There’s just something about the Wild West that captures the hearts of Americans. Maybe it’s the dilapidated saloon doors, or the glistening revolvers, or the folksy language, or maybe it’s all three. Either way, at the risk of overgeneralizing, I’ll say I believe that, across the country, the Wild West continues to maintain a tantalizing aura of mystique and possibility. Part of this is likely due to the genre’s consistently romantic depiction in Hollywood. From Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns during the 1960s to more recent entries like “Bone Tomahawk” and “Westworld,” it’s not hard to find the glamorized world of rustling tumbleweeds on your television or in your local AMC theater.
Seizing on the persistent popularity of the Wild West, USA’s latest foray into this genre — “Damnation” — leans more toward the “There Will Be Blood” spectrum of Westerns. Similar to one of my personal favorites, “Damnation” juxtaposes Christian proselytization with the brutality of the Wild West. While nowhere near as effective or groundbreaking as its distant Hollywood relative, “Damnation” remains a solid addition to the Western genre, with substantial potential for growth if it can adopt a less heavy-handed approach moving forward.
Immediately, the first thing I noticed while screening “Damnation” was its gorgeous sweeping landscapes. With shots of barren rolling hills and farmland stretching into the horizon, the series provides the type of visual highlight reel that audiences have come to expect from their Westerns. I’ve never visited Iowa or Kentucky — the two locales featured in the show — but I’ve been to Nebraska and Tennessee, so I feel marginally qualified to hazard a guess that “Damnation”’s vistas are accurate for these two states during the 1930s.
Side note: if you’re from Iowa or Kentucky and want to dispute my scenic evaluation, feel free to pay a visit to my editor — he lives on East University Ave. and simply loves critics dropping by.
Beyond its excellent cinematography, “Damnation” succeeds with its talented cast. Frankly, I had no idea who the hell Killian Scott (“Calvary”) was before watching the show, but I can now say that I’m quite a fan. In the series, Scott carves out a distinct identity as a manipulative roaming preacher who knows how to handle a Colt .32 as well as he knows Genesis verses. Elsewhere, fellow unknown Teach Grant (“The Tall Man”) effectively makes the most of his limited screen time in the show’s premiere. The show’s veteran presence comes in the form of established Wild West actor Christopher Heyerdahl (“Tin Star”), who turns in a quality performance as the cliché, devil-may-care cowboy. There’s nothing new about Heyerdahl’s character, but every Western needs a cunning villain, and Heyerdahl does a great job of inspiring hatred for his persona.
I especially appreciated Heyerdahl’s role since he comes to “Damnation” after a five-season run on AMC’s own wild west series, “Hell on Wheels.” As a longtime Western fan, I couldn’t help but love that the show cast Heyerdahl in a prominent role in a Western a year after he finished his run on a different Western. It instantly recalled in my mind Leone’s usage of Clint Eastwood (“Gran Torino”) in three back-to-back-to-back wild west forays.
As flattering at it is for “Damnation” to be compared to a Leone Western, the two entries diverge in terms of their plotlines. While a typical Leone Western is comprehensive yet concise, “Damnation” is just comprehensive to a fault. The series suffers from its gradual pacing that extends every scene a few minutes too long. By drawing out every shot, the show becomes somewhat clumsy, spending five minutes on a scene that audiences understand in two. It’s not the worst quality in the world for a series to possess in an age of meticulous television, but it renders the show tedious to seasoned viewers who rely on more succinct storylines and more exciting writing — both of which “Damnation” lack — to keep them entertained. “Damnation” could use a little bit of “Westworld”’s magic in this area, so someone dial up Jonathan Nolan (“The Dark Knight”) for USA.
With some added flair and a few trimmed scenes, “Damnation” could truly cement itself as the network alternative to “Westworld,” which is already dominating the small-screen western genre after only one season. It’s a long way to go for “Damnation” to reach such heights, so it better holster its pistol and start climbing.