Joe Lansdale's gruesome twosome find their way to the small screen!
Oftentimes I’ll be sitting around with friends, listening to them all talk to one another, and wonder, “Just how in the hell did we get to be friends, anyway?” Not because my friends are assholes or anything like that, but we all just seem so thoroughly different. There are a few commonalities we share, of course. But each of us has a separate background, a unique viewpoint as different from the other as you’re likely to find. There’s no real reason any of us should be friends in the first place… but we are.
You could say the same thing about Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, the eponymous duo of the recently-wrapped Sundance show Hap and Leonard, which in turn is based on the long-running novel series from East Texas’ own Joe R. Lansdale. The two couldn’t be any more different: Hap is a straight, white disillusioned former hippie, a hopeless romantic who got thrown in jail for refusing to serve in Vietnam, while Leonard is a gay, black Vietnam vet who listens to Hank Williams and prefers the company of dogs to people. They’re both well into their forties and still working low-paying, dead-end jobs, but they’re also Class-A hard-asses; which is a good thing, because they often always find themselves knee-deep in shit so thick, it might as well have spat from the sphincter of Satan himself. That’s probably why their bond is so strong in the first place: they need each other just to survive.
Adapting the books to series are indie filmmakers Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, who had previously knocked another Lansdale adaptation out of the park in the excellent 2014 thriller Cold in July. They return to Lansdale’s twisted, irreverent world with this six episode-long first season, which adapts the first Hap and Leonard novel, Savage Season. The story concerns Hap’s ex-wife Trudy, who comes knocking on the pair’s door with a job that might just be too good to be true: a car from a failed bank robbery from years past with a million in cash stashed away in the trunk, sitting somewhere at the bottom of a local river Hap just happens to be familiar with. Much to Leonard’s disapproval, they saddle up with Trudy and her new beau Howard’s team, a bunch of counter-culture types who want to use their share to start a new political revolution that will disrupt the system from within. As you can likely guess, things don’t go quite according to plan, and many ultraviolent hijinks and dealings with demons from the past ensue.
Obviously, the most important piece of the puzzle to any “buddy” storyline are the two leads themselves, and for bringing them to life in live-action, the show-runners couldn’t have found two better actors than James Purefoy and Michael K. Williams. Their accents may stumble from time-to-time, but Williams and Purefoy get to the heart of what makes each character tick. Purefoy captures the wounded masculinity of Hap, an eternal twenty-something who somehow found himself in a forty year-old body. There’s a danger of the character coming across as naïve or stupid as a result, but Purefoy balances Hap’s more romantic, idealistic tendencies with a general sense of disillusionment. And the casting department struck absolute gold in tapping Williams to play Leonard Pine (one of our greatest modern literary characters, in my humble opinion). It may seem like typecasting to have Williams play another gay, tough-guy character, but Leonard is about as different from Omar Little as you can get, and Williams proves himself the absolute perfect foil to Hap’s idealism with his gruff, take-no-shit attitude. Williams also prevents Leonard from what could be a one-note character. Being both black and gay and living in East Texas his entire life, Leonard understandably has a mighty big chip on his shoulder, but there are shades of endless complexity buried within, such as his continued care for his ailing uncle who is quite openly opposed to Leonard’s homosexuality. Purefoy and Williams are great as their individual characters, but the glue that holds the series together is their chemistry with each other. The rest of the series could be utterly dreadful (which it thankfully isn’t), but as long as these two are around to toss lackadaisical one-liners back and forth, the show will always work.
As Hap’s ex-wife who chews through men quicker than a can of Slim Jims, Trudy Fawst is another character who could very easily fall victim to cliché. She is essentially the femme fatale of this Texas noir, with all the requisite betrayals and reveals that particular archetype carries with it, but the writing and Christina Hendricks’ performance keep the character from devolving into a simple archetype. Trudy is a true-believer, still clinging to the old ideals Hap left behind long ago, so much so that she’s willing to be crucified (quite literally, in one scene) instead of compromising her beliefs. Much like Hap and Leonard, there are endless complications lying just beneath the surface, facets that Hendricks captures with her wonderfully deft approach. Rounding out the cast are Bill Sage as the in-over-his-head idealist Howard, and the utterly terrifying duo of drug dealers, Soldier and his bodybuilder girlfriend Angel, played by Jimmi Simpson and Pollyanna McIntosh. Lansdale has his roots in the splatterpunk movement in horror fiction, and while the author has written a wide variety of stories in various genres, his work always carries with it a certain tinge of horror. Soldier and Angel are certainly that, characters from an entirely different story transplanted quite violently into an otherwise quaint little heist tale, and Simpson and McIntosh relish in their scenes of torture and debauchery (although it should be noted that Angel is a much more interesting character in the book, being the real brains of her and Soldier’s operation. The show reduces her role to basically that of an Oddjob-esque henchwoman).
The show and its characters are pulled into this horror movie world at the halfway point, with the harrowing penultimate episode diving full-bore into the violence and sadism that defines much of Lansdale’s work. We’re left on a pretty gripping cliffhanger that promises an ultimate showdown for the season finale, but the show instead takes a left turn. In the last episode, the major conflict of the plot is resolved in the first fifteen minutes, leaving the rest of the finale a quiet and somber meditation on Hap and Leonard’s relationship. Such a prolonged ending threatens to test both the audience’s patience and attentions, but the bond between the two leads and the way they bounce off of and complement each other reinforces that no matter what crime/noir plot they find themselves caught up in, it is their friendship that is the beating heart of this series.
Which brings us back around to our original thesis on the nature of friendship. Throughout the course of the show we flash back intermittently to the night Hap and Leonard first met as children, a tragic occurrence that will shape them and their relationship from that point onward. The two never asked to be paired together, and certainly never asked to keep getting life’s short end of the stick. But after one tragic night, they both found comfort in each other’s company, as they shared a chocolate bar and a comic book. The world keeps dealing them a wrong hand and drawing them together through ill circumstances, and yet they’re still friends. Why? Because they chose to be kind to one another after a mutual tragedy. Because they don’t have anyone else, and could easily go off and do their own loner thing, but choose instead to stick together, through thick and thin.