Quarry/(First (and only) Season (2016)
It was about a year ago or so when I first discovered there was actually a television series based upon “Road to Perdition”-famed author Max Allan Collins’ continuing series of books on sociopathic professional assassin Quarry, of which said books I was deeply in the middle of plowing through. I figured I’d wait until I finished them up (well, the ones published so far, that is, as there is another coming, even though the last chronological one in the series was titled _The Last Quarry_… which is about as truthful as Rambo with the upcoming release Last Blood… suuuuuuuure, Sylvester, I’ll believe it’s the final entry when you actually slip off this mortal coil, and even then I’m sure there’s still extra Rambo footage that can be culled together into another entry).
And what an eye-opening, surprisingly daring (in how it moved away from the source material) and mostly positive experience the television series turned out to be.
It was under the impressive hardboiled novel label Hard Case Crime, alternating monthly between publishing pulp crime novels from classic yesteryear and today, that I first came across uber-prolific Collins’ character, returned from Vietnam, optimizing his acquired sociopathic skills as a US Marine sniper, only now in the private sector (where he’s learned that killin’ can actually make you a… well… a killin’) as a full-time assassin operating under the handle Quarry (whose real name, the killer himself repeatedly tells us, in the engaging, darkly comic first-person narrative of the entire series, is ‘none of our business’).
Our cold-and-calculating self-described average looking/ built man (the better to blend in), in true have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too fashion, occasionally softens when an aging beauty ends up mixed into the plot who he kinda falls for (and, to be fair, not just because she inevitably has the proper gravity-defying feminine curves in all the right places to lay into, because all the continuing hot women he beds down with inevitably fit that profile no matter what podunk Midwest town he ends up in – obviously, Collins is astutely aware and as Ted Bundy taught us, sociopathic serial killers nab all the chicks), but never enough to damage his latest murderous assignment.
Enjoying the easy to digest prose (sort of my version of summertime beach reading… only instead of misty-eyed romance, it’s tough talk, graphic sex, cold-hearted violence… and more graphic sex and cold-hearted violence), short simple narratives and stimulating appeal to the adolescent boy at the heart of most straight guys living relatively normal lives, it didn’t take all that long (little over a year) for me to gobble up all thirteen pocket pulp-sized books, a couple of random short stories and single graphic novel following the exploits of said professional killer Quarry.
Reading them in chronological order (which is vastly different from the way Collins wrote them, and they were published, with the author jumping around in time as it interests him, the first coming out in 1976 and the last one – as I said, so far, in 2017) has Collins draping the tales off of three distinct epochs in Quarry’s life as an assassin.
First, is his time with the Broker, the distinguished silver-haired elegant man of mystery who pulled the downtrodden anti-hero out from a seedy motel, saving him from drinking himself to death and turning him into a cleaned-up assassin. These stories, perhaps the least interesting because of their repetition (and almost all written and published later in the run by Collins), though still engaging, usually follow Quarry, as the ‘active’ component of the killing team set up by the Broker, that being the one who appears after the ‘passive’ half (that usually being the short and stout homosexual Boyd, of who Quarry makes the occasional inappropriate old-school observation about regarding his sexual proclivity, yet, as he goes on to tell us – in true sociopathic fashion – couldn’t really care less about who the guy has sex with as long as he’s doing his job right) of the team has scouted their quarry (get it?) for weeks before to ascertain habits, and best way to kill him (or her). Of course, the plot inevitably thickens, as Quarry digs deeper then he really should, or cleans up for his increasingly sloppy partner (the result of bad guy-on-guy relationships and too much drinking) before resolving the matter, killing who needs to be killed, bedding who needs to be bedded and ultimately returning to his isolated A-Frame cottage retreat in Wisconsin, where his life consists of sitting alone on his back deck overlooking the lake, non-stop sipping coca cola (he never drinks alcohol) and occasionally bringing back a horny student from the local college for some action.
The next (and best) section of books, is post the bloodbath that found his boss the Broker and partner Boyd now out of the picture (and I don’t mean they stepped away pleasantly), with Quarry now out in the cold, but coming up with a novel (and darkly amusing) idea for continuing to make money off what he does best – namely, by following the ex-Broker’s other killers to whoever they’ve been hired to take out, then contacting the killer’s mark… and getting them to pay him to kill the one out to assassinate them. It’s a killer killing killers… but someone’s gotta do it, I guess (for pay, anyway… that lakeside cottage of Quarry’s can’t be cheap).
