[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “Damnation’s” first two episodes, “Sam Riley’s Body” and “Whose Side Are You On?”]
As IndieWire wrote in its initial review of USA Network’s new Depression-era series, “Damnation” is anything but subtle. People die — a lot, horribly, and sometimes, even their corpses are carted around and posed a la Christ on the cross. Brothers pull guns on each other because their mutual hatred runs as deep as the Grand Canyon. Checking a man for infections at a local brothel includes pouring Listerine over his crotch. “Damnation” is a blunt, equal-opportunity offensive pulp Western, which is why the introduction of two potential romantic partners is the least romantic meet-cute ever imagined.
Loner Creeley Turner (Logan Marshall-Green), aka The Cowboy, wanders into Holden, Iowa in 1931. Sent by the Pinkerton agency to furtively take down unionization efforts by the local farmers, Creeley sets up shop in the most peculiar way: He goes to a roomful of prostitutes at the town’s brothel and holds up a square of fabric with the following words embroidered on it: “Can’t you even read, you rancid whore.”
Eager to get the $100 he offers to the woman whom he chooses, each woman smiles benignly at him, unknowingly indicating that they cannot read the insult. Except for Bessie Louvin (Chasten Harmon), who can’t hide a slight reaction. She is the only black prostitute in the room and just so happens to be the only one who can read. Creeley isn’t just renting out her services for sexual gratification but also as his secretary, because he can’t read either.
“I had another [version of the note] that went too far,” series creator Tony Tost (“Longmire”) said in an interview with IndieWire. “That’s actually the more subtle version that came out.
“That originally was just going to be a sheet of paper and then Logan, who plays Creeley, was just like, ‘If he had an old piece of paper, it would probably dissolve… so you should have it on some cloth.’ And I was like, “That’s a great idea, but then just have somebody cross-stitch it instead because it just makes it even more perverse in a way.” In my head, it was done by a former secretary/prostitute from the previous town.”
Despite that rather unsentimental start, Bessie and Creeley appear to have a burgeoning relationship that goes beyond the strict terms of their financial transaction. He’s learned to trust and rely on her not only to keep his secret – especially when Holden’s sheriff comes knocking – but to also read his business letters, keep him abreast of the latest happenings by scanning newspapers, and drive him around town.
Creeley’s patronage allows Bessie to go about town with responsibility and purpose. Like the women of Hulu’s “Harlots,” Bessie is sharp and realizes how to find power even as a working girl because in some ways, they exist outside the confines of polite society. As the only prostitute who can read, she demands $200 from Creeley because of “supply and demand, cocksucker,” and it soon becomes clear that she’s not content with her lot in life.
Chris Large/USA Network
That said, her very presence in the brothel is a calculated risk that could pay off in unexpected ways. In Episode 2, it’s revealed that she is the love child of the union between the white town sheriff, Don Berryman (Christopher Heyerdahl), and his black female lover.
“She’s discovered who her father is and first came to town hoping they can have a relationship,” said Tost. “She gets turned away by him. So now, basically, she’s going to plant herself here in town and make him so uncomfortable that maybe he’ll just pay her off. But there’s also a little bit of her sense of abandonment from him, so she’s going to stick it to him.”
Taking up residence in Holden is a challenge to Sheriff Berryman, but she also takes every opportunity to remind him that his refusal to acknowledge her as his child has forced her to become a sex worker. When he waits outside the private room in the brothel that Creeley has rented, she makes a very loud and dramatic production of having sex with Creeley (even though they are doing nothing of the kind).
She also very specifically uses racist, sexist language — reclaiming it for her own purposes — to describe her anatomy. Again, it’s to remind her father of her job, but also of her blackness and his shame. He won’t admit the truth of her parentage, but also that he once loved a black woman.
Chris Large/USA Network
“When the sheriff comes in the pilot to the door, and she’s really talking about ‘darkling muff’ and all this kind of stuff, she’s trying to make her father uncomfortable, who we don’t understand yet in that episode is her father,” said Tost.
For Tost, Bessie using the racist language to challenge a white man is deliberately subversive and shocking.
“There’s a sort of almost like pulpiness to my aesthetic that for some people it’s too blunt and weird or they don’t like how it’s askew,” said Tost. “But for other people, that’s kind of like Jim Thompson novels. There’s a certain kind of non-preciousness to people’s conceptions of their own identity and almost reveling in other people’s discomfort.
“That’s something I wanted to fully imbue all the characters with. It’s interesting coming in with both the issue of race, but also the women in the show in particular,” he added. “There were certain controlled social norms at play in the ’30s. So [I was] thinking… one interesting way of approaching these characters is to have them almost use those prejudices, assumptions to their advantage, and using them as tools or shields, or as deflectors, or as weapons.”
On a show where everyone is hiding a tarnished past or is morally charcoal, Bessie is one of the most upfront and innocent characters. She’s also a smart businesswoman and unusually perceptive about human nature. As the season continues, Bessie will continue to stand her ground against all comers, including one white woman who challenges her loyalty to Creeley. But there will also be run-ins with the Black Legion, a white supremacist terrorist organization that splintered off the Ku Klux Klan in the 1930s Midwest, and that will be a test of how far she has come and her ability to change others.
Chris Large/USA Network
“Damnation” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on USA Network.