‘Damnation’ Is an Intense and Relevant Period Drama

In a television season full of serial killers, monsters from other dimensions and midnight affairs, the most relevant series to premiere this fall might be USA’s period drama “Damnation.” Shot like a western and written with eloquent prose, the show is set during the Great Depression amid violent social conflict. Produced by “Logan” director James Mangold and Tony Tost, whose “Longmire” was also a western firmly set in the modern world, the show’s lines are clearly drawn: Crooked capitalists are the bad guys and the workers the heroes led by a Spartacus-like preacher. Yet the show itself isn’t necessarily preachy, although it is upfront about its politics. Instead each episode is an intense chapter told with great characters, fierce action and sharp performances.

The series takes place in the Iowa-Kentucky border areas which are hotbeds of class warfare in 1931. Banks threaten to foreclose farms, workers go on strike and Pinkerton strike breakers move into town to cause havoc. A charismatic rural preacher named Seth Davenport (Killian Scott) spreads a message of workers’ rebellion to his flock as a farmers’ strike paralyzes the local economy. The Great Depression has shattered lives and farmers seek fair prices for their goods. It’s a dangerous environment as local bankers and business owners start targeting the preacher and his followers through assassinations, attempts at bribery and good old fashioned intimidation.  Seth himself is not above using violence to get things done and is as comfortable with a gun as with a Bible. Into town comes a dark-voiced Pinkerton strike breaker named Creeley Turner (Logan Marshall-Green), who warns local authorities that the restless workers could easily become revolutionaries if they’re not stopped. Creeley has been hired by a nefarious banker, Calvin Rumple (Dan Donohue), who wants to make sure capitalist interests are protected no matter what. Meanwhile a racist, masked band known as the Black Legion roams the countryside, carrying out its own form of violent order.

“Damnation” revives a classic tradition of politically radical drama that has been missing from much TV (and even movies) with a few exceptions in these postmodern days. It is most definitely entertaining, but it wears its politics clearly on its sleeve. It’s set in a world where villains warn of “Bolshevik conspiracies” and despise “the unwashed masses” (a sentiment shared by a character who makes a point of saying “Ph.D.” at the end of his name when introducing himself).This tone gives the show a fresh feel because it deals with American history rarely ever explored in shows about this particular era (or your high school history class). Seth is a unique character in American television. In the pilot he preaches a revolutionary, messianic doctrine, making bold statements like “they crucified Jesus because he was an outlaw, a revolutionary … there is a holy war in this country, the rich versus the poor.” The prime villains are elites in suits, who scowl at the poor and auction a family home like mere furniture.

Action scenes are full of blood, tension and raw energy, but they are all in the context of interesting social conflicts. Assassins are dispatched to kill rowdy farmers or sow disorder among the striking ranks. There’s a moment in the season’s fourth episode, “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” where a farmer takes an offer from Creeley to break through a strike and import milk for an ice cream shop in town. But all over town armed men are posted on roof tops to make sure the milk gets to the shop, lest the armed workers intervene to force the capitalists to pay a better price. The scene builds to a great tension because we sense the stakes are higher in a more realistic way than in some generic, recycled thriller plot. In another episode the Black Legion try to lynch a man for being seen with a black woman, and the dialogue takes on an eerie resonance with present-day battles.

Visually this is a beautiful series filmed in rich tones and colors that evoke a bygone America of vast fields and rural life. The soundtrack has a dark country-folk atmosphere enhanced by a rich selection of songs. Some are revivals of old labor tunes such as Natalie Merchant’s rendition of “Which Side Are You On.” A character performs the song in a worker’s camp among the proletarians. Imagine “The Grapes of Wrath” combined with “Hell or High Water” and you get a sense of what the producers are going for in this show. Action scenes have the kind of wild, primitive violence of a Sam Peckinpah western. When bullets hit bodies fall in bursts of blood.

Like great American literature, “Damnation” is also fueled by fantastic characters. Seth is played by Scott as a driven ideologue, a man shaped by the times but harboring more personal scars that led him to revolution. Marshall-Green drips nefarious charisma as Creeley, decked in boots and cowboy hat with the stare of a classic western villain. He throws money around, is supremely arrogant and uses irony like a sharp blade. Yet he’s more complex than he seems. The female characters have great individualism. Sarah Jones plays Seth’s wife Amelia as an equal loyal to the cause with an iron will. Chasten Harmon is a stand out as Bessie, a local prostitute Creeley hires as a companion and reader. She brings a fierce intelligence to the role. All the supporting roles are engaging. For example Joe Adler plays D.L. Sullivan, a journalist who wants to report the facts, but deals with an editor in the pockets of big business. Christopher Heyerdahl has a low-intensity presence as the local sheriff, Don Berrymen, who is caught between the warring parties but plays a hard hand when necessary.

“Damnation” can be approached as a good hour of action western entertainment, but it’s also revolutionary art, meant to be stirring in its politics and ideas. It is great entertainment, and more fun than your history class homework.

Damnation” premieres Nov. 7 and airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on USA.