New Amsterdam: “Honor”

Public Justice/Private Vengeance

New Amsterdam

Mondays on Fox, 9 PM


Written by David Manson

Directed by Ken Girott

Maybe it’s no coincidence that “Honor” aired on St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday brought to the United States by an immigrant group now thoroughly integrated into the American mainstream. On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish, just as on Cinco de Mayo everyone is Mexican and on Chinese New Year everyone is Chinese. America has always welcomed new cultures with a mix of suspicion and hearty goodwill, especially if they come with new cuisines and excuses to party. But the immigrant experience, at least at first, is often rough and confusing. People often arrive in America from cultures where law is honored only in the breach, the police are corrupt, and justice is an amusing conceit of the rich. It takes a while, sometimes more than one generation, to learn to trust American law. In the meantime, the clash of “legal cultures” can result in tragedy.

John Amsterdam is called to the scene of a brutal rape and murder, and soon concludes that NYPD is dealing with a serial rapist/killer. His intimate knowledge and memory of the park where the body is found leads him to the best spot for a footprint to be left–which it has. Another rape victim turns up–alive. Amartya Vikram (Yazmin Kazi), a young Indian-American woman, reluctantly steers the detectives to taxi driver Philip Long (Tony deVito, As the World Turns), whose shoe fits. The arrest turns into a scuffle, John is knifed and has to go to the emergency room. Lucky John–naturally the lady stitching him up is Sara Dillane, who reveals that she is separated from her husband. Unfortunately, Amartya refuses to cooperate further with the investigation and allows her sister to rush her home.

Meanwhile, the case is causing John to reflect on his own past. In 1813, he was coachman to aristocrat Andrew Durst (Erik Jensen, CSI), a Regency rake whose hobby was raping his own maidservants, including John’s sweetheart, Fanny (Kristen Connolly, Mona Lisa Smile). In scattered flashbacks, we see John’s frustrated efforts to bring his employer to justice–but the constable sneers at him outright while publicly accepting a bribe from Durst. Left with no other recourse, John challenges his employer to a duel and kills him.

Back in the present, Long is released on flimsy grounds, and Amartya is “outed” as a rape victim by a paparazzi website. John and Eva take Amartya to Omar’s for safety, but she leaves and is later found dead. Eva is sure it was Long, but John intuits that Eva would not have voluntarily left her safe haven unless a friend or family member enticed her. He interrogates her sister, then the father of the family, who confesses to murdering his own daughter in an “honor” killing.

The conclusions to these stories mirror one another, inasmuch as the law is powerless to bring true justice to either Fanny or Amartya. The law (or law enforcement) of 1813 proves corrupt, and Fanny has no recourse. John’s solution is private ‘justice’, which frees Fanny not only from further outrage but allows her a decent excuse to leave her dead employer’s household and seek a future elsewhere. John can’t stay with her, having broken the anti-dueling laws which, like anti-rape laws, are apparently honored only at the whim of the constable. In 2008, public lawofficially protects Amartya, not only under rape shield laws but with the active support of the police. It would seem that she can escape from the regressive sexual attitudes of the 19th century, until an incompetent DA sets her attacker free, an amoral reporter gives out her name and address, and the police prove powerless to protect her. In this case, the code of ‘private justice’ which prevails is one which privileges male pride over a woman’s life, and she dies at the hands of her own father. Who, by killing the only witness who can identify her attacker, insures that Long will not be punished for his crimes and is free to commit more. A more tragic misreading of the concept of “honor” cannot be imagined. 1813 John perceives that public law has failed him and seeks redress in private vengeance; we sympathize with that solution. But translated to 2008, with a public justice system available, we see the darker side of that perception, and its tragic consequences. How ironic that 1813 John, operating outside the law, was able to do more for Fanny than 2008 John, authorized to enforce it, could do for Amartya.

