[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 three layers to the show’s portrayal of ‘60s legacies in its ‘80s setting.
The plot of Hap & Leonard’s Season 1, based on Lansdale’s first novel about the characters Savage Season (1990), focuses closely on the question of whether and how the 1960s can be extended into the 1980s. Hap (Purefoy) and Leonard (Williams) are connected by Hap’s ex-wife Trudy (played wonderfully by Christina Hendricks) to a group of former ‘60s radicals (one a member of a Weathermen-like domestic terrorist organization) who are searching for a lost cache of stolen money in order to fund radical initiatives once more. As anyone with a passing knowledge of film noir or crime fiction would expect, things don’t go as planned, and most of the ex-hippies abandon their ideals and morals in favor of greed and self-interest. But the historical cynicism of those shifts is balanced by the character of Trudy, herself a former ‘60s radical who remains consistently true to those ideals and the ‘80s plans that seek to extend them. Although she seems at times to fill the femme fatale role, I would argue that Trudy is instead Season 1’s most honorable and inspiring character.
Yet that present role and image are complicated by what we learn about Trudy and Hap’s past, and specifically about Hap’s own ‘60s legacy. We know from the beginning of the show that Hap is an ex-con, but it’s only gradually that we learn why he was in prison: for resisting the Vietnam War draft, at Trudy’s urging. Yet while Hap was serving his two-year sentence, Trudy left him, unable to wait through this necessary consequence of her husband’s (and her) radicalism. We get the sense that Hap has never quite recovered from either the time in prison or the marital betrayal, and that both his former radicalism and his enduring love for Trudy are at least as strong forces in his 1980s life as any actually present factors. This is a very different image of a lingering ‘60s perspective than those we see in Trudy and the other conspirators—while they are actively pursuing ‘60s objectives in the present, Hap is held back, or at least constrained, by ‘60s legacies that he can neither escape nor quite ever achieve. Such a personal situation is not limited to any particular decade or time period, of course, but the extremes of the ‘60s do give it a particular urgency and potency.
And then there’s Leonard. Everything about Leonard, a gay conservative African American country music fan and wannabe cowboy living in rural East Texas, is unique, compelling, and deeply human (like all of Williams’s characters, on whom more this weekend). But it’s Leonard’s service in the Marines during the Vietnam War, and thus his status as a Vietnam Vet, that links him to these first season questions of ‘60s legacies and effects. Leonard is not obviously suffering from PTSD or the like, but he clearly carries his Vietnam service with him constantly, most especially in an understandable feeling that he has served his country and deserves to be treated with respect as a result. That perspective necessarily clashes with racist treatment he receives at various points throughout the show, but in Season 1 it also leads to consistent conflict with the ex-radicals, whom Leonard believes to be both naïve about the world and utterly unable to comprehend his far different and (to his mind) far more real experience of the ‘60s and their aftermath. Those conflicts aren’t resolved any more neatly or definitively than any in Hap & Leonard, and instead serve as one more layer to the show’s nuanced, messy, and utterly compelling portrayal of the ongoing legacies of the 1960s.
Next context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on H&L, or other shows you’d highlight?
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