“Quarry,” based on a series of novels by Max Allan Collins about a Marine recruited as a hitman as soon as he returns home from his second tour of duty in Vietnam, is a dark-hued, attractively photographed, and grimly serious crime drama that sims for the slow-burn intensity of “Breaking Bad.” In its first four episodes (all this reviewer has seen) the show may burn a bit too slow for its own good, because while the show features bursts of violence, emotional catharsis, and—because this is Cinemax—softcore sex scenes, the spaces in between are filled primarily with a somber, brooding atmosphere that can be a bit of a bummer.
Where “Breaking Bad,” at least in its early seasons, could play its grim drug thriller off its ironically banal family drama—the show took particular delight in the juxtaposition of bland suburbia and its increasingly intense crime story—”Quarry” offers little relief from its unremitting bleakness except for a wearily attractive period atmosphere. The show is set in Memphis in the 1970s, where live music seems to be blasting out of bars every time of day. Particularly in its first two episodes, “Quarry” features a ton of live performances, and it works to offset the show’s violent, Vietnam-fucked tone.
Mac (Logan Marshall-Green) returns home from his second tour of duty in Vietnam to hippie protesters spitting in his face at the airport—he and his buddy Arthur (Jamie Hector) were implicated in a widely-reported massacre, making them pariahs in their hometown—and a McGovern poster on his front lawn, presumably placed there by his wife Joni (Jodi Balfour) who must have reasoned that the best way to bring her boy home is to vote for the man who promises to end the war immediately. He just barely gets time to unpack his bags and shtup his hot wife before a mysterious stranger calling himself The Broker (Peter Mullan) is barging into his house and offering him thousands of dollars to serve as a hitman for shadowy interests he will never meet. (“You mob or CIA?” Mac asks the man; “You got a preference?” he retorts.) Mac declines the offer, but he soon learns that Arthur has accepted the gig. If they can perpetrate pointless death in Southeast Asia, why not do the same for a lot more money at home?
Mac agrees to serve as Arthur’s backup on his first gig, and from there Mac gets sucked into the sordid world of killing folks for cash. The show works best when it’s slowly ratcheting up the tension while letting its Southern-fried, Stax-soul atmosphere carry the weight. Unfortunately, it’s less successful at establishing much of a reason to care about its central characters. The show gives little sense of what Mac really went through in Vietnam, and so we remain at a distance from him. Similarly, we have no sense of Mac and Joni’s antebellum relationship, meaning their inevitable falling out doesn’t register very deeply. The supporting cast is more interesting, with colorful, off-beat performances from Mullan and Damon Herriman as a gay fellow hitman. But these are sidelined within the first few episodes, when Mac and Jodi go on the run.
There are some pretensions to deeper significance—about Vietnam, political divides, PTSD, and America’s culture of violence (as well as the world’s, suggested by one episode’s frequent allusions to the Black September terrorist attack on the 1972 Munich Olympics)—but, four episodes in, it’s unclear whether “Quarry” has much to say about any of this or whether it’s simply using all of these elements to create an appropriately apocalyptic backdrop to its characters’ downward spiral into violence. At its best, “Quarry” suggests a bridge between those two poles of 21st-century prestige TV, “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” merging the long-form suspense of the former with the latter’s brilliance at embedding itself in—and commenting upon—a specific historical milieu.
“Quarry” is better at aping “Breaking Bad” than “Mad Men.” Greg Yaitanes, who directed the all eight episodes of the first season, knows how to stage a nail-biting set piece, and, given this is premium cable, he’s able to indulge in some pretty grisly violence. But the film’s “Mad Men”-ian historical references often seem superficial, a potted history of the early ’70s that draws in, among other things, the My Lai massacre (though the name has been changed to Quan Thang, which, Vietnamese Wikipedia informs me, is the name of a fictional general nicknamed The Great Executioner from the Chinese novel “Water Margin”), the anti-war movement, the 1972 presidential election—McGovern is referenced frequently, while Nixon goes strangely unmentioned, at least in the first four episodes—and Palestinian terrorism. So far it’s unclear how much the show will really explore the early ’70s, as opposed to simply mining the period for a few details to lend the show an appropriately apocalyptic backdrop.
“Quarry” has the makings of a really terrific piece of entertainment, a show that could, if it wanted to, combine a unique atmosphere with a sense of history and play those off against a deeply involving crime saga, but it’s not quite there yet, and I fear that it may end up, like so many long-form dramas, running in circles without quite getting anywhere. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.