The second episode of “Damnation” pivots on a striking scene: A group of shabby farmers walk into a small Iowa town, carrying handmade signs and chanting slogans. The signs demand unity, a living wage, a compassionate economy: “UNITED WE STAND,” “GROW YOUR OWN FOOD,” “WE NEED FAIR PRICES.” It’s a showstopping set piece, set to Laura Marling’s “Devil’s Spoke,” a similarly timeless banjo number that reminds the listener, “all of this can be broken.” The demonstration is achingly familiar; it could be happening in your own town square, right now. (In a later episode, an autoworker leads strikers through a chant: “Our movement united will never be divided!” Police arrange themselves on the sidelines, armed with nightsticks and dogs.)
But “Damnation” is set during the Depression, in a rural landscape feeling the first signs that their way of life is becoming extinct. The new USA show bills itself as an untold history of the American labor movement, and in moments like this, the romance and power of that statement are made flesh.
The trouble with “Damnation,” if it can be summed up into one problem, is that the show is a clear homage to HBO’s golden-age drama “Deadwood,” which brought context and color to the Western in a way that still feels indelibly brilliant. “Damnation” leans on many of the older show’s devices — twinkly, ethereal banjo; a brothel populated with a couple of tough, no-nonsense ladies; the expletive “cocksucker”; even a protagonist named Seth, torn between violence and goodness. But ultimately it is quite a different show. “Damnation” is set 60-odd years later — outside of the context of American expansion, the Civil War, and the gold rush — and in a very different part of the country. Iowa isn’t exactly the Wild West, no matter how many cowboy hats the characters wear.
But there’s at least one thing that “Damnation” has in common with “Deadwood”: The outside world doesn’t care much about what happens in the characters’ small towns, making for a lawlessness that fuels the plot. The first episode introduces unconventional preacher Seth Davenport (Killian Scott), a gifted orator with radical politics and a tortured set of ideals. That is to say, he’s a rabble-rouser — and the town has been thus roused, with corn and dairy farmers uniting in a strike until prices are raised for their produce. Hardscrabble farmers like Victor (Arnold Pinnock) are milking their cows and then dumping the milk into trenches, to hold their line in the stalemate against the banks. But some desperate farmers are trying to cross the makeshift picket lines to sell their goods in town anyway — only to meet with fierce opposition from the strikers. This creates a scenario in which — more than once — gun-waving skirmishes erupt over smuggled barrels of milk. It’s so incongruous it’s captivating; a bloody history for such seemingly innocent sustenance.
Seth’s activities with the farmers is enough of a statement that various forms of strikebreakers are sent in by shadowy corporate interests in faraway cities. The newspapers refuse to publish any news about the farmers’ actions, the sheriff (Christopher Heyerdahl) won’t protect them, and by the end of the first episode, a feared Pinkerton agent has shown up to do what the Pinkertons do best: Break up the union and end the strike. In this case, the terrifyingly effective agent Creeley Turner (Logan Marshall-Green, doing his best Tom Hardy) is not a stranger — he’s Seth’s brother. From then on, “Damnation” settles into a clandestine war between Seth and Creeley for the remainder of the four episodes sent to critics — a war which brings in Creeley’s pet prostitute, Bessie (Chasten Harmon), a black woman chosen because she can read, and Connie Nunn (Melinda Page Hamilton), a vigilante strikebreaker with a personal vendetta against Seth.
To “Damnation’s” credit, Seth and Creeley are compelling characters — worthy opponents with hangups that make their two sides of the story individually sympathetic. But too often, the details around them become a hash. Of course, it’s nice when a show isn’t afraid of being dense, but “Damnation” is overstuffed in a way that makes it hard to absorb any one element of the rather complex plot. There is just too much going on: The cast includes a dozen-odd more named parts besides the ones I’ve mentioned here, who are either reporters or millionaires or farmers being foreclosed upon. Hamilton, as Connie the vengeful murderess, is one of the six regular cast members — but all of four episodes in, has not interacted with any of the other characters, because she’s traveling the Midwest shooting people in the face. To graft all of these stories together requires more narrative ability than the show has demonstrated so far.
In a way, that richness of historical context is its own appeal, and “Damnation” enjoyably mines the weird footnotes of American history for all they are worth. The tactics of the strikers — and the brutality with which they are suppressed — also offers some disturbingly relevant context for today’s politics. But the history outpaces the characters; many of the individual characters seem swept up by their context, instead of actively participating in it. The central question of historical fiction is to ask why something happened one way, and not another; “Damnation” knows the answers, but it doesn’t ask the questions. Instead it seems as if the characters are drawn forward by fate. But with the protests of the 1930s echoing the ones happening on our own streets, we know that history isn’t destined but made. Fate has nothing to do with it.