Thursday, May 10, 2018
May 10, 2018: Hap & Leonard Studying: The Devil Went Down to Texas
[One of the best parts of my 2018 so far has been discovering SundanceTV’s Hap & Leonard. Based on the series of novels by Joe Lansdale, and starring James Purefoy and Michael K. Williams, the series has completed two wonderful 6-episode seasons and as I write this is in the midst of Season 3. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Hap & Leonard contexts, leading to a special weekend post on the unique career to date of Michael K. Williams!]
On a mythic and a very real context for the show’s Season 3 opening.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, at the time of writing this week’s series I’ve only seen the first two episodes of Season 3 (they will all have aired, and perhaps even will be on Netflix, by the time this post appears). But even without the full context of the season, I was immediately struck by the bravura Season 3 opening sequence, an East Texas retelling of the legend of blues great Robert Johnson and the Devil. In Hap & Leonard’s version (narrated by a mysterious African American girl), it’s young African American blues musician L.C. Soothe who meets the Devil at an eerie crossroads (indeed, who performed a ceremony to summon the Devil) and sells his soul to become the world’s greatest blues guitarist. Soothe achieves his goal and for a time all is ideal, but the Devil is simply waiting for his moment, and in the sequence’s closing moments he arrives, bringing the Ku Klux Klan with him, to end Soothe’s story tragically and brutally.
As I understand it, the Hap & Leonard books (which I haven’t had the chance to check out yet) consistently feature supernatural and even horror threads. But I wouldn’t say such elements or genres have been much a part of the show’s Seasons 1 and 2, and so this Season 3 opening sequence signals a distinct addition to the series. Yet at the same time, I would argue that the Devil and Robert Johnson story is less supernatural or horror and more folklore, a mythic storytelling embodiment of various regional, cultural, and historical traditions and themes. As such, the L.C. Soothe and the Devil sequence sets up Season 3 to feature such a folkloric side, a storytelling style and tone that asks us to view what we’re seeing as at least partly symbolic and legendary. That we will apparently spend much of the season not in Hap and Leonard’s by now familiar hometown of LaBorde but in Grovetown, a very distinct community with a mythic and sinister quality all its own, only heightens that sense that this season we are entering a folkloric story and world.
Yet I would also argue that it’s crucial that the L.C. Soothe story ends with the Devil allied with the Ku Klux Klan, and that we’re told repeatedly that Grovetown is one place in the region where the Klan are still present and active (paying off the final image of Season 2, that of Klan robes and hoods drying on a laundry line). Whatever else Hap & Leonard is (and it’s many things, as I hope this week’s series illustrates), it has from the first season on been a work of historical fiction, an examination of both its 1980s setting and of the many histories out of which such a moment emerges. Grovetown is quickly revealed (particularly through a harrowing sequence involving Florida Grange, whose disappearance in the town is what brings Hap and Leonard there in the first place) to be a Sundown Town, a dark and under-remembered American history that both aligns with the Klan and yet also reflects the far wider and broader scope of white supremacist violence. Which is to say, the Devil has always been in places like East Texas, and most everywhere else in the U.S., and he’s worn the clothes and the face of white supremacy and domestic terrorism.
Last context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on H&L, or other shows you’d highlight?