In the tradition of too many HBO productions to count, Cinemax’s Quarry suffers from a sense of prescribed and stiflingly tangible heaviness. Each shot has clearly been painstakingly “achieved,” so as to impart the lushness of the production values as well as a variety of rotating symbols pertaining to the narrative. The colors are rich, earthy, and literal-mindedly dark, because Quarry is a crime show abounding in subject matter of figurative darkness. Every element in the frame is foregrounded. If a character has a “George McGovern for President” sign in the front yard, the viewer is guaranteed not to miss it, or to fail to grasp the social tension it represents. The characters are clothed in 1970s-era garb that’s somehow unnaturally naturalistic, and a few significant characters are overshadowed by their ostentatiously retro facial hair. Even the mixture of real-life events (the 1972 American presidential election, the Munich Olympics, the Vietnam War, the revolt over desegregating Southern schools) and fictional elements (the usual assortment of criminal factions killing each other for drugs and money) feels commonplace, the themes ricocheting off of one another with dutiful solemnity.
Quarry is set in 1972, a point that’s made abundantly clear throughout. Mac Conway (Logan Marshall-Green) is a Marine returning to Memphis after serving two tours in Vietnam, disgraced in some Americans’ eyes for his involvement in a murkily established massacre. (Considering that it’s now culturally verboten to criticize the military, the ironic counterpoint of Mac’s predicament against contemporary values could’ve been accentuated.) Mac arrives home to his wife, Joni (Jodi Balfour), and the two have the sort of melodramatic, intensely Southern homecoming we’ve seen countless times before in various forms of media. They trade sweet, homespun nothings in accents that drip with faux molasses, and make love in the kitchen, while Balfour’s body is fetishized for the first of many occasions.
The profoundly uninteresting Mac and Joni make up Quarry’s emotional center, though the series gradually intensifies after it finally works through its pointless handwringing over whether Mac will or won’t join a firm of contract killers (which is presumably some sort of shadow faction of the American government, specializing in recruiting the men it ruined in the military for the only well-paying jobs they can now obtain). Like most crime shows, Quarry is sporadically enlivened by the eccentrics at its periphery, who’re played in this case by veteran character actors such as Peter Mullan, Damon Herriman, Ann Dowd, Tom Noonan, and Happy Anderson, who casually upstage the leads and cumulatively suggest a netherworld that might be more fruitfully expanded.
Certain scenes already hint at the better series that might be within Quarry’s reach. There’s a particularly evocative sequence at an abandoned plantation that serves as an underworld casino, worked by African-Americans for white men, which allows us to see Mullan’s criminal mastermind in repose, smoking a stogie while negotiating a deal with what appear to be Vietnamese officials. And one episode, set almost entirely at a motel that Mac and Joni duck into while evading killers, processing their marriage issues, has a wonderful sense of escalating dread, derived from a use of negative space—a bare wall above a bed, an empty pool, an open door to a motel room—that briefly recalls the suspenseful formalism of the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. But there’s no true sensibility governing Quarry; it’s all signifiers and callbacks, whether inadvertent or purposeful, to more idiosyncratic shows and films. The series revels in a blandly familiar fugue state.