Though True Detective devoured nearly all of last year’s television glory, the SundanceTV series The Red Road deserves mention in the same breath. Massively overlooked but strong enough to be renewed for a second season (which premieres April 2015), the show centers on a small New Jersey town in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains. Decades of rough history between the town locals and the Lenape Native American tribe begins to flare up again, and two men — Officer Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson) and ex-convict Phillip Kopus (Jason Momoa) — become wrapped up in the middle.
Created by Aaron Guzikowski (writer of Prisoners), The Red Road brings that rough history into the present in a way that few series dare. At times it’s made explicit, especially in scenes recounting the death of Harold’s brother-in-law as members of the Lenape tribe (maybe even Kopus himself) stood by. Those scenes are compelling, but it’s the mysterious, unseen aura of Us vs. Them that really gives The Red Road serious clout, vibing uneasily in every sequence. Is it racism? Or is it simpler, illogical and obdurate hatred, free of any and all motivation, free as a virus in the mountainside community?
The comparison to True Detective rises out of this theme of muddled morals and incomprehensible evil. There’s no serial killer in The Red Road, but that sense of evil is still hanging there. As a viewer, being unable to tack that evil onto a single figure (like True ‘Tec‘s Yellow King) makes The Red Road all the more disquieting. In fact, this spectral villainy isn’t nearly as evident on first go-round as our present conversation might lead one to believe. The pilot episode “Arise My Love, Shake Off This Dream”, directed by the great James Gray, does what most pilots do in introducing the major players and tossing a number of balls in the air for said players to juggle. But in Gray’s hands it does so much more, too, playing into that unexplainable sense of dread.
Take Phillip Kopus — he’s the heart of The Red Road, and Momoa’s presence absolutely glows with charisma. He’s not unlike Idris Elba’s tightrope-walking cop in Luther, not only because the actor is so fantastically watchable but because the character operates beautifully in the gray area between right and wrong. He looks like a hulking, tattooed brute, but Kopus is the smartest guy on both sides of that line. James Gray and Co. give Momoa all the room he needs, but there are three distinct shots (maybe more) that depict Kopus as the kind of shadowy manipulator that could turn out to be bad news for everyone in The Red Road. The introductory shot of him is out-of-focus, Kopus moving toward the camera until we see his face at last, and he says nothing as he watches the revelry of the tribal get-together around him. A later shot is of the top half of his head sticking out of a black pond like an alligator, again watching. And the last occurs when Harold shows up to collect his teenage daughter in the dead of night, as she’s dating the estranged younger brother of Kopus. Harold glares at the boyfriend and the boyfriend’s mother as he leaves. As he pulls out we see Kopus lean out through a grimy windowpane, watching.
Those one-off glimpses of Kopus speak volumes about his character, but Momoa’s best when he’s given that room to shine. Something as simple as crossing his arms is forceful, cautionary, daring. He flashes small grins in such a way that Kopus always seems to know something no one else knows, and by the end of the pilot we’ve found that to be mostly true. Tom Sizemore is a breath of fresh air as Jack Kopus, Phillip’s mob-minded father, and while it’s great to see Sizemore play something other than an army grunt it’s even better to see him perform so viscerally against his small-screen son. The chemistry between Sizemore and Momoa is off the charts.
And while Kopus and Harold have only one brief meeting in “Arise My Love”, it’s made clear that these two men are now together on a very uncertain path forward. Kopus reveals that he knows a dark secret of Harold’s wife, but he presents himself as an ally of Harold’s. He knows that the right kind of knowledge means power over the right kind of people, and his silent observations all seem geared toward his own gains. As Kopus hands Harold his own gun at the close of the episode, the question is whether those gains will be Harold’s losses.