The Red Road opens with a wide, nondescript shot of a lonely car traveling up a lonelier forest road, and for the first couple of episodes, that seems to be the show’s primary motif. The location, a fictional town in New Jersey, is commonplace, as is the bleak and grainy cinematography, so redolent of similar dramas like The Bridge, The Killing, and Broadchurch. Even the characters, however attentively embodied, seem routine. Harold (Martin Henderson) is a good cop struggling to do right by his two daughters, Rachel (Allie Gonino) and Kate (Annalise Basso), and his fragile wife, Jean (Julianne Nicholson), who’s never really recovered from the vaguely accidental drowning of her twin brother. Harold’s charismatic high school rival, Phillip (Jason Momoa), recently returned from prison with big ideas and criminal knowhow, is the show’s apparent villain. The two men quickly collide after Phillip—who acts as a sort of enforcer in the local Lenape Native American community—learns that Harold’s drunken, frantic wife, may have been involved in a hit-and-run and, more importantly, that Harold may have helped to cover it up.
Despite the often clumsy, unambiguous way in which the writers explain these circumstances, with Jean abruptly hearing voices to emphasize her until-now undiagnosed schizophrenia, or a scene in which a bunch of bratty, entitled teenagers beat up a Lenape boy, as if to demonstrate for audiences that there’s tension between the community’s whites and Native Americans, The Red Road quickly grows from a bunch of recycled conceits to a respectable pastiche and, by the fourth episode, a work that can stand on its own. The Romeo and Juliet-esque relationship between Rachel and Phillip’s much-younger brother, Junior (Kiowa Gordon), serves as a fascinating mirror image of the history between Jean and Phillip. As Junior becomes corrupted by Phillip’s increasingly brazen pharmaceutical thefts, it becomes clear how Phillip himself turned to crime, egged on by his oppressive, loveless father, Jack (Tom Sizemore), just as Rachel’s feelings hint at the trauma Jean went through as a teenager.
More importantly, whereas the first few episodes of The Red Road seem intent on equally shuffling between Harold’s attempts to hold his fraying family apart and Phillip’s abrupt reappearance at the home of his hardworking mother, Marie (Tamara Tunie), the series slowly allows Momoa’s hypnotic performance to dominate the proceedings. There, at least, is something different—a character that’s a cross between Cormac McCarthy’s Chigurh and Breaking Bad’s Gustavo Fring. Closer viewing also reveals how packed with subtext earlier scenes are. In the James Gray-directed pilot, Phillip and his reckless partner, Mike (Zahn McClarnon), have gone out to the lake, ostensibly for a friendly midnight swim with Junior and Rachel, but really to check up on the weighted corpse that Frank “disposed” of. When Mike gets a little rough with the kids, Phillip just floats there, watching the violence like a predatory crocodile. This scene isn’t merely demonstrating the difference between a dangerously unpredictable man like Mike and the far more coldblooded Phillip (later events I won’t reveal here give a special significance to this moment).
The Red Road is ultimately both showy and talky, but while style may occasionally get the better of the show’s substance, these choices are ultimately borne out by the quality of the plotting. In the second episode, “The Wolf and the Dog,” rain is flashily used to demonstrate menace: As a drenched Phillip hovers over a sleeping pharmacist, he practically drowns him in his threats. But later, when Phillip exerts his influence over Harold, he does so while eating outside in the middle of a storm, sheltered only by a tiny eave. Harold, soaked, looks like a desperate man cast adrift; Phillip, entirely dry, looks untouchable. In other words, it’s easy to understand what these sequences are meant to reveal about the characters, especially for those viewers who are well-versed in the genre, and yet it’s hard not to be at least the slightest bit awed by them—if by nothing else than by the ease with which they’re executed. It helps, too, that none of these scenes are merely demonstrative or mere storytelling devices. For instance, when Phillip frees a vicious dog, it’s clearly showing a basic compassion that his father lacks, but by the next episode, the dog has been fully incorporated into Phillip’s life.
The more that The Red Road focuses on its unique aspects and fractious setting (like the legal battle over territory that’s always being broadcast on background televisions), the more intriguing the series gets. The fourth episode, “The Bad Weapons,” ends on a particularly ambitious note, as it mashes together a particularly violent sequence with the introspective calm of Rachel listening to a tape of her dead uncle’s philosophical ramblings. Both scenes end with their protagonists realizing that they must do more than loop around and around from side A to side B: The Red Road wants to be more than a scenic circle around the backcountry, and whether it gets there or not, it’s at least striving to transport its audience.