A relatively quiet second episode of The Red Road‘s sophomore year provided a little more clarity with regards to the direction the show might take after a cracking first season. The impetus for much of the going-ons here is the murder of Mac, elder chief of the Lenape chapter of the Ramapo Mountains, which we saw at the end of the the second season opener “Gifts“. As suspected, Phillip Kopus is now the front-and-center suspect in Mac’s demise.
A recent interview with Jason Momoa touched on the “breaking” of the Kopus from the first season; Aaron Guzikowski, creator of Red Road and scribe behind Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, certainly seems to be heading in that direction with “Graves”. It’s interesting that Kopus more or less shuns the traditional trappings of his Lenape ancestry and yet seems to find himself cornered by it throughout the opening episodes of the second season. That disregard for the tribe led to Mac’s abandonment of him, which in turn presents a motive for people to attach to Kopus when Mac turns up dead. Even though the mountains have their own tribal police force, the method of attack on Kopus is the same as it has ever been, with a “half-assed lynch mob” (in Kopus’s disdainful estimation) beating him and covering him with tar.
This is at odds with the Kopus of the first season, the master manipulator who found a way in and out of such corners with ease. There was always a small level of control that even Kopus couldn’t grasp — his violent father appearing at the end of “Snaring of the Sun” despite all the work Kopus did to put him down throughout “The Great Snake Battle” is a good example — but Guzikowski and Co. seem to have amplified that recently. Since a yearlong stint in prison, nothing seems to be going Kopus’s way. He seems to be hunting Mac’s killer not so much for redemption or closure for Mac but more because it may help him regain the respect (or fear) that was once accorded him.
And there’s a tonal shift in Red Road‘s second season, too. Enter a strange and cosmic air of dread that may eventually coincide nicely with Kopus’s internal struggle with his spiritual lineage: Jack Kopus notes nostalgically that his son was “conceived in the back of a truck between a church and a graveyard”; the tar that covers Kopus, black and viscous and enveloping, is the evil of his past; and the cinematography (sidenote: is it still cinematography if we’re talking about TV? Teletography?) has been leaning towards the symbolic side of things as well. There’s a close-up shot of the eggs that Junior is eating, smothered in red tabasco sauce, and that’s mirrored later by the nest of cracked eggs that Jean discovers in the woodshed. Beautifully-framed shots occurred with frequency in “Gifts”:
And even the episode titles favor the sense that the “spiritual world” and the “real world” — two worlds that Junior and Mac have noted are not, in fact, the same — are locked in battle. At best, that battle takes place inside of guys like Kopus.
And though it may mean the more realistic and hard-hitting aspects of the first season are now taking a backseat, the depiction of this internal battle in other characters evidences a clear effort by The Red Road to clear the hurdle of only having one consistently interesting character. Kopus is still the most spellbinding personality in the series, but Junior is finally starting to get his due as a standalone character as well. In fact, the struggle for souls is hashed out explicitly over Junior, who straddles the line between good and evil more publicly than Kopus or Harold can manage. With both Kopus and Mac as father figures, Junior could show allegiance to either side.
Marie, Junior’s mother, badly wants him to not turn out like Kopus. “He’s like Mac,” she insists at one point. In conversation with Wes Studi’s character Levi, Marie defends Mac’s honor by protecting his ideals and the things he fought for. “People change,” says Levi in reference to Mac’s stance on the building of a casino. “Not so sure about that,” says Marie. Levi glances sideways and seemingly changes the subject to ask “…is Junior here?”; it’s clear, though, at least to us, that Levi hasn’t changed the subject at all. Junior is on the razor’s edge, and it’s certainly in The Red Road‘s best interest to keep him there for a while, to suss out his true allegiances. Eventually, Junior will do what anyone in such a position does, sliding to one side or the other, good or evil, and at that point there’s no going back.