Hot Take: Chicago PD’s Upstead Obsession Drags Down the Series

Oh yes, we’re wading into controversial waters with this one, but it is what it is.

With Chicago PD on a hiatus, it prompts one to reflect on the first half of the season, and with that comes a nagging issue that’s been consistent within the series but especially evident this season.

We, better than anyone, are perfectly aware of Upstead’s popularity and its passionate, rabid fanbase within Chicago PD’s fandom, so it wouldn’t be a shock if they are sharpening the pitchforks at this very second.

Nevertheless, one will forge ahead and say that Chicago PD has become way too invested in this romantic relationship and partnership. At times, it’s to the detriment of the series.

On a larger scale, the romantic entanglements have always been an issue, lest anyone thinks this is solely an Upstead thing.

The series’ ship baiting has become so pronounced. Unless you’re avid fans and find it enjoyable, it’s bothersome that Chicago PD readily sacrifices case-geared policing in all of its forms, a plethora of alternative storylines, and squad camaraderie in favor of the next milestone in the lives of a coveted couple.

The One Chicago franchise is no stranger to its ship-pandering and dipping into the relationship drama well. It’s an issue across the board for all of them, so Chicago PD isn’t some rare exception to this pesky issue.

However, it is more pronounced on Chicago PD.

And romantic relationships are indeed unavoidable on series like these. It’s an essential aspect of exploring characters’ personal lives, romance always sells, and no matter how much many fans would prefer romance take a backseat, it’s unrealistic to expect no exploration of it.

But Chicago PD has long since had a drab, uninspired, and stagnant take on their romantic relationships. Their main ones have almost exclusively focused on inter-unit romance.

And they’re the least diverse of the bunch, churning out a near-constant stream of relationships among young, conventionally attractive, straight white people, typically the same individuals over and over again without daring to venture into anything else with equal weight in its entire nine seasons.

To say Chicago PD’s romances lack flavor and variety is an understatement, especially when compared to the offerings of its sister shows in the franchise.

As the series’ lead, it’s always been downright bizarre that they never once explored anything with the middle-aged Voight.

And the only thing that gets less screentime than Trudy’s sweet cross-show romance with Chicago Fire‘s Mouch for the past few years is Trudy herself. Seriously, where in Chicago, IL is Trudy Platt? Inquiring minds want to know.

Despite Atwater’s every damn thing, unlike his equally hot, young male counterparts, he didn’t have anything that resembled a romantic life until his one-installment romance in Chicago PD Season 6 Episode 8‘s Black and Blue. A title that aptly references the unfortunate cycle they stick the character in — in the first place.

Atwater’s second shot at love this season is very much the same. No, but really, though. One can argue to the grave how annoying the romance focus on this series is; if we had to have it all, why was Atwater never a romantically viable option for this carousel of inter-team sexy times?

At least Atwater and Upton or Atwater and Burgess, or hell, any woman and Hailey Upton, who is the most headcanon Bi-Icon character of the brood and easily could’ve been the steady queer representation this series lacks, would’ve broken up the monotony.

Compared to its sister shows, Chicago PD has often fallen short with its depiction of romantic relationships, and it’s likely where things get frustrating.

Because despite a plethora of ships to play around with, the other two series in the Chicago franchise manage to balance them out well and not detract from the series and other characters — even if they aren’t engrossing — and they tend to do this with far larger casts.

Chicago PD has the smallest primary cast of the franchise, which makes their issues with balancing out arcs, screentime, and development for their characters as nonsensical as it is infuriating.

We can unpack how that came about, and we have here and there, but one of the most glaring issues is how ship-focused they’ve become at the expense of other things.

It’s not the first time they’ve had issues with this that warranted critique. The earlier seasons had the show very much devoted to the Halstead and Lindsay relationship, which, too, monopolized a great deal of screentime and came with its own set of similar issues.

But that’s more of the reason that the series’ obsession with Upstead is so frustrating. It smacks of an inability to course-correct previous issues and with a ‘ship that involves the same character and has too many of the same notes. They’ve not only continued a pattern with this, but they doubled down on it so much that it’s worse.

Because while the series loves to volley between the same two romances of Upstead and Burzek, the former always comes out on top with more consistency and frequency that surpasses the many centric episodes they devote to them.

The series has made Upstead such an entity that it has become Halstead’s and Upton’s entire identity. Essentially every storyline or tidbit of development for either character continually circles back to this romantic relationship and partnership.

And part of the issue is that they’re both partners on the team, in the field, and life. In that sense, it doesn’t matter if they designate a specific amount of centrics for one or both characters or not when literally all of their onscreen presence is tied back to each other.

It’s what separates this pairing from its Burzek counterpart on the series, which it’s often compared to, and it’s similar to a primary complaint about the show’s early days with Linstead.

Except, in the early days, what the surrounding characters lacked in character development or tailor-made story arcs, they had in screentime, onscreen presence, and dynamic exploration.

