Traditionally, when describing a show like “Damnation,” it’s customary to describe how the central players figure into the very clear battle it’s drawn for itself. Farmers in a rural Iowa community are fighting Depression-era predatory price-fixing efforts by going on strike. Banking interests are using all the tools at their disposal to gobble up whatever’s left once their resolve is broken. But at the center, two rivals emerge: Seth Davenport (Killian Scott), a preacher with a heart of pyrite and Creeley Turner (Logan Marshall-Green), a corporate minion with murky intentions.
That ambiguity is one of the sole instances where “Damnation” leaves things to interpretation. Aside from some shifting allegiances and some muddled origin stories, everything else about life in this Iowa town is presented in the extreme. Poverty is moving in like a plague. Financial ambitions among its wealthy characters knows no limits. Calls for rebellion are made in no uncertain terms. This is a series that may hide where some of its main characters stand, but it wants you to feel that boiling point in every conversation and every passing glance.
On opposite sides of the picket line, players of all sorts stand ready to use intimidation, coercion, and even murder to reinforce their interests. “Damnation” plays out like an early 20th century combo of a western and a mafia movie, with a delineated power structure on either side, fighting a war that ensnares the local paper, out-of-town anti-Communist vigilantes, and even one unassuming ice cream salesman.
The show certainly doesn’t want for forms of torture meted out against people who end up on the wrong side of their enemies. There are gunshots aplenty, but between meat hooks, pitchforks, nooses, and pocket knives, “Damnation” still subscribes to a frontier justice mentality that doesn’t discriminate against weaponry. Violence, in all its various forms, is baked into the visual language of this show, with on-screen viscera popping up (and out) at regular intervals. (Given the size of the town’s population, it’s difficult to see how this is sustainable.)
But sometimes that damage doesn’t equal the torment these characters inflict on themselves. One by one, characters detail their misery, promising that they will stop at nothing until revenge is achieved. With every single one of these individuals in the fray, minor or otherwise, vowing some sort of retaliation, the result is a long-term psychological standoff with unrelenting threats from all sides. “Damnation” seems fully aware that an entire town of people, each with their own ideas about justice, makes it impossible to keep order. It’s an interesting problem to explore, but it makes a chaotic mission statement for a TV show.
“Damnation” doesn’t offer much breathing room. Every activity, be it an auction or a peaceful Sunday morning church gathering, becomes a battleground for the town’s soul. There’s drama in that, but all of those showdowns bring with them a bevy of grand pronouncements that don’t let either side of this fight get much capture.
Chris Large/USA Network
In true cable drama fashion, no one’s hands are clean either. Villainy certainly exists on a sliding scale, but the fellas at the top of the bad guy list come with their own monologues and verbal treatises that would make Blofeld blush. One particular string-pulling activist, Martin Eggers Hyde (Gabriel Mann), seems like one peak in the show’s neverending search to find someone more egregious and morally bankrupt than the last.
The attention to period detail and use of an oppressive Midwest cocktail of sunlight and summer heat make “Damnation” something worth looking at. Even if much of what its characters tell each other is drenched in self-seriousness, those talks play out against a screenworthy backdrop. It might not reinvent the conceptions of a TV western, but there’s care taken in orchestrating the river of blood and other fluids that quickly line this town’s streets.
Drenched in economic anxiety and anger directed toward power-wielding bank executives, race relations, and the power of the press all factor into this ideological fight. Short of using “1 percent” and “fake news,” this is striving to be a modern story with Depression-era trappings. Luckily, explicitly connecting the efforts of these strikers to any 21st century reform efforts is one connection that “Damnation” leaves its audience to make.
While the show hasn’t quite figured out how to give them more to do than their various social stations would have them be, the promise is there for a version of “Damnation” that lets them feature into the story in less of a cloaked, clandestine way. There are glimmers of Bessie Louvin (Chasten Harmon) becoming more than just the redeemed prostitute. Amelia Davenport (Sarah Jones) has a part in the coming rebellion that may even eclipse her husband’s.
“Damnation” spends so much of its early going caught in a spiral of misdirection that once the emphasis on bloodshed, doom, and duplicity wanes, a series with sharper insights might emerge. But in its current form, it’s a punishing watch, one with not much more to offer than an animalistic view of human nature. You won’t find much hope in “Damnation” and that’s an absence that can only exist unfilled for so long.
“Damnation” airs Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. ET on USA Network.