[This is a review of the Quarry series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
For fans of pulpy crime thrillers, Cinemax’s Quarry will likely scratch the itch left by Banshee‘s departure. It’s fitting, actually, as former Banshee executive producer and director Greg Yaitanes has taken the reins on this adaptation of the series of novels written by Max Allan Collins, delivering a strikingly gloomy new show wrapped up in a moody, war-weary atmosphere where the post-Vietnam disillusionment of the central character, former soldier Mac Conway (Logan Marshall-Green), offers a thematic symmetry to the program’s intriguingly cynical worldview.
Quarry opens up in 1972, with Mac returning home to Memphis from his second tour along with his buddy Arthur (Jamie Hector, who played Marlo Stanfield on The Wire). Denied a hero’s welcome, Mac and Arthur are ostensibly persona non grata, villains who stand accused of committing war crimes for which, as far as public sentiment is concerned, they remain unpunished. It makes for an uncomfortable introduction; one that immediately threatens to put the audience off its main character by intimating an unpleasant sort of uncertainty lurking just beneath his surface.
The series deals with such ambiguity outright, opening in medias res with a hazy, dreamlike sequence that ends in another man’s death. While the uncertainty of the series’ protagonist is short-lived, the circumstances of that killing remain, like his time in Vietnam, unclear. Try as he might to put it behind him, the war remains an obstruction keeping Mac from fully reintegrating into civilian life. Yaitanes often implements a visual device of Mac submerged in water, hanging just below the surface, while objects and people, like his wife Joni (Jodi Balfour), drift just out of reach. Familiarity of such a visual metaphor aside, the moments work, eliminating the need for exposition that might otherwise grind the episode to a halt, especially when there’s so much ground to cover in the first episode.
The premiere is infused with a sense of paranoia and lingering societal tension, linked primarily to the strong antiwar sentiment of 1972. Yaitanes reminds the viewer of this with reliable frequency. As a series, Quarry is weary of institutions; they are corrupt and not to be trusted. In keeping with the suspicious sensibilities that sentiment carries over to people, too. Regular people are capable of egregious acts of inhumanity of both the physical and emotional kind. And in that sense, Quarry is working from a perspective of universal betrayal, one that is compounded by the characters’ subsequent actions and reactions, creating an endless cycle of violence and misery that seemingly cannot be stopped once it has begun.
That treachery is taken to a heightened level as the criminal network into which Mac is conscripted perversely (or maybe not-so-perversely) mirrors his wartime experience and, in time, the early days of his return home. Peter Mullan, owner and operator of one of the greatest voices in movies and television, appears as The Broker, a Mephistophelean presence who seduces people like Mac and Arthur with a bag full of cash, an advance payment the receiver is then obligated to earn through a series of contracted murders. Early on, Yaitanes frames Mullan so that only the back of his head is seen; his distinctive voice (even with an American accent) the only thing cueing the audience in as to who it is. It gives The Broker a heightened quality, too, one that is tempered as the series moves on and his appearances become more commonplace. But in the early going, this choice – though seemingly solely stylistic – functions as a way to ease the viewer, and at the same time, Mac, deeper into the almost abstract criminal underworld, simultaneously giving it a figure of authority. And that figure of The Broker further illuminates his authority’s mysterious breadth by revealing to Mac Joni’s infidelity.
Coupled with the uncertainty of Mac’s guilt regarding the did-he or didn’t-he commit a war crime is the sense that everything happening to him is some sort of nightmarish, Dante-like descent into hell. Normally that might remove some of the character’s agency, but Quarry assuages such concerns by having Mac pivot and make decisions that place him in this particular predicament. And while Arthur’s death is practically on the table from the first moment his wife Ruth (Nikki Amuka-Bird) greets him at the airport, it’s Mac’s decision to take one contract to “keep his head above water” that really sets the plot in motion. It’s important for it to feel like characters are somewhat in control of their own paths, and while Mac winds up in a situation he has very little control over, that quandary is made more interesting through his initial decision – bad or otherwise.
Despite its dark, borderline misanthropic tenor, Quarry mercifully leaves room for some tonal variance; it rolls the window down and lets some air in from time to time. Case in point: the introduction of Damon Herriman (Justified) as Buddy. It’s rare for a show with this much going on in its premiere to give this much real estate to a supporting character, but the series clearly knows what it has in Herriman and his terrific performance. Watching Buddy bang out a karaoke version of ‘Without You,’ in Spanish, while beers chill in a bathroom sink full of ice is just one of the many ways the Quarry is perfectly content to let the former Dewey Crowe steal the show.
That means the episode runs a little longer than usual. The premiere clocks in at about 80 minutes and while a great many shows have played around with unnecessarily long runtimes in recent years, Quarry‘s first go-round doesn’t feel excessive. ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ justifies its length by delivering a solid, hardboiled premiere that establishes a solid narrative foundation, compelling characters, a strong sense of style, and a clear plot. Marshall-Green’s ferocity in the episode’s later moments hints at another layer to Mac’s character, one that’s definitely befitting the weird moniker he’s given by The Broker. Like that nickname, Quarry is a little strange and a little on the nose sometimes, but it’s also solid hardboiled entertainment.
Quarry continues next Friday with ‘Figure Four’ @10pm on Cinemax.
Photos: Michele K. Short/HBO