And therein lies the distinction between screentime, character-centrics, character development and arcs, and overall presence. A character can appear in every installment and thus have screentime but no notable character development or arcs.

But suppose you have an extended, overarching storyline that heavily involves only select characters and actively excludes others. In that case, it doesn’t matter if those characters have entire installments devoted to them with great frequency or not. In the end, they’re still dominating with a plot.

And it’s something that can happen on both a romantic and professional front when you consider their exclusive detective ranking gives them an edge over their peers, too — something that inherently nods at the pecking order.

That’s how Upstead as an entity monopolizes space in this series in one way or another, even when they don’t have their respective centric installments.

It’s something that has gotten progressively worse over time with the past three seasons as the show committed itself to Upstead’s romantic journey.

The first half of Chicago PD Season 9 is a prime example. In hindsight, the majority of the installments played out like high-caliber Upstead fanfiction. And while there sure as hell isn’t anything wrong with fanfiction, there’s a reason why it has a lane of its own.

It’s for those moments in between — a fan’s dedication to allow space for and expand upon a character, relationship, or plot point without the confinements of traditional storytelling on television or a need to balance out all aspects and characters.

Fanfiction doesn’t have to be logical or sensible, and it sure as heck doesn’t have to be balanced or fair, or remember that a series is an ensemble. A fanfiction has the luxury of prioritizing some characters or things over others.

But when you look back, the entire Roy arc was used as a storyline to challenge and bring together Halstead and Upton and launch Halstead, who already was deemed second in command in rank, presence, and by Voight’s word, into a position of power.

And for some reason, they used the kidnapping and attack on Burgess — a character routinely and disturbingly used as a plot device and punching bag — to do that without ever opting to at least balance out that side of the arc with her perspective.

On paper, at the very least, the arc should’ve incorporated Burgess, if not the rest of the team. And had it done that, the definite Upstead slant wouldn’t have been as irksome. However, we spent the entire plot watching some power trip and trauma porn with only Voight, Halstead, and Upton.

It took pure dedication and work to make the entire Roy arc about three out of the series’ seven characters, none of whom were the actual victim, and shaft the rest of the team in the process with no natural follow-up.

It takes sheer will and devotion to use this specific arc to send Upton and Halstead careening toward an elopement and admittedly one of the network’s steamiest and most gratuitous sex scenes. A win for Upstead shippers, no doubt, but narratively jarring and ungraspable to those of us who simply did not care.

Interestingly enough, despite their willingness to center this relationship and partnership in all aspects of the series, its execution is as frustrating as how frequently they cram this dynamic down our throats.

It’s not about whether or not a person vibes with their romantic chemistry; I do not. Nor is about whether or not one has any vested interest in the pairing; evidently, I don’t. But if we must have overhyped and redundant romances shoehorned into a series, narratively, things should make sense and flow properly.

Unfathomably, Upton went from proposing, presumably as a trauma response, her actions challenging Halstead’s everchanging moral compass, then Upstead eloping without honest, in-depth discussions about any of their issues taking place.

The focus was on fast-tracking this fan-favorite ship’s happy conclusion rather than spending any time at all resolving any of the issues that crop up within their relationship. It was unsatisfying and incomplete storytelling especially given that so much energy is devoted to this bond.

Aside from that, other characters’ forward movement came to a screeching halt or didn’t progress far at all.

Character-centric installments for others felt like brief intermissions for an extensive arc where Voight served as a half-baked external conflict in Halstead and Upton’s relationship.

Even Halstead’s reasoning for finally putting Voight in place was not because of the plethora of other things that Voight has done, including things Halstead himself is willingly complicit in, but because of the ramifications of this particular incident on the woman he loves.

And it ironically had him stripping Upton, whose actions and personality shift for plot convenience, of culpability for the part she played because randomly, this time, it haunted and triggered her.

Chicago PD notoriously has a continuity issue, particularly in its later years, but it seems Upstead is one of the few things they treat with any semblance of consistency.

And it’s almost to the show’s detriment.

It would be lovely if they directed some of the efforts they put into the steady Upstead stride toward others things as well. Consistent character development for its other characters, balancing out the usage of its entire cast, or exploring any other dynamics with such aplomb are things that come to mind.

Because Upstead comes at us on two fronts, both romantically and professionally, it’s like the series is saturated with this dynamic not only at the expense of other characters and relationships but of Halstead and Upton as individuals too.

Upstead even stifles Upstead when Halstead and Upton’s entire existence seems to demand they orbit around each other, and we rarely get much else.

Despite its puzzling glorification as “romantic,” Halstead completely loses himself in his love life. It was an issue for him once he got romantically involved with Erin, and they’ve essentially repeated the pattern with Hailey now.

While many fans lament the constant comparisons of one ship and the other, to champion one above all, the analysis and critiques regarding the similarities between the two are warranted for those who aren’t simply making them to fuel some petty ship fodder.

