'Damnation': TV Review

Union saga struggles to achieve solidarity.
11/7/2017

The familiar antihero standoff at the center of USA's Depression-era drama sometimes makes it hard to concentrate on the more interesting female characters in the background.

Old cable/streaming drama paradigm: Male antihero is so charismatic that a large subset of viewers come to resent and criticize the complicated, pragmatic female who dares to get in his way. Anna Gunn's Skyler White on Breaking Bad is, of course, the primary case study here.

New cable/streaming drama paradigm: Male antihero is dull and in line with dozens of other TV male antiheroes and yet absorbs screen time that should instead be going to the much more interesting female characters on the periphery. A case study here might be Netflix's Ozark, on which Jason Bateman's Marty is a familiar protagonist disappointingly upstaging the characters played by Laura Linney and, especially, Julia Garner.

The latest entry in that latter category is USA's Damnation. The Depression-era drama from creator Tony Tost doubles down with a pair of dueling antiheroes, each less interesting than his myriad female counterparts. If I felt confident that Damnation were intentionally a Trojan Horse set on eventually moving those interesting antiheroines to the center, I might be invested going forward, but after four episodes sent to critics, the series remains steadfastly focused on its two mopey male leads.

It's 1931 and a small Iowa town is in full revolt. The bankers are putting the squeeze on struggling farmers, draining the marketplace for their goods in the hopes of seizing their land. Rabble-rousing preacher Seth Davenport (Killian Scott) is trying to stir up a strike and, for a man of God, he's surprisingly good with a pistol. The local newspaper is in cahoots with the bank. The local sheriff (Christopher Heyerdahl) is mostly concerned with re-election. Into the conflict comes Creeley Turner (Logan Marshall-Green), a strikebreaker who thinks nothing of raising a body count on behalf of his mysterious benefactors, whose stake in this small-potatoes skirmish is unclear. Oh, and Creeley and Seth? They've got a past connection that colors everything.

Creeley and Seth are both tormented by things they've done. Seth in theory is trying to right past wrongs, and after four episodes I'm really not sure what Creeley's motivation is, though I think it relates to rebelling against past inaction and certain elements from his childhood. Scott is consistently wiry and intense but because his torment is a bit one-note, he gets generally upstaged by Marshall-Green, who combines cold-eyed swagger and simmering insecurity. Neither sounds particularly like he's from the region the show aligns him with, but I enforce accent restrictions less strenuously when it comes to period shows.

The collective agita of the two men pales in intrigue compared to the women in the story. Seth's wife Amelia (Sarah Jones) earns derision for her inability to do traditional domestic chores expected of a preacher's wife — her biscuits are too dry, several people complain — but she may be the intellectual voice of their ministry and the movement. Bessie (Chasten Harmon) is, to some degree, Creeley's voice, because the strikebreaker hires this African-American prostitute to read for him, in addition to sex. Most tantalizing is the parallel plotline involving Connie Nunn (Melinda Page Hamilton), a genteel-but-vicious lady traveling the nation's strike sites from Harlan County to Detroit, orchestrating chaos and also trying to track down one of our two main characters. It's a historical moment in which the range of choices for women was expanding, but only slightly, and these three women offer three different takes on female agency. Connie is the character we've never seen before in quite this fashion, and Amelia and Bessie are both coming from unlikely perspectives, and yet the show keeps going back to Creeley and Seth, whose cycles of internal torment and external sadistic violence have been cable standards for 10-plus years.

Thematically, Damnation is very much in line with a string of TV revisionist Westerns including Deadwood and Hell on Wheels, albeit pushed into a moment of modernity in which cars and telephones have enhanced mobility and communication. The core question remains one of civilizing and whether the spread of urban space reduces the savagery of the wilderness or whether financial and legal and political institutions are the enemy of individual freedom. Creator Tost comes to this series via Longmire and a career in poetry and cultural criticism, which explains both the formulaic (or archetypal) dramatic structure and the often reflective and evocative dialogue, and also the use of Wallace Stevens' "The Emperor of Ice Cream" as a recurring motif. Damnation exhibits a reasonable amount of research, making it one of those shows best watched with a computer handy so that you can read about the actual history of the Black Legion or see which specific characters and strikes are based on fact and to what degree.

The comparisons to Hell on Wheels become even more obvious with the shared appreciation for the wide open spaces of Alberta, making this a hillier version of Iowa than one might expect. Director Adam Kane revels in the open vistas and the color of the sky at dusk and dawn. Early episodes are full of classic Western framings — the low angles of a rifle standoff or the brim of a cowboy hat blocking out the light — as subsequent directors follow the iconography-chasing direction.

Damnation is indisputably a good-looking show, and I think it has some things on its mind, though I wish the script had allowed the show to go more aggressively into the Man vs. Bank gear executive producer David Mackenzie brought to Hell or High Water. It's hampered by being a series that keeps its attentions most frequently honed on the aspect that engages me the least.

Cast: Killian Scott, Logan Marshall-Green, Sarah Jones, Chasten Harmon, Melinda Page Hamilton, Christopher Heyerdahl
Creator: Tony Tost
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (USA)

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