A Love Letter to Hap and Leonard

We are constantly being told that we are living in a golden age of television.  To be fair, it’s not half bad really.  But, and it’s a big but, while the longer form of storytelling does have some high points, the stories themselves had veered evermore towards using violence as the catalyst.  I’ve written about this before and while violence is a constant in our lives, the use of it in entertainment needs to walk a fine line.  I’ve stopped watching some shows because the underlying story is not supporting the characters, they just veer from one shock to another.  I want to cheer on whomever I’m tuning in to watch.  And then, a while ago, while flicking through Amazon Prime, I came across Hap and Leonard.

What made me stop and give the pilot a go?  Well, the two leads, James Purefoy and Michael Kenneth Williams.  I will happily watch just about anything Purefoy is in, since first seeing him in Sharpe’s Sword back in the ’90s and Williams, well, Omar in The Wire could have lead to typecasting, but the career he has built since has been brilliant to watch.  Also, at the time, having never heard of Joe R. Lansdale‘s books, the idea of a 1980’s swamp noir kinda tickled me.  Now it has captivated me.  Though (at the time of writing) only two short six-episode seasons (show run by Nick Damci and Jim Mickle) have been aired, the two leads have created a chemistry that many have tried to capture in the past, and yet, these two just seem like they have truly been friends their whole lives.  The series is set in the fictional East Texas town of LaBorde and finds Hap Collins, a former conscientious objector who, under the urging of his ex-wife, did time in Leavenworth rather than go to Vietnam and his best friend, Leonard Pine, a black Vietnam vet who struggles to control his anger, roped into events beyond their control.  The first season is based around the return of Hap’s ex-wife Trudy, played by Christina Hendricks, and a sunken car full of stolen money.  The second season finds Hap and Leonard discovering the mummified body of a child underneath Leonard’s uncle’s floorboards.  In both series, the MacGuffins (the money and the body) serve little purpose other than stretching the fibres of our heroes friendship, when all they really want to do is pay the bills and get on with living out the ’80s.  Where the series brilliance is in the normality of the friendship that is before us.  They disagree, they fight, they get shot at and locked up, but, in the end, they always have each other’s back, no matter the cost.

Michael Kenneth Williams as Leonard Pine and James Purefoy as Hap Collins

Michael Kenneth Williams as Leonard Pine and James Purefoy as Hap Collins

And that is what makes the show.  That friendship is what the show is about.  Around them you have great supporting turns by Henricks, Jimmi Simpson, Brian Dennehy and the wonderful Irma P. Hall (who is the only reason to watch the Coen’s wasteful remake of The Ladykillers), creating the carnage that Hap and Leonard have to figure out how to survive and/or stay out of jail.  The tale of how a black boy and a white boy became friends in the early ’60s is told in flashback throughout the first two seasons.  This drip-feeding of how they have come together, and the downright excellent cold opens at the start of every episode (a trope almost universally screwed up these days), sets scenes that have so much heart that you revel in the bitching of two best friends in ways you know only too well.  But the show manages to be more as well.  It explores class, race and power in 1980’s America which feels much the same as class, race and power today.  The show’s subtlety and tenderness to its subjects are countered with a harsh reality and what can only be described as a grown-up use of violence.  The Church cold open in season 2, is truly chilling and has stayed with me in ways that only endear me to the skill of the cast, crew and writers.  Its execution shows the care and effort to ensure that these scenes carry weight and not a cheap shock/thrill which Game of Thrones is more often than not resorting too.

When I sat down to write this I was thinking about the portrayal of male friendship in Hap and Leonard and, in writing all that above, I see that the reason it works so well is that it is about a proper friendship.  Not a male one, not one defined by the sexuality of the friends, but the bond between two people who, despite it all, know that person will be there for them and vice versa.  That is this show’s triumph, not just in Purefoy and Williams, but in the love that is clearly seen from everyone involved, in every scene that we have the privilege to watch.  To the cast and crew of Hap and Leonard, thank you, thank you, thank you!  

Now, get to work on season three.

Seasons 1 and 2 of Hap and Leonard are available in the UK on Amazon Prime Video and Sundance TV in the US.

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