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The Struggles of 1930's Iowa Life on ‘Damnation’
November 7, 2017  | By David Hinckley  | 2 comments

The grapes of wrath grow like kudzu on USA’s intense new drama Damnation, which premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET.

Set in a starvation Iowa farm town in the early 1930s, this eight-episode series finds only faint flickers of humanity among the rich and powerful folks who pretty much dictate everyone’s life.

The poor folks don’t have a lot of saints on their side, either. The questionable means just seem a little less objectionable when they could lead to a more equitable end.  

The central conflict in Damnation revolves around Seth Davenport (Killian Scott), and his brother Creeley Turner (Logan Marshall-Green, top). Their sibling rivalry operates on many levels, starting with the one where Seth wants poor people to rise up and seize some of the abundant riches around them while Creeley is well paid to maintain the status quo by any means necessary.

Seth is a preacher, or at least he’s masquerading as a preacher in his latest incarnation. His long game is to incite a full-scale workers’ revolution, toward which end he’s encouraging and supporting a farmers’ strike against agents who refuse to pay the farmers fairly for their crops.

Creeley is a Pinkerton agent tasked with breaking that strike.

You see where this could lead to conflict.

You can also see where Seth could find an audience receptive to his call for revolution. The farmers in this town have little to lose, since prices in these early years of the Depression have dropped so low they actually lose money by farming.  

The haves, on the other hand, have reconfigured the system so they keep doing just fine.

The agricultural products broker, who sets the prices paid to farmers, sees no reason to pay more when the farmers have no other place to sell.

If someone supplements his income with a side business like setting up a still in the woods – remember, this is still Prohibition – the sheriff takes a cut of the profits. Or all of them.

When poor folks do go on strike – whether it’s the farmers here or the coal miners in nearby Harlan – the rich folks call in reinforcements. While that may include the law in some marginal capacity, it more likely means the muscle of strikebreakers and “agencies” like Pinkerton and Burns.

Representatives of those agencies quickly establish themselves on Damnation as the Big Bads, with a cold-blooded ruthlessness that gives viewers no choice except sympathizing with the strikers.  

These bad guys swagger, sneer and do everything short of twirling their mustaches. Even the fact they allow a woman into their testosterone-driven fraternity – Connie Nunn (Melinda Page-Hamilton), a Burns agent for whom this case is personal – doesn’t soften their disinterest in the pain they inflict on their victims, innocent or otherwise.

That’s where Damnation plants itself squarely on Grapes of Wrath turf. The deck feels so stacked against the ordinary working man that decent folks born on the wrong side don’t stand a chance.

Seth isn’t wrong in identifying the problem, and he’s supported by his smart wife Amelia (Sarah Jones), a revolutionary comrade who shares Seth’s faith that one days the workers and the poor and the masses will rise up and overthrow their oppressors.

Seth and Amelia have a problem, though. Damnation illustrates in somber detail the sacrifice they are asking the masses to make. Someone with children, or a family, or an over-mortgaged farm, risks everything by joining a strike or even speaking against the people who can destroy his or her life.

As ordinary folks wrestle with that dilemma, Damnation gives its secular story an additional religious and spiritual dimension, often couching arguments from both sides in Biblical terms and parables.

At times it feels a little like Preacher, without the supernatural weirdness. But mostly it’s a story about how very, very hard it can be, even in America, to win a game where someone else has all the aces and face cards.

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Neal P. Raub
Is the series coming back? Great show
Apr 19, 2019   |  Reply
That same deck is still being dealt from these days and the average gal orguy, though not in the dust bowl anymore (maybe the Rust belt or at a desk with a white shirt or black skirt and stagnant wages), still seems to be looking at same low-value cards. How do we, the 99%, get to shuffle that deck? Don't know.
Nov 7, 2017   |  Reply
Unions, read your history. When it gets bad enough unions will make a come back. I hope. Our political devide is so bad and all our polititions so corrupt it may require another revolution. All the work rules common man enjoys were all fought for by unions. That’s just the historical facts.
Nov 25, 2018
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