The opening scene of the first season Red Road episode “The Great Snake Battle” reminded me of a scene from James Gray’s directorial feature Little Odessa. Both use a skinny hallway of a rundown New York City tenement as their setting, both depict a passionate confrontation between father and son, and both show how quickly a power dynamic can change from one man to the next. The comparison is strengthened somewhat by the fact that Gray directed Road‘s pilot episode “Arise My Love, Shake Off This Dream“; this fifth episode, focusing almost exclusively on main characters Phillip Kopus and Harold Jensen, is also the best since Gray’s opening hour.
We’ve seen how smart and manipulative Jason Momoa’s Kopus can be in pretty much every episode so far. He always seems to have the upper hand, even when he’s pissed off or cornered or spoken to like a child by his manic father Jack. It’s Jack and Phillip who come head-to-head in that dim hallway, the former ripping the door open with a gun in his hand and demanding his payment, the latter hardly saying a word at all. It’s not the fact that Phillip is quiet that makes this scene different — we’ve talked at length about the silent observations of Kopus, watching from afar and gathering ammunition to use against anyone and everyone. But he’s more than just quiet in this hallway scene. As his father rips into him, Kopus seems truly sad. Sad Kopus is without a doubt a new Kopus.
And then he leaves the apartment, Jack literally pushing him out the door and slamming it behind him, and when Kopus leans his head back and regains his signature glower we realize it’s still Kopus, the old one, and that even through that patriarchal evisceration he’s retained the upper hand. He daintily preserves his father’s fingerprints on his gun in a plastic bag, and as we cut to the opening credits we might be tempted to abandon any sympathy for Sad Kopus in place of cold fear for whatever he has in store for that gun.
But “The Great Snake Battle” demands more than that, as impending scenes ask us to reconsider whether Kopus actually does have an aching heart inside his giant frame, and in many ways it’s the best episode of the show so far. It develops the Kopus-Harold rivalry set up in “Arise” and “The Wolf and the Dog” in an important way, and it even provides more satisfaction on that front than the first season finale “Snaring of the Sun”. The shifting power dynamic has always kept each episode fresh, but the shift in “Battle” is a tectonic one. By the end of the hour, it’s possible that Kopus no longer has Harold in his pocket. Harold, beaten and harried at every turn, finally seems to have some territory on the playing field to call his own.
What’s the cost of that territory? For one thing, Harold’s no longer “the good guy”. In this episode alone he lies to his wife Jean, yells at her in front of his daughters, solves a crime through ill-gotten information, and gains that aforesaid territory only after playing by the rules Kopus set down. In “Wolf and the Dog” Kopus told Harold he’d have to get better at lying — and Harold has certainly done that. Martin Henderson has his best hour as Officer Jensen, and the way his face drops from casual morning joviality to dead seriousness after lying to Jean is fantastic.
The give and take between Kopus and Harold is what’s really at the heart of “Battle”, and while Harold is no longer “the good guy” we might even go so far as to say the Kopus is no longer “the bad guy”. Jack Kopus mentioned in an earlier episode that his son had committed murder when he was only eight years old, and in that same episode Kopus seemed to confirm his stance on such a horrific event by stating “anything that makes you stronger is good”. Here, though, even after we’ve been seemingly conditioned to believe that Sad Kopus is really just Manipulative Kopus faking it, a phenomenally emotional scene between Kopus and his little brother Junior might actually make us believe that Sad Kopus, the misunderstood hulk longing for family and for youthful happiness, might actual be the real Kopus. He tells the tale of the accident all those years ago and asks Junior point-blank if he believes him. Junior nods, and Phillip smiles and tells him that he’s a good brother. It could very well be the case that Kopus is lying yet again, that the “good brother” comment is about Junior’s willingness to believe such a thing even after seeing all the criminal things his brother is capable of. But the pathos in that moment is more than enough to make us wonder, and that wonderment is why Kopus is one of the best television characters out there today.
Good? Bad? Neither Kopus nor Harold is entirely one or the other, which is something we might have guessed from the start but could never truly enjoy as a central truth of The Red Road until now. The second season of the show begins later this week, and we should hope that “The Great Snake Battle” is the episode that the new season uses as inspiration.
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