The series opens in 1925 New York and some gangsters are suspicious of three seemingly unassuming musicians. It turns out they’re right to be suspicious because with little warning all three “musicians” open fire on the gangsters killing all but one so that he can send a message to his boss. Our narrator introduces the gunmen as Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky (who some of you are probably a little familiar with if you watch Boardwalk Empire) and Sid Rothmen.
Cut to 1947 Los Angeles, and we are introduced to the narrator Detective Joe Teague (Jon Bernthal) who served as a Master Gunnery Sergeant in the Marines during World War II. He finds a letter from an unknown person inside his mailbox to meet in Bunny’s Jungle Club later that night. He decides to meet up with his anonymous messenger who turns out to be a small-time stand-up comic named Hecky Nash (Simon Pegg).
Hecky is planning to blackmail a very dangerous man and he wants to hire Joe for protection since he came highly recommended by somebody who served with Joe in the war. Hecky doesn’t say whom he’s blackmailing but he hints that it’s somebody Joe has read about in the newspaper. Joe leaves the bar soon after but tells Hecky that he’ll think about it. What Hecky doesn’t seem to know is that he’s being followed by a couple of suspicious looking guys who can’t help but notice he and Joe were “very cozy”.
An unknown guy walks into a Catholic church looking visibly shaken and makes his way to the confessional booth. There’s a second guy not far behind who has switchblade ready. As the first guy is saying his confession, it’s made clear pretty quickly that the guy on the other side of the booth is no priest. While no specific details are given, it appears that a job went bad but the guy claims that the fault lies with a guy named Leslie. He goes on to say that Leslie gives him the creeps and should have never been hired in the first place. The phony priest turns out to be Sid Rothmen (Robert Knepper) who says he believes the confessor right before shooting him. The guy with the switchblade hides in a corner as Sid calmly walks out of the church.
The two guys following Hecky are revealed to be cops on a stakeout working under Detective Hal Morrison (Jeffrey DeMunn). Morrison is naturally quick to ask Joe why he was talking with Hecky. While Joe lies about how they met, he freely tells Morrison about Hecky’s blackmail scheme who immediately takes it to future LAPD Chief William Parker (Neal McDonough).
Parker is clearly interested and sees it as an opportunity to take down somebody big and to cripple the LA mob. Parker orders them to bring in everyone that shows up for the payoff and Hecky’s evidence and quickly puts Joe on loan to Morrison’s unit before leaving. Once Parker leaves, Morrison gives Joe some brief exposition about Parker possibly becoming the next Chief and he’s the kind of guy who “remembers his friends.”
As Morrison’s unit plan to bring down the blackmail exchange, they tell Joe that they’ve tried to get Hecky to become a witness for some time due his connections with the mob and expensive gambling addiction making him a perfect candidate to flip. Joe then makes the call to Hecky saying that he has decided he wants in. Hecky instructs to Joe to meet with him after he has finished a gig and they’ll drive together to an oil field in Baldwin Hills.
Morrison’s unit immediately have problems with this since the field is 1,100 acres of wide open terrain making it virtually impossible to hide in or even know where the exchange will take place and the closest they can be to Joe is over half a mile away making it at least three minutes before they can give him back up. What’s worse is that area has too much interference for Joe to be to able to signal them by radio. Joe suggests he signals them with a flare gun and while the unit has some misgivings about it, they ultimately agree.
After Hecky wraps up his gig to an almost empty audience he meets up with Joe backstage. Right before they leave however, Hecky makes a quick phone call to his girlfriend Jasmine to tell her to be ready to leave town and Joe can’t help but overhear the conversation.
While Joe and Hecky are waiting for the payoff, Joe makes a last-ditch effort to talk Hecky out of the blackmail and go to the cops instead. However, Hecky doesn’t budge and instead reveals that he is actually a childhood friend of Mickey Cohen. He reminisces about an incident when they were both kids when Hecky, Cohen and a third kid named Gabe tried to rob a local movie theater.
The robbery goes about as well as you might expect and Cohen refuses to run despite Hecky’s warnings that cops are coming. Hecky and Gabe get away clean while Cohen gets arrested. Cohen has always blamed Hecky for this and never passed up an opportunity to remind him of this which in turn has caused Hecky to feel a lifetime of resentment towards Cohen. Hecky also goes on to say that while he hates Mickey, he’s not the one he’s blackmailing but somebody above Mickey (later revealed as Bugsy Siegel) who will likely be angry at Cohen over the blackmail.
Sid shows up for the exchange with backup of his own who is none too happy that Hecky brought a cop with him. As Hecky and Sid make the exchange, Joe reaches for his flare gun but as he sees Hecky’s blackmail material (a set of film negatives) decides not to fire it. Instead, the payoff goes without a hitch and leaves Hecky feeling like a big shot. But Hecky’s joy is short lived when out of nowhere Joe shoots him twice in the back. Understandably, Hecky asks Joe why he’s doing this, but Joe simply apologizes before finishing off Hecky with a shot to the head. Joe wipes his prints off the gun and takes Hecky’s payoff money before finally firing the flare gun. While Joe is able to pin the murder on the mobsters his superiors are nonetheless angry.
Joe returns to Bunny’s Jungle Club where he meets up with Ned Stax (Milo Ventimiglia), a lawyer who works for Cohen and Siegel and fought with Joe in the war and recommended Joe to Hecky. Ned offers to let Joe keep the blackmail money for killing Hecky but Joe isn’t interested and instead gives Ned the money back and to tell Siegel to “shove it up his ass.” This prompts Ned to ask why Joe killed Hecky if it wasn’t for the money. Joe simply replies “Maybe I didn’t like his jokes.”
This made for a good pilot episode but like many pilots before it, Mob City it’s not without it’s problems. Perhaps the episodes biggest sin is that the characters aren’t established particularly well. Real-life characters like Cohen, Siegel and Parker are barely seen (if at all) and are only talked about for the purpose of plot exposition. As for Joe, I didn’t feel like I knew much more about him than I did going in. Almost nothing is revealed about his past and even less about his personality or motivations. Perhaps Frank Darabont will develop his characters better down the road but the start could have gone better.
If there is one thing I without a doubt loved about this episode though, its got to be Hecky. Simon Pegg plays the role of a desperate low-life perfectly and with a surprisingly good American accent to boot. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if Pegg got an Emmy nomination for this and I sincerely hope he throws his hat in the ring. It’s just a shame his character had to die in the first episode but maybe he can make some return appearances in flashback scenes especially since that’s already looking like a major staple within the show.
The episode provides Mob City with a promising start and while the season’s endgame still remains frustratingly unclear I still have faith that Darabont will match his success with The Walking Dead. Also, a cast this talented is easily enough to convince me to come back for more.
Historical error: Det Joe Teague is supposed to have been a Master Gunnery Sergeant in the Marines during WWII, but that rank wasn’t created until 1958.