The devil is lurking around the edges of Hap and Leonard’s third season, and the poison he brings is a force that the two won’t easily defeat — if they can at all. In Southern Gothic fashion, the new story opens with another story, one about a young Texas blues musician who sells his soul for fame and fortune, spreading a little bit of devilment to all those who hear his bewitching tones. It sets up a curse of sorts that continues to plague the place from whence he came, even half a century after his death at the hands of the Klan. And for our show, it’s a sign that we’re in for dark times.
The series again takes place in the 1980s in East Texas, where this time the two friends — one white, one black — head to that Klan-active backwater looking for another friend: the brilliant and beautiful Florida Grange (a magnetic Tiffany Mack). She was there to help the grandson of the blues legend sell a copy of an unearthed recording, until that grandson turns up dead, hanging from a bridge. Florida then goes missing herself, and the men — Hap Collins (James Purefoy) and Leonard Pine (Michael K. Williams) — get pulled into an emotional mystery that puts their own lives in danger.
Maybe I’m not giving author Joe R. Lansdale enough credit for prophesy, but I would think that when he published Two-Bear Mambo in 1995, he surely could not have predicted that this fictional, 80s-set story would still be strikingly, horribly relevant in the real world of 2018. In the invented Grovetown that Hap and Leonard venture to, the Klan is out in the open and well-supported, and their casually hateful speech and disgusting racism feels like haunting echoes of some of the same alt-right language being used today. So unfortunately for us, other than the pay phones and classic cars, there’s not much else about the show’s third season that feels vintage.
What keeps this from being overwhelmingly bleak though is the SundanceTV show’s trademark quirk. Once again, the translation from Lansdale’s books to the screen have kept his wry lyricism and gift for dialogue intact, allowing for a particularly fantastic opening episode where Leonard burns down his drug-dealing neighbor’s house (again) on Christmas Eve. But there are organically included gems of humor throughout, including a key scene where our heroes sit in a holding cell behind the officers in the police station