While the earlier days of the Upstead partnership consisted of a then level-headed and even-keeled version of Upton reeling the selective boy scout of the unit in as much as he balanced her out, the tone shifted with time.

Now, it’s back to the majority of Halstead’s personality devoted to serving as a White Knight for an increasingly more emotional, vulnerable, and damn near fragile Upton.

Any character development that extends to Halstead, which is shockingly little despite his overwhelming presence, is immediately intertwined with his relationship with Upton, partly because they simply refuse to allow either character to thrive outside of one another.

We have an established history and arcs that support that the trio of Burgess, Atwater, and Ruzek are close to one another in varying degrees. It extends to other friendships, relationships, and partnerships, but it doesn’t apply to Halstead, whose personal and professional ties only expand to Upton.

It’s a struggle for Upton, too. The series has painstakingly unraveled bits about her complex, traumatic past, some of which contrasted with her original backstory.

Chicago PD essentially touched upon how much her father’s abuse affected every aspect of her life, and the most defining person of her childhood and adolescence was this abusive male. And it hinted at how often that has affected her interactions with others (males in particular) moving forward.

And then it proceeded to tie her to complex and messy relationships with only male characters, with Halstead taking precedence.

The baffling romantic relationship with Ruzek only served as an unnecessary obstacle and angst for an Upstead endgame — further highlighting the emotional baggage she toted and needed to overcome … to be with Halstead.

And while her oscillating relationship with Voight undoubtedly served as some reflection of her, to put it bluntly, “daddy issues,” it, too, at times serves as something that caters to the Upstead relationship.

But despite the briefest of stints where Upton served as a mentor to Rojas during Chicago PD Season 7, every aspect of her professional and personal life revolves around men, namely Halstead.

It defies logic that a woman who credited Trudy for inspiring her to join the force hasn’t begun to form a friendship with her. And as the only two women on the unit in a male-dominated field, the limited bonding between Upton and Burgess is downright glaring.

It, again, makes the only significant arc between the two since Upton’s arrival, awkwardness over Upton sleeping with Burgess’ ex, all the more teeth-gnashingly irritating.

While Halstead at least had a history of forging a bond with Dawson and have some semblance of camaraderie with the team in the early days of the series with more consistency, Upton’s most defining dynamic is with Halstead only.

For reasons one cannot begin to fathom, the series simply refuses to let either member of Upstead exist, branch out, or form any invariably meaningful bonds beyond the tether they have to each other.

And the rare instances they do, it’s a blink-and-you-miss-it ordeal.

They don’t give you a chance to miss the two characters on screen together because they’re damn near attached at the hip at every conceivable turn.

It got tiresome when it was Halstead and Lindsay, and it had its moments and certainly exposed why partners sleeping together could be an issue when it was Burgess and Roman.

Because Ruzek and Atwater serve as each other’s primary partners, more often than not, it’s not as consistently an issue with Ruzek and Burgess.

But in all parts of the series, Upstead is exclusively a commodity of its own, isolated from the others, which means the frequency by which the series devotes to their romance or partnership very much does the same — separates them from others, thus shafting those characters.

You’d think that now that Upstead is married, it would at least mean they’d switch up the partners. After all, the series served fans their beloved ship on a platter, so there’s no need to stifle the characters with their “will they/won’t they” whatever.

Yet, the series remains committed to all Upstead all the time. Although credit where it’s due, Chicago Season 9 Episode 11 brought much-needed balance to the series after a long time where it lacked.

And Chicago PD Season 9 Episode 12 dared to separate Upstead in the field and even paired Upton up with someone she rarely shares the screen with, Atwater, though they barely showed it. Nevertheless, it was downright refreshing.

It shows promise. Perhaps it’s the first sign that the series can at least achieve the level of balance with its relationships and characters that the other Chicagos manage, albeit barely.

The ship-focus is inescapable, but there’s a way of providing that content without it overwhelming the series and alienating the majority of the demographic who don’t care about or prioritize a romantic relationship above all else on an ensemble cop procedural.

One would be foolish to imply that Upstead isn’t a selling point for the series and specific demographics. Obviously, they wouldn’t bend over backward pandering to that fanbase if that were not the case.

The issue is ensuring and remembering that it’s not the only selling point of a series where people tune in for things other than a pairing.

Upstead is here, fine; there’s no getting around that.

And for the fans of the characters and relationship, congratulations, love that for you.

But, respectfully, can we move on now? Or at least focus on other things at least sometimes? Because from the storylines, the presence, the screentime, the discourse, hell, the promotion, the Upstead fixation is real.

Over to you, Chicago PD Fanatics. Feel free to sound off below.

Chicago PD returns with all-new episodes on February 23 at 10/9c on NBC.

If you want to relive some of the highlights, you can watch Chicago PD online here via TV Fanatic.

Jasmine Blu is a senior staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.

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