Damnation Review – Season 1, Episode 1: “Sam Riley’s Body”

by Rachel Bellwoar

Poor Sam Riley. If the title of Damnation’s series premiere wasn’t a dead giveaway, we meet Sam, letting us know his corpse is the only way a truck will manage to break through their blockade. Local farmers are striking because of how low grocers are setting their prices. Farmers can’t make money selling their goods to them. The man pulling the grocers’ strings is a wealthy banker and it’s class warfare set in 1930’s Iowa, with the banker getting his way by hiring a strikebreaker, Creeley (Quarry‘s Logan Marshall-Green), to shoot Sam Riley dead.
Spending almost half the episode lugging Sam’s body around, Creeley asserts himself early with some ‘don’t mess with me’ vibes and free rounds of drink at a speakeasy. There haven’t been too many westerns on TV these days, but Damnation manages to pilfer a bit from all of them. Harlan, Kentucky from Justified. The Pinkertons and cursing from Deadwood (it’s cute to see how fewer f-words, in comparison, are meant to make people blush).
The show that most comes to mind watching the premiere is Preacher, and like Jesse Custer, we meet Seth Davenport (Love/Hate‘s Killian Scott) when he’s being sought for help by a child. The difference is clear. Despite being as much of a fake as Jesse, Seth is a more effective preacher, a skilled public speaker, and his sermons run circles around Custer’s.
Given he’s moved to town to incite workers to rise up, that ability comes in handy. Seth wants revolution, and he’s less concerned about when or where it happens, but that it happens at all. This isn’t the first town he’s gone to with his wife, Amelia (Sarah Jones), and a subplot with her calling out the local newspaper has her striking an acquaintance with a reporter, D. L. Sullivan (Joe Adler).
Not every storyline works as well as it could this episode. The clever prostitute, who happens to be the show’s one major actor of color (Chasten Harmon). The mentioning of Seth’s “wicked” past (for which blame falls on the overwrought use of the adjective, “wicked”). The need to have an outside agency take interest in the town’s strike, instead of keeping tensions local. Then there’s arresting Sam Jr. at his father’s funeral, which is the lamest timing for somebody to be framed.
Damnation saves the best scene of the episode for last. Putting Killian Scott and Logan Marshall-Green in the same room together is like putting Timothy Olyphant in the same room with Walton Goggins. Hopefully this is where the show is headed, and they won’t feel compelled to keep them apart for an incendiary reunion. This isn’t the first time Creeley and Seth have met, and it shouldn’t be the last.
New episodes of Damnation air Tuesdays at 10 PM EST on USA Network.

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