The last, shortest period (so far, anyway, covering only two books and a few short stories) moves into the Reagan 80’s, with the now retired Quarry finding his hoped for quiet life with the single person he decided to share it with (a big part being, not just her young nubile and willing body, but, as Quarry tells us, her entire lack of intellectual curiosity on how he managed to secure his retirement) thrown into chaos and bloodshed as his old life has followed him, forcing him to leave his desired retirement life behind… and back into even more dangerous contract work (let that be a lesson to you — once you’re in, you can never get out!)… as well as moonlight by managing a small resort in the country for a friend where he also manages plenty of sex partners (ah, Quarry… parts of your life are so enviable)…
From the opening episode of the show (which only lasted a single season, so I figured I could make it quick and easy at only 8 episodes, though the premiere and final episodes were well over an hour each), I was immediately startled by the differences more than anything. Moving its main setting to Memphis, still in the 70’s, with Quarry’s jobs taking him along the Mississippi, made it clear the showrunners were looking to introduce a backdrop of social and racial unrest, with the milieu feeling far more sweaty, Southern… and real.
Opening with Quarry (given a name now, Mac Conway) coming home from Vietnam (to be met by the angry placards and screaming rabble waiting outside the station, continuing the long-standing myth of returning soldiers being spit on by left-wingers as ‘baby killers’, long amplified by the mainstream media, as well as even through fairly level-headed films like the first Rambo, as truth… when, in fact, it never actually happened… it was a creation by the war hawk Right at the time to demonize war protestors), the story shifts not immediately into one of his singular, relatively clean (and mostly white, except when his latest job has him mixed in with some radical black group or something) life as a professional assassin, but instead works admirably hard to tie various characters together across the racial – and law enforcement – divide.
Logan Marshal-Green, an actor I don’t think I’d ever seen before (or has never stood out when I have), might be a sort-of wannabe version of Tom Hardy, but that’s just perfect for this re-imagined version of Quarry as a good-looking, bushy mustachioed, doing-his-best-against-the-odds down home Southern boy. He may mumble a lot, but, again, it fits; this Quarry isn’t a master at the English language, or much of anything really (though he’s proud of the pool he built by himself in his backyard); he’s certainly not the super-hero sized sniper Collins imagined… as far as a soldier, he was just a grunt, who we’ll eventually learn couldn’t stop a massacre on a village (an unfortunate storytelling cliché at this point, and one that’s more problematic to the narrative later in the season… though it does allow for some powerful scenes of Quarry suffering PTSD early on, speaking again to a difference between the show and books — the narratively utilitarian and far less adventurous Collins had zero interest in exploring something that real).
Quarry’s (I keep wanting to call him by his real character name Conway, as the Broker-given name is rendered pretty useless as he isn’t really operating ‘undercover’ like he is in the book) wife Joni, played by another perfectly cast actor, the sexy, waif-like Jodi Balfour, is having the same affair as in the book (which Quarry humiliatingly watches happen through the window in his own bed), the catalyst for Quarry’s eventual move into an assassin for the Broker, but instead of dropping her as a device, she ends up an important, fully realized character in the show, as the two stay together, trying to work out their relationship and economic issues together. Raising the character’s profile might have been a capitulation to the movements of today, but, in this case, as – with much of the show – it’s a positive one, creating emotional complexity and dramatically gripping dynamics, even if her job, apparently as a magazine writer, is never developed in the first season.
Long-time acting vet Peter Mullan is, not surprisingly, wonderful as the Broker, re-interpreted as a much tougher, small time version of the suave character in the book (who mostly dealt with upper echelon mob figures). Nikki Amuka-Bird, as Ruth, the struggling black woman, trying to raise two children day to day within a tumultuously integrating South, with her returned vet husband having been murdered (on the first Broker mission he convinced his best friend, the reluctant Quarry, to join him on) is a real discovery for me, filling her role with both pathos and a sense of integrity that is breathtaking to watch, in a beautifully understated way.
Long-time character actor (perhaps best known as the very creepy serial killer in Michael Mann Silence of the Lambs prequel Manhunter) and filmmaker Tom Noonan is surprisingly given the most thankless role, disguised under a ton of wild facial hair, with no dialogue, playing a mysterious henchman to the Broker…. perhaps he was going to develop over the series, but who knows.
