The first episode set the tone, the second is setting the speed.
Unlike some shows—such as Jack Taylor, which compresses an entire Ken Bruen novel into a 90-minute episode—Hap & Leonard will be more relaxed, expanding Lansdale’s off-kilter, East Texas world and encouraging us to sit down for some sweet tea and Nilla Wafers.
And that’s just fine.
One of my main complaints with True Detective is how compressed and rushed Season Two was. Television has the benefit of working with several more hours than film, but that doesn’t always jive with the breakneck pace of modern crime fiction.
The first Hap & Leonard novel was written when it is set, before the thriller pace had become the norm. We saw something similar with Justified, which took a short story and spun out the yarn for seven seasons on its own. That isn’t to say that nothing happens, either. There’s enough going on, but you also won’t blink and miss anything.
This one kicks off with two kids poking around in the Bottoms (the local term for the swampy area of the Sabine River bayous) when they find the unfortunate lawman who ran into the Camaro Psychos the episode before. The human flora and fauna of the region get explored, as we return to the hippie hideout.
They get a visit from Prescott Jones (Jay Potter), a Texas-tall Bible salesman who wanders in the open gates. His appearance gives us the first hint that Hap’s (James Purefoy) name may be short for hapless; he left the gate open. It also lets us see that our flower children aren’t all peace and love, as Paco (Neil Sandilands) flies into a righteous rage.
Turns out—he is the ex-leader of a Weathermen splinter group called The Mechanics, who blew himself up in a bomb-making accident. New Yorkers may remember the Weathermen who did exactly that in Greenwich Village, destroying the brownstone they were holed up in.
As for the Bible salesman, he’s the kind of character you’re expecting to have an evil background, and that remains to be seen. It would be a nice change of pace for him not to be.
Leonard (Michael Kenneth Williams) gets more time to stretch his legs this time round, sparring verbally with Paco and fending off Chub’s attempts to get a liberal merit badge for befriending a gay black man. One of the eternal lessons in the books is that assholes come in all colors and from all sides of the political spectrum.
When they make their first foray into the swamp and come up dry, we see hints of trouble with Howard. He’s not as cool as he presents himself, and shows off his cruel side as he pokes at Hap. He may say that there’s no jealousy in his utopia, but there sure seems to be plenty boiling somewhere between his specs and his ponytail.
(And just as an aside, has there ever been a male character in television with a ponytail who turned out not to be a dingleberry? Please, answer in the comments).
Hap and Leonard get so fed up with Trudy and Howard’s little commune that they let the air out of the tires of the VW minibus and take Leonard’s truck into the swamp alone. The machetes wrapped in a cut-off leg from a pair of jeans were a nice touch. The two men are bushwhacking into the landscape of their past—to that time before the Vietnam War, when things weren’t better, but where they had innocence (or ignorance), and not knowing who was screwing you over felt like some kind of bliss.
A lot goes unspoken in this show. One thing I liked was that, while Howard cooked the meals, the only person doing any sort of wage labor was Trudy—waitressing at a local diner and taking crap from customers hitting on her.
Two of her customers are our friends from the Camaro, Soldier and Angel. Angel likes her steak bloody and plentiful, and looks like she walked out of a post-apocalyptic 80s film crossed with a Robert Palmer video. Soldier is unfailingly polite, and I was rather surprised that the two men hassling Trudy didn’t end up in the Camaro’s trunk at the end of this episode. I’m sure they’ll rack up quite the body count before their inevitable clash with our heroes.
This episode’s a little more romantic than bloody. Hap and Leonard find the bridge, but the river’s run dry. Trudy’s the sharp cookie who figures out that the river was diverted toward a dam, and anything down there would be crammed up against it.
When Leonard gets a call that Uncle Chester is ill, he heads back home, which leaves Hap wide open to Trudy’s siren call of old romance. She’s no fatale, despite her abundance of charms. She seems to honestly like Hap, and just as he tilts at windmills and Leonard can’t walk past a jerk without spin-kicking him, Trudy has her own faults and foibles that put those close to her in trouble—such as, suggesting they check out the dam in an inflatable boat. At night. In gator country.
You can guess what happens—nothing like a gator attack to get your blood up and kindle old flames. (Don’t get too excited, this is SundanceTV, not Skinemax.)
The only “Bottom” we see this episode belongs to Chub, played for laughs after a quicksand mishap. Maybe a hint of Leonard’s if you use the pause button as he meets one of his own old flames, a nurse at the hospital where Uncle Chester is recuperating.
Another nice touch: If Hap gets to perform some horizontal aerobics, Leonard does too. It’s only fair, and it’s nothing new for fans of The Wire.
Thomas Pluck is the author of the World War II action thriller Blade of Dishonor, Steel Heart: 10 Tales of Crime and Suspense, and Hot Rod Heart: A Noir Novelette. He is also the editor of the anthology Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT and hosts Noir at the Bar in Manhattan. His work has appeared in The Utne Reader, PANK Magazine, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Hardboiled, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Crimespree, and numerous anthologies, including Dark City Lights, edited by Lawrence Block. You can find him online and on Twitter as @thomaspluck.
Read all of Thomas Pluck's articles for Criminal Element.