“Part One” is a busy opening hour that nonetheless lays the groundwork for a scathing exploration of corruption.
This recap of We Own This City episode 1, “Part One”, contains spoilers.
“If we lose the fights, we lose the streets,” says Sergeant Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal) to a room full of eager fellow officers. He’s talking about police brutality, or at least the popular definition of it. What people interpret as “brutality” is, to him, just the police winning the fights they need to. The only downside, at least as far as he sees it, is that being brutal means more paperwork, more attention from Internal Affairs, and more cost to the city in trials and investigations that will ultimately end up being fruitless. As he laughingly explains, any cop worth the brass in their badge can write and wriggle their way of pretty much anything. Jenkins knows the system works in his favor. And he wants everyone else to know it too.
We Own This City episode 1 recap
Only rarely does a show lay its cards out on the table with as much glad-handed flourish as We Own This City does here. The title is no accident, nor are the deliberate cuts to Black men and women in Baltimore being harassed by Jenkins and his ilk while he’s giving this speech. David Simon’s new show doesn’t treat the idea of racial injustice and systemic corruption as revelatory, but obvious, and Bernthal is perfectly suited as the voice of that prejudice and privilege. He’s giving a scene-stealing performance here in “Part One”, and his absence is felt any time he isn’t around. At the end of the premiere, when he’s arrested by the FBI, he stares directly at the camera and asks, “You guys know who I am?” This is one of those questions that is directed as much at the audience as the characters he’s talking to, and one of those roles that ensure we can answer in the affirmative.
It’s also reminiscent of the first season of True Detective, and the comparisons don’t stop there. “Part One” begins putting down the corner pieces of a complicated criminal mosaic that encompasses a couple of different timelines and cases, and the show isn’t too concerned about getting you acclimated. Jenkins’ haircuts are helpful signifiers of the passage of time, as are police “run sheets” that turn admin into a narrative tool. But you’re expected to put some things together for yourself. It’ll be helpful if you’re familiar with the nonfiction book by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, which We Own This City is adapting, and if you have a cursory knowledge of the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) scandal it detailed, but the overall picture is a lot clearer by the end of this first hour all the same. It’s a scathing portrait of institutional corruption and failure with a charismatic central figure in Bernthal and a compelling connect-the-dots plot structure. It might require some effort on your part, but all the best things in life tend to.
“Part One” introduces a couple of meaty subplots to get things going. In one, David McDougall (David Corenswet) and Gordon Hawk (Tray Chaney), two officers in the Harford County Narcotics Task Force, investigate a series of overdoses that lead back to a street dealer named Aaron “Black” Anderson and his untouchable overlord Antonio “Brill” Shropshire, and the case leads to a clash between departments and jurisdictions as the GTTF muscle in. This and an enthusiastic tossing of a stash house begin to give us a clearer picture of how Jenkins’ team operates, with interrogation of its members, beginning here with Momodu “G Money” Gondo (McKinley Belcher III), filling in details and providing the broader context.
Part of that wide present-day context is the death of Freddie Gray, which led to protests – or “uprisings”, depending on who you ask – in Baltimore, the firing of the police commissioner, a huge drop in arrests and a spiking in crime, and a mayor who isn’t even running for re-election. That leaves Nicole Steele (Wunmi Mosaku), an attorney with the Office of Civil Rights, in a bit of a predicament, since she has arrived in Baltimore eager to root out the corruption and now might not have an important ally she needs to do it. There’s a funny throwaway line about how the Office of Civil Rights basically stands dormant during a Republican presidency, but luckily, Trump couldn’t possibly get elected. Could he?
Nicole, along with a new DOJ attorney named Ahmed (Ian Duff), is trying to clean up the streets one crooked cop at a time, starting with the worst of them – Daniel Hersl (Josh Charles), a flagrantly corrupt officer who everyone knows is corrupt but has positioned himself in an almost untouchable position since he gets results. This is why that post-Freddie Gray context is important. With crime up and arrests down, someone like Hersl, who is willing to get out of his car and make arrests, even if they’re for trumped-up traffic violations and staged assaults, has value. He’s a key component in a system that, as Jenkins explained at the top of the episode, is designed to protect him. Taking him down will mean uprooting the entire rotten thing, root and stem. I hope she can.