this story isn’t going to get any clearer until the end. What was set up in the last episode as a series of interwoven stories showcasing the intense corruption permeating the mean streets of Boston is now, after “What They Saw in Southie High”, even more complex. More and more story threads compound the story, threatening convolution. In short, I fear this will lead to a good bit of muddling of the storytelling.

This is the main thrust of the plot: FBI agent Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon) and DA Decourcy Ward (Aldis Hodge) team up to investigate a series of armored car robberies. Both men know that this is going to require some ethical compromises on their part, because of how deep the cancer of crime runs throughout the city of Boston. If only things were this simple, plot-wise.

We’ve got half a dozen other fraying plot threads: Tommy Hayes (James Michael Cummings), one of Frank Ryan’s (Jonathan Tucker) crew comes under scrutiny; Frank and Jimmy gamble away robbery winnings; Frank’s wife Cathy (Amanda Tucker) is trying to launder the money; Ward gets an assistant; there’s a black-run political movement trying to fight the police and clean up the streets; Ward’s wife has political aspirations for him; a lady looks for avocados in Frank’s supermarket. There are probably another half dozen that I lost track of. This is a complex, bordering on convoluted, series. And with “What They Saw in Southie High”, we’re only in the second episode.

Ward and his wife Siobhan (Lauren E. Banks) are trying to build up a political platform in Boston so that he can move higher up from the District Attorney’s office. They’ve got their sights set on being a significant political couple, shooting for the mayor’s or governor’s office. To do this, they’re courting the goodwill of reverends in the city by attending high profile events and African-American community meetings. One of these events is a very public funeral of a drug dealer. During that funeral, a man bursts into the church, chased by two others who execute him in broad daylight. As police enter the crime scene, guns drawn, he begins to liaise with them as the DA, which does not ingratiate him to the black community. As we saw last week, Ward needs to find out where he fits in so that he can fight crime. And yet, he doesn’t belong to either side: the black community sees him as a traitor, but the cops do too because he’s fought against corruption in the police force. 

And Ward must rely on Rohr for help getting this investigation off the ground.

Rohr knows exactly where to go sniffing for the crooked elements – and he’s too crooked for most of them! In “What They Saw in Southie High” he shakes down a loan shark, snorts cocaine off the counter of a bar, skims bribe money for his snitch, has an STD scare from his side woman, lies to his family. His mother-in-law discovers he had himself tested for an STD and then they square off — another sign of his deep corruption to the core. This leads to his mother in law sowing seeds of doubt in his wife, with whom Jackie hasn’t slept in recent memory. He begins threatening his mother-in-law, backing off when she’s sufficiently scared, then joking: “You really think I’m that inhuman? Gimme some credit….” The answer is yes. He is that inhuman.

The heart of his series is the juxtaposition of the deeply antithetical elements of Ward and Rohr. After “What They Saw in Southie High” I hope that the writers begin to hone in on what they have in Bacon and Hodge’s onscreen chemistry. Rohr tells Ward that he’s living in “[w]hat they call the loneliness of the man who makes his own rules.” He’s an island of virtue in a sea of grime, and he won’t stay pristine forever.“ Well, one has to pay at all times and sometimes one has to pay dearly for being honest… your life is going to get assuredly worse from here on out.” While this might be unmistakable foreshadowing, it’s still letting us stew in the question: how dirty will Ward’s hands have to get before this is all over? Will he come out on the other side in any recognizable shape?

I’m genuinely intrigued about Rohr’s motivations. He’s both the angel and the demon on Ward’s shoulders, doling out sagacious wisdom and trite sayings at the same time. He lectures him on ethics while being the utter opposite. He’s a walking paradox: truly seeming to want to take down the big criminals in Boston while still taking his cut. He also wants to see Ward succeed. But what’s in it for him? Other than those two admirable goals, he’s a dirtbag! 

We find out that Jackie Rohr was inspired by Bobby and John F. Kennedy. In his own way, he wants to clean up the crime in Boston. He went to law school and made it through the FBI academy. He just knows that he’ll have to get dirty in the process and has made his peace with it. “I wanted to be that! And when [JFK] got elected and [Bobby] was put in charge of the justice department, becoming a Kennedy G-man was how my ambition solidified. Well, look at me now. Do I look like one of those New Frontier types? … No. But I know what I am and I know what I do well. And I know that I couldn’t do what you do. Guys like me need guys like you.” Rohr at one point looked a lot like Ward – idealistic and hungry for justice. But something got to him. The lingering question really is: will Ward look a lot more like Rohr by the end?

I am enjoying City on a Hill so far, but it’s certainly a fledgling show that is dangerously overambitious. It needs to strip away the extraneous and let the show focus on what it does best: philosophize on what it takes to fight to save a city that just doesn’t want to be saved. It’s trying to be The Dark Knight and The Town, and that’s just about too much to do.

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