Both the modern and 1813 stories show the double victimization of rape victims in ignorant cultures: not only does she suffer the trauma of sexual attack, but must then suffer disgrace, shame and hostility. I note that writer David Manson made sure to NOT make John of 1813 a man of 2008; his 1813 John, while somewhat sympathetic, still rejects Fanny after she has been raped, agreeing that she is “damaged goods”. This makes John squarely a man of his times; it would have been horribly anachronistic and unrealistic to give a 19th century man the sensibilities of a 21st century man. It makes 1813 John a little less attractive to modern viewers, but it also makes him more believable.

This was the first episode in which the crime investigation was as strong, or stronger, than the love story. As long as this series is about an immortal man searching for True Love, the crime investigation will always play second fiddle. I’m okay with that. The television schedule is lousy with crime dramas set in Manhattan anyway. The real attraction is the history angle and the love story; to make that work, John Amsterdam has to be a mighty compelling character. Luckily, this episode showed us a much more confident John Amsterdam, effortlessly tossing off references to an earlier homicide in New Jersey. I suppose if you’ve been remembering things for four hundred years you develop a wicked memory. Eva rightly calls him a “savant” at one point.

At first glance, it looks as though the love story is proceeding by leaps and bounds. John takes Sara on a date (in a horse-drawn carriage–cute) and charms her with his stories of early New York. So much so that she lands a lip-lock on him, and by the end of the episode is rolling in the sheets with him. So much for the speed bump husband we were introduced to last week. I suppose, though, that 400 years of waiting to be mortal again might inspire John to rush a relationship. After all, he has no idea how to tell when he’s mortal again, except by dying. (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau has the sweetest acting gig since William Shatner on the original Star Trek; he gets to kiss a new woman every week.) It’s just as well, as far as I’m concerned, that the writers have decided to abandon the slow build of UST which is such a cliché on series drama. If Sara is The One, let’s find out right away and see what kind of interesting new twists this gives us. After all, the fun thing about the character of John is not his immortality so much as his vast memory, and that will surely stay with him even as he turns mortal. We won’t lose our fun flashbacks, and John won’t lose his encyclopedic knowledge of New York, as he turns gray and arthritic. In fact, it would be to his advantage to acquire a few gray hairs; it means he can stay on the NYPD.

But I do have a two-fold problem with this romance. First, I see zero chemistry between Coster-Waldau and Alexie Gilmore. Sorry, but it’s just not there. I still see more sizzle between Coster-Waldau and Zuleikha Robinson, even if they’re sparks of antagonism. So far, the doctor comes across as vapid. Not even the use of The Decembrists’ Angels and Angles in a love scene could rescue it. Second, it would be nice if John were actually showing signs of attraction to Sara as a person, rather than Sara as potential grim reaper. Because that’s what it’s starting to look like to me–John is rushing into a romance because he’s desperate to be mortal again. One feels he would seduce a fencepost if he thought it would grant him relief from immortality. I need to see more actual proof onscreen that this is a love story literally for the ages, rather than another quick roll in the hay by a master seducer.

“Honor” is the first episode of New Amsterdam that feels like it’s getting its balance. The producers have set themselves a mighty task: in the space of 45 minutes, they must give us a credible crime story, a history lesson told in flashback, and a growing love story. All this while developing ancillary characters such as Eva Marquez. It’s a tall order, and if some elements suffer from neglect, it’s understandable. “Honor” came across as an episode in which due respect was given to all three elements, and still managed to reflect on important issues such as immigration, history, sexism and, yes, honor. It’s still a wobbly balancing act, but it hasn’t fallen flat yet.

This episode of New Amsterdam came in at 7.2 million viewers for a 2.3 share, landing the Fox network solidly in fourth place. This is thin ice, but not necessarily a death sentence. It depends on whether advertisers will come to respect Internet ratings as much as broadcast ratings. As of this writing, New Amsterdam is the number two download on iTunes, which requires viewers to pay to see the episode. Fox allows viewers to see the episode for free, and is not releasing demographics. If New Amsterdam picked up only one rating point from Internet ratings to bring it to a 3.3, it might raise the show from on-the-bubble to renewable. A show on production hiatus this long might normally be a write-off, but in the wake of a strike that halted production on so many shows, which are now starting up again, I venture to hope that New Amsterdam proves more than mortal.