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The Red Road, Ep. 1.04, “The Bad Weapons” handles its characters with care

The Red Road, Ep. 1.04, “The Bad Weapons” handles its characters with care

The Red Road, Season 1, Episode 4

The Red Road, Season 1, Episode 4, “The Bad Weapons”
Written by Bridget Carpenter
Directed by Lodge Kerrigan
Airs Thursdays at 9pm EST on SundanceTV

This week, on The Red Road: Jean gets a diagnosis, Rachel breaks it off, and Phillip gets drunk

Two thirds of the way through its inaugural season, The Red Road is somewhat of a puzzle. It has interesting, well-explored characters and an appropriately teased slow-burn Deep Dark Past mystery. Where it falls down is its pacing and urgency- very little of interest is happening in the present. There’s plenty the characters don’t know but due to the split narrative approach, following each of our leads through the past several weeks rather than adhering to one or another’s POV, the audience has these answers and that, combined with the strong sense that the central trio is here to stay, leaves the show sputtering on a plot level while it excels with its character beats.

The big surprise this week is again Rachel, who subverts expectations after her acting out in episode three by taking a step back from her relationship with Junior. Their trip to a scary guy’s house to buy a gun, followed by Junior’s treatment of her afterwards, is apparently enough to make her reassess some of her recent choices. This may seem obvious, but in the world of TV rebellious teens, it really, really is not- it’s incredibly refreshing to see Rachel so level-headed, backing away from the drama rather than spinning into a spiral of foolish, self-destructive behavior (as many shows do, using “because teenager” to propel the plot). Allie Gonino handles this shift in Rachel very well, keeping her perceptive enough to make this self-awareness believable while still conveying her affection for Junior, making her actions this week organic with last week, rather than out of character. Kiowa Gordon also gives a nice performance as Junior, who is both recognizably teenage-stupid and struggling with legitimate, serious (but comparatively mundane) family troubles.

Julianne Nicholson continues to shine as Jean, transitioning her carefully from her early season instability to a more nuanced, quieter everywoman. Jean’s diagnosis as schizophrenic is nice to see, as representations of mentally ill characters on television are still problematic, to say the least. Harold’s negative reaction to the diagnosis represents the stigma still surrounding mental illness well, but Jean’s calm acceptance is wonderful- she knows something’s been wrong and there’s a sense that being able to name it and move forward with treatment is a relief. Characters who are stable and relatable when on their meds, and volatile when off them (without their illness turning them into a crime-solving genius), are disappointingly rare on TV; this careful handling of the issue is an unexpected highlight of this episode and the series so far.

Four episodes in, Phillip remains somewhat of a mystery and while Jason Momoa continues to be charismatic and engaging in the role, it’s becoming difficult to relate to the character without knowing more about him. He’s presented as a tough baddie, comfortable beating men and threatening violence, and we’re told he killed someone (Jean’s brother?) when he was young, but in his interactions with his father and mother, Phillip feels smaller, far more ordinary than his almost mythic, larger-than-life persona. Is he a killer, or just a thief? Would the notion of killing a stranger disquiet him? Mike says they’re friends, but we’ve seen little camaraderie between them before this episode, with Phillip remaining reserved and insular in most of their scenes. Momoa plays Phillip’s murder of Mike well, but without any sense of Phillip’s motivations and goals, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get a handle on him. That’s absolutely fine for a force-of-nature antagonist, but if the writers want the audience to care about Phillip, we need more of a peek behind the curtain.

While much of the character development to this point has been interesting, Phillip’s murder of Mike this week highlights the series’ biggest flaw- its narrative stakes. The only significant recurring element in the present day that the audience can engage with is one that’s remained mostly off-screen, the fate of the Lenape boy Jean presumably ran over. Harold and the police are still looking for the missing college student but we know he’s dead, weighed down in the lake. Now Mike, the man responsible for his death, is dead too and any interest we may have had in the case died with him. As discussed earlier, we don’t know what Phillip wants so it’s hard to get invested in him and Jean and Rachel (along with the seemingly forgotten Kate) look to be in a good place, at least for now. Yes, we’re enjoying our time with these characters, but despite some lovely visuals (the burning truck being a particular standout this week), right now there’s little distinguishing The Red Road among the recent crowd of introspective character-based series. This will quite possibly change next week, should the series ramp up to its finale, but for now, the show lacks urgency, and it has for a couple of episodes. That being said, this is still an engaging and worthwhile series that is doing a lot right- here’s hoping The Red Road is able to bring together its various elements and build in its final episodes to a satisfying, memorable finale.

What did you think of this episode? Want to bet writer Bridget Carpenter was dismayed by True Detective’s flat circle speech, which we hear in a less memorable iteration this week? Were you as pleased as I by Rachel’s actions this week? Think we’ll ever spend time with Kate? Post your thoughts below!

Kate Kulzick