‘Law & Order’ Farewell: There Will Never Be Another Jack McCoy

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‘Law & Order’ Farewell: There Will Never Be Another Jack McCoy
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[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Season 23, Episode 4 of “Law & Order.”]

Among Sam Waterston’s last words as Jack McCoy was “integrity.”

The film and television actor walked away from “Law & Order” for good Thursday night, February 22, ending his 30-year stint as Dick Wolf’s most recognizable Manhattan D.A. in a mixed bag of an episode. An awkward Central Park swan song (goose song?), Season 23’s “Last Dance” demonstrates not only how much Waterston has changed as a performer — but just how little police procedurals have been able to evolve with socially divided network audiences in recent years.

Yes, Jack’s junkyard dog bravado gave way to a subtler anger in the series’ revival seasons; and he stopped sleeping with all those assistant district attorneys, which certainly helped. But the hero lawyer’s final chapter is chockfull of awkward political posturing that plays as indicative of a genre increasingly uncomfortable with its role in American culture. The small screen mainstay has struggled to honor its roots as a history-making television program while accounting for the myriad headwinds facing shows about cops and lawyers, and Waterston’s exit was narratively fitting but no exception.

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Written by Rick Eid & Pamela Wechsler and directed by Alex Hall, Jack’s last murder case involves rape allegations, a billionaire tech mogul, therapist-patient confidentiality, corruption in the mayoral office, and a slew of lambasting (but also totally reasonable!) remarks about the media seemingly designed for its more liberal-leaning side of its fanbase. It also sees Jack pontificating about the future of justice in modern Manhattan, then walking away from the courthouse at night sporting a fedora and briefcase like he’s in a screen test for a paralegal spin on “The Exorcist.”

Waterston’s series exit is explained as a resignation demanded by justice and circumstance. Having thrown himself onto what’s ultimately a bombshell of a case, McCoy spares E.A.D.A. Nolan Price (Hugh Dancy) the political points by squaring off with local corruption himself and putting away the powerful killer at all costs. In the end, Jack resigns and promises an equally strong legal leader to come.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and it’s time, it just is,” Jacks says. He explains that his crossing the mayor’s office could result in disastrous consequences for his colleagues. “But if I step aside now, the governor will be able to appoint someone new. Someone with integrity.”

Raising a glass of scotch, he says, “It’s been a hell of a ride.”

As far as fictional litigators go, McCoy kept his nose pretty clean. The bombastic but tight-lipped attorney hailed from an abusive Irish American household in Chicago, and debuted the same shaking energy Mariska Hargitay would bring to Detective Olivia Benson in “SVU” — putting the pursuit of truth above all else, generally doing right by the victims, and admitting when even he was wrong. A successor to legendary characters like Perry Mason and Arnie Becker, Jack and his Midwestern sensibilities met with east coast ambition made Waterston’s portrayal a sensation: the perfect canvas on which to project democratic ideals we’ve long since declared dead.

He’d earn three Emmy nominations for the part in 1997, 1999, and 2000. After taking more than a decade off, Waterston returned to “Law & Order” in 2022 as a familiar face in a middling revival that was scrambling to adapt to the franchise’s new ripped-from-the-headlines approach. The show’s return was considerably less problematic than the “Organized Crime” redemption of bad boy-bad cop Elliot Stabler (it’s OK, Chris Meloni, we still love you), but no less uncomfortable to witness.

Jack was always a crusader and narrative attempts to make him more than an archetype felt generally hollow. Offscreen grandkids do not a three-dimensional man make, and one can only hope Waterston got his bag for “Last Dance.” It’s a fumbling finale for Jack that only works to the extent that it does because of the actor — a blank stare into the abyss of American moralism energized only by the magnetism in Waterston’s dark eyes.

In many ways, watching “Law & Order” live has become an instantaneously dated practice. It’s an almost meta exercise in the fleeting nature of modernity with its blunted but trying to be sensitive social perspective frequently colliding with the format to painfully anachronistic effect. Jack needed to retire. Not because Waterston would be better off reteaming with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda for an indie movie, although he would. But because it seems almost impossible for a television actor to continue building a legacy of substance in Wolf’s tortured universe.

Debuting in a country where the legitimacy of not only our legal system but the very idea of objective truth have been put for debate, Jack McCoy’s final appearance in court makes a decent case for the death of the TV district attorney. Sure, they’ll have someone else take over the office for the franchise; that’s “Scandal” star Tony Goldywn as DA Nicholas Baxter who we’ll meet next week. But with years of Waterston’s magnetic acting work, it’s hard to imagine anyone beating his record.

“Law & Order” Season 24 airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET and streams next day on Peacock.

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