“When the Levee Breaks” gets topical again with its pre-teen activist character and a tangle of corporate finger-pointers, but it’s still lacking a real human element.
This recap of Bluff City Law Season 1, Episode 5, “When the Levee Breaks”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
Bluff City Law Episode 5 once again flirts with topicality in “When the Levee Breaks”, which sees Sydney (Caitlin McGee) and Elijah (Jimmy Smits) set their sights on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the behest of a young girl, Erika (Priah Ferguson), who has been living in a motel with the rest of her community since a levee broke and flooded their town. See? A young girl passionate about climate change wants to take the government to task for their hubris — just like real life.
She has a point, and the show takes her seriously — perhaps too seriously if we’re being honest. I can accept that so-called 100-year floods don’t occur every few years without a reason, and the nitty-gritty legal stuff about corporate squabbling, the prioritization of the wealthy, and the tendency to pass the buck, all stand out as real societal issues worth being concerned about. Bluff City Law Episode 5, true to form, presents this information artlessly, unloading great big slabs of exposition about rising rainfall, how levees work, and how the height of such levees tends to be determined by the wealth of the community they’re built to protect. This is all decent stuff. What I struggle with is the idea that an impassioned closing statement by a little kid is enough to sway a jury into holding multiple powerful defendants accountable for their actions. That doesn’t strike me as very much like real life, even if we do tend to defer to kids for policy advice these days.
That, I suppose, is because kids don’t have a vested interest in profit margins or political clout; the roundabout tangle of responsible parties in “When the Levee Breaks” include the Army Corps of Engineers who built the system, but also the environmental protection agency that blocked further safety precautions because they would imperil the habitats of endangered birds, and the private contractors who were instructed to overbuild the offending levee for financial purposes. All are put on the stand in Bluff City Law Episode 5 under a legal rule called “Alternative Liability”, which states that each defendant has to provide evidence to prove who was responsible, or everyone takes the blame. It’s the justice system as playground finger-pointing, and yes, that isn’t an irony that goes unremarked upon.
While various government bodies are finally putting their heads together to come up with a healthy settlement, we can spare some time to delve into the B-plot of this week’s episode, in which Della (Jayne Atkinson) is asked by an old musician friend, Jimmy, to help get his affairs in order, and inadvertently discovers that he was the real writer of a very famous song that he has never received royalties for. Bluff City Law‘s attempts to get cultural are very funny, requiring both Della to be a seasoned connoisseur of blues music, and Anthony (Michael Luwoye) to turn up out of nowhere just to press some flesh at the music label and reveal himself as a talented singer. That label owns 50% of the song; the other half is owned by the singer’s widow, Gertrude, whom it’s revealed the song was originally written about. This is resolved with a meaningful in-person performance that persuades Gertrude to admit that, however much she loved her husband, he didn’t write that song. Jimmy starts getting royalty cheques for the first time but thinks with his modest lifestyle that they might better serve someone more in need than him.
And finally, Bluff City Law Season 1, Episode 5 spares some time for the on-going story of George Bell (Scott Shepherd), arrested near the top of the episode for trespassing — he wanted to take in the view while turning his face lovingly to the sky in a manner that only wrongfully convicted criminals in TV shows ever seem to do — and by the end finding himself living in Jake’s (Barry Sloane) ludicrously swanky bachelor pad. Jake and Robbie (Josh Kelly) dig a little deeper into the police cover-up that landed George in jail in the first place, while George rearranges Jake’s furniture for better feng shui; it’s played for laughs, but there’s an element of tragedy when Jake returns home and finds George asleep in the bath, since all the other rooms feel too big. The only acceptable outcome of this subplot, I think, is that it turns out George was guilty — it’s the only thing that’ll make this sappy sentimentality feel worthwhile, and at the very least it’ll effectively challenge the show’s resolute, uncomplicated morality. I hope that’s what happens, anyway.
I’d even say it needs to. Bluff City Law has a good handle on corporate wrongdoing and the vague outlines of right and wrong, but it doesn’t have much to say about people, and how they think and feel beyond their broad, approved traits. Watching Sydney interact with Erika in “When the Levee Breaks” is like watching a slot machine try to ring cherries. The gag is that Sydney doesn’t know how to deal with kids, but the reality in this show is that nobody knows how to deal with anyone, least of all themselves.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.