“Fire in a Crowded Theater” puts white supremacy on the stand, with the First Amendment fighting its corner, and you can just about predict every beat.
This recap of Bluff City Law Season 1, Episode 4, “Fire in a Crowded Theater”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
Having already helped out every disgruntled farmer in Memphis, the Strait family and their associates set their sights on a bigger, more topical target in Bluff City Law Episode 4. On the stand is white supremacy, capably embodied by Campbell Mathers (Bill Heck), the leader of an alt-right nationalist group, the Sons of Light, who incensed his followers, including the unstable pariah Kevin Bays (Blair Jasin), to gun down an innocent young woman named Ashley Webster (Caroline Cole) during a peaceful anti-racism protest. And you can tell “Fire in a Crowded Theater” is a Bluff City Law episode because the murder takes place in full view of a giant civil rights mural which was, we learn later, strongly advocated for by Elijah Strait’s (Jimmy Smits) late wife, just in case you thought for a moment that the show had developed any sense of subtlety or that anything that has ever occurred in Memphis doesn’t somehow involve a member of this same legal-eagle family.
Elijah agrees to represent Ashley’s parents, Hank (Clayton Rohner) and Shirley (Annie Cook), in a case to sue Mathers for damages; his argument being that the First Amendment doesn’t protect the kind of speech that Mathers spews to his legion of braindead followers, virtually all of whom are represented in Bluff City Law Episode 4 as aggressive skinheads with neck tattoos who corner Anthony (Michael Luwoye) in the court’s bathroom and blatantly threaten his wife, Maya, which causes him some friction at home. But Anthony is determined to be the second chair in the case since, despite potentially putting himself and his family in danger, he has to do the Right Thing. Plus Sydney (Caitlin McGee) won’t get involved because she thinks her father is trampling all over the rights of free Americans, and that should he win it’d create a “slippery slope”, at the bottom of which would pile up all the poor racists who suddenly feel too nervous to openly express their bigotry. Can’t be having that!
Since Sydney is sitting this one out — to the unconvincing irritation of Briana (MaameYaa Boafo), by the way — Della (Jayne Atkinson) gives her a task to busy herself with. One of her mother’s friends has died and left behind a collection of journals along with the rest of her estate, but she seemingly has no living relatives to whom the stuff can be passed, so Sydney and Emerson (Stony Blyden) need to find one. “Fire in a Crowded Theater” devotes about two or three brief scenes to this, all of which pertain to their own relationship and their relationship with their father, and it ends with Sydney deciding to direct the estate to a beautification fund which looks after the park where the woman wrote the journals. She’s also scared of dying alone, but then again aren’t we all?
Anyway, Elijah’s opponent in the Mathers case is Rachel Madsen, an old friend of his whom he meets for dinner and drinks a couple of times during Bluff City Law Episode 4, ostensibly so that young Anthony can see how things used to be — just because they fight like cats and dogs in court doesn’t mean they can’t be friends! But the reality is that the case is so morally black and white that we couldn’t even have the accused’s defense be on his side. During her closing statement, Madsen explicitly tells the jury that she doesn’t like her client or agree with his views, only his right to express them, and when she loses the case she seems perfectly happy about it.
Oh, yeah, Elijah and Anthony win the case, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. All the idle chit-chat about the difference between right and wrong and legal and illegal doesn’t amount to very much since the jury falls for a manic outburst by Elijah which lands him in contempt and which Madsen later suggests — to him, privately — was probably him play-acting outrage for the benefit of the court. The case itself has the usual rhythms. Kevin Bays was a loner with long-standing mental health issues given purpose by the ideology of Mathers, whose arguments for racial purity he parroted without even realizing. Elijah intercuts body-cam footage recorded by a present police officer with live-tweets from Mathers rather openly inciting mob violence. Mathers smugly likens himself to the civil rights leaders depicted on the mural. When Elijah eventually wins the case — the Websters are awarded twenty million dollars in damages — he declares that “Hate stops here,” a line so awful that I blush even to reproduce it.
While I appreciate Bluff City Law Season 1, Episode 4 tackling a case with some sense of topicality, I still resent the thoroughly uncomplicated way in which it continues to operate, as well as its tedious family drama and Jake’s (Barry Sloane) impressively uninteresting on-going relationship with George Bell (Scott Shepherd), who is now free and living a cartoonishly happy life splashing in public fountains. Jake wants him to sue for damages because he’s traumatized by his unjust imprisonment and is essentially unemployable — I think the truth of the matter is that Jake knows he won’t have anything to do if he doesn’t.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.