The introduction of a law-enforcement sub-plot, with two sandwich chomping cynical detectives mixed up in trying to solve the spate of murders, with one of them stubbornly (and correctly) holding on to the idea that this Mac Conway guy is involved, might be formulaic, but as in all quality (neo-)noir, the right performers and writers elevate it into gripping, if familiar, drama, where the baggage of the characters comes along without needing to be explained. And the later scene of sudden violence with one of the officers in the last episode is one of the most startling moments (and unforgettable images) of the show’s run.
Quarry early partner, the ‘passive’ component, the homosexual Boyd, is replaced by the equally flaming Buddy (played by Damon Herriman, who apparently plays a similar character named Boyd on another show, the impetus for the name change here) and, as with every other part of the show, is given much more breathing room to develop as a character… and what a neurotic, jumble of pill popping nerves he is. Desperate to get out of the killing business – yet, as with all the characters, not having the income to do it – constantly complaining to his best friend (his smothering mother), Herriman is another performer I knew nothing about, but was deeply impressed with.
The near flawless craftsmanship of the first four episodes, re-interpreting Quarry, creating a sweaty, blues- and jazz-filled Southern world so believably (and magically), with all the hot sex and violence the genre requires, with performers doing yeoman’s work (with none of them looking to outdo each other in some flashy ways, but rather sinking into the roles asked of them) had me enthralled enough to overlook the minor quibbles (such as the hokey boy in the oriental mask that keeps popping up around Quarry, then disappearing — a clunky device to represent his guilt from his ‘Nam experiences).. that is, until it hit a few deeper (if still navigable) potholes in the second half of the season.
It was episode 5 (the first one actually written by Collins) that the 70’s cultural references — to music, albums and political events – suddenly felt less organic and more for show (not surprising as it’s similar to the less convincing way Collins used the material in the books). Also, dealing with the response (especially with the injustice of curfew being called on the black community only) to a brutal beating of a black boy on his first day to an integrating school by a white man who rips him off the bus is the first moment on the show where the catalyst to the episode felt a bit like an afternoon special teaching-moment, rather than us feeling it innately in the material.
Later on, with the flashbacks to unconvincing Vietnam war scenes showing horrible events that have been captured so much better in innumerable other films (and adding an unnecessary moral component to Quarry/Conway’s character), and a terribly unfortunate decision to ‘reveal’ the Broker as someone already manipulating events in Conway’s pre-Quarry past, I almost started to phase out a bit… but then the effectiveness of the world created would return into focus — with things like the tragic Boyd giving a pitch to the Broker on how he could be used other than killing which we just know is never going to happen, or the painfully awkward dinner scene with Mac and Joni begging Mac’s dad and dismissive stepmom to borrow money, and sad, pained Ruth being courted at her diner job by the duplicitous Moses (Mustafa Shakir, another great face and performer who I already loved as Big Mike from the series “The Deuce”) which we just know is gonna go bad (and it does, profoundly, yet in surprising and admirably understated ways) all against the backdrop of social unrest and music… and I’d fall in love again.
Quarry’s targets usually deserve it; as he rationalizes (in the book, not the show – important distinction, as the Broker does all the rationalizing for Quarry on the show) they were already dead from the moment someone with the money or power to carry it out wanted them dead… Quarry’s just the tool. Mac Conway is a tortured PTSD sufferer on the show, struggling to make ends meet and to overcome his anger towards his wife for having cheated on him while he was off fighting in war. As do all the characters swimming around him (but unlike the book Quarry), he downs a lot of whiskey. There’s a lot of cigarette smoking going on (so visually nice to see so many characters puffing away, the smoke filling the air around them… something setting your show in the 70’s lets you get away with).
The “Quarry” television series, flaws and all, is a breath of pure neo-noir. The single season acts as a nice evocative slice, a fascinating glimpse, feeling only mildly unresolved with its cancellation. Small in scale, it’s not looking to play at the grand hyped-up theater of, say, Breaking Bad… but that’s far from a criticism. In fact, I prefer Quarry to Breaking Bad. It feels far more real to me. And while I like the original source Collins creation (and will continue to read whatever continuing adventures come), the show is better. Perhaps it’s fitting that it only lasted a season. Like the folks the show (and the genre itself) are about, it’s underappreciated, a struggling underclass, barely recognized in a showboating celebrity world.