Part of what makes The Red Road so good is the sense that the story being told is both an all-out pedal-to-the-metal crime drama and a meditative slow burn. “The Wolf and the Dog” epitomizes that juxtaposition as well as any other episode of the first season, containing breakneck bursts of action in one scene and calm intensity in the next, toggling effortlessly back and forth throughout the hour. The second episode picks up right after “Arise My Love, Shake Off This Dream“, following Harold as he stalks through a junkyard in the early morning hours looking for a bumper to replace the dented one on his truck. Any doubt he had regarding the guilt of his wife Jean in the Ramapo Mountain hit and run is dispelled when he finds a shred of shirt in the old bumper.
Julianne Nicholson’s Jean and Martin Henderson’s Harold get fleshed out a little more in “The Wolf and the Dog”, and their relationship provides more of that simmering calm and apparent collectedness that just begs to boil over. Nicholson makes Jean’s shaky insanity phenomenally convincing, moving frailly from scene to scene like a marionette. What’s interesting is that the hit and run was never really in question for her. She may have been in denial, stating that she hit a deer or a dog instead of a young boy, but she never denied hitting something. Now that Harold has replaced the bumper and done what he can to dispel the rumor of Jean’s guilt, he’s essentially forced her to doubt the one thing that she actually had a firm grip on.
That’s more Red Road beauty: Jean might be 90% insane, and that leftover 10% is all the more precious for it — and that’s what Harold takes from her, unwittingly, meaning only to help and protect her. That 10% is what everyone in this series is trying to hold on to, the slice of stable happiness everyone hopes will grow, the same kind that seems so easy to lose. It’s the most precious thing to these people, and so it’s also the most dangerous. Jean’s sanity is the most obviously fragile, but Harold is on uneven ground himself. He’s not used to operating this way, out on the fringes, and he’s very much still testing those waters.
Kopus, on the other hand, lives in that dangerous percentage. He prevents Jean’s arrest by lying to his own mother, he subtly threatens a group of kids so they refuse to testify against her, and all the while he knows — as Harold knows — that Jean is guilty. Kopus has presented himself as an ally, and in a sense he’s delivered. He’s kept Jean from prison already. But it’s all clearly for his own gain at this point, despite the flickers of the soul we see from time to time within his massive frame. “I used to love fighting for him,” Kopus says of an old high school acquaintance. He fights for himself now because he’s been burned so many times, but he’s capable of fighting for more, too.
The episode title “The Wolf and the Dog” points to that inner struggle apparent in Jean, Harold, and Kopus. We might first think of Aesop’s fable about the two animals, the gaunt wolf meeting the house-dog and recognizing that it’s better to starve free than to be a fat slave — Jean’s story is especially identifiable here, as she’d rather be guilty and free in her mind than innocent and trapped.
But “The Wolf and the Dog” refers more to the Native American legend of the two wolves (or two dogs, or a dog and a wolf, depending on the version) living inside all of us. One is joy, love, benevolence, empathy, compassion, generosity, faith — the other is anger, envy, jealousy, superiority, inferiority, arrogance, greed. The question is which one wins? As Harold and Kopus wrestle with their wolves and dogs, they wrestle too with the answer to that question, the end of that legend: which one do you feed?