Damnation Episode 1 Review: Sam Riley’s Body

The first episode of Damnation is a simmering depiction of 1930s class struggle.

This Damnation review contains spoilers.

Damnation Episode 1

The series premiere of Damnation places us firmly in the world of John Steinbeck novels that were assigned in high school AP English class. I didn’t connect with the characters and storylines because they were far removed from my cultural perspective. I was born and raised in the fourth largest American city, and small towns have always felt quaint and tedious. Holden County, 1930s Iowa, I imagine a favorite pastime might’ve been watching the paint drying on a barn door.

“Sam Riley’s Body” achieves its goal of world and character building, some better than others. The soundtrack was as much a character as the local townsfolk. The score created anticipation when needed and built bridges between the scenes. The cinematography was alternately sparse and visually sumptuous.

The rich and powerful always take or try to take advantage of the poor, downtrodden, and uneducated. This conflict is at the heart of the new series which feels all too familiar over the course of my life thus far with Republicans undermining their constituents and Americans in general. Why aren’t the wealthy ever satisfied with who they are and what they have? It’s no one’s birthright to control other people’s lives and wellbeing.

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Every generation needs its heroes and rebels to fight against the powerful elite. Enter Seth Davenport, a smooth-talking, charlatan preacher, and Emilia, his wife. Faith and religion are usually intertwined. The poorest of the poor and the richest alike can usually be manipulated because each has their own definition and expectation of God. This individuality sets the stage for both a personal and eternal struggle in groups of more than ten people.

Seth has two primary foes, a gun-toting widow, and a hired strikebreaker. One is unafraid and emboldened by vengeance, while the other cowers in a corner because of their shared past. Where we come from isn’t indicative of where we travel in life. Some people are unsuccessful in fleeing their ghosts and demons. The smart or crafty use their flaws to their advantage.   

Since the beginning of time, believers have sacrificed animals and their offspring because they thought it would appease their deity. At our core, humans are selfish and petty beings given to fits of emotion and revenge. The more naïve among us become pawns in a greedy politician’s or industrialist’s scheme to amass infinite wealth and power. Sam Riley was tonight’s sacrificial lamb that united the striking farmers on the wrong end of an unscrupulous doctor who fancies himself a liberator.

Residents aren’t who they seem to be. Few people are telling the truth, and most seem to have obvious and hidden agendas. No one is above reproach. I wasn’t fond of Creeley Turner, an illiterate villain due to the actor’s hackneyed performance. Christopher Heyerdahl plays yet another bad guy, reminiscent of The Swede from Hell on Wheels. I inevitably compared the two actors in a scene later in the episode. Successful villains needn’t be physically imposing, yet I was drawn to Mr. Heyerdahl’s sheriff in the town square for what was written as two villains sizing each other up.

I don’t yet know how I feel about Bessie, the literate brothel worker, who Creeley takes into his confidence. She’s so far the only African American female who happens to be a sex worker. She also knows how to drive. The American heartland in the 1930s was a turbulent time for most white people. Jobs and housing for black pioneers must’ve been few and far between. There are black male miners and farmers, yet no sign of their wives or girlfriends. I look forward to seeing how Bessie’s story unfolds in the coming episodes. I’m also curious as to why Seth and Creeley hate each other so much. Why, too, does Seth put the fear of God in his older brother? Will it amount to mere sibling rivalry, or something more sinister?

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4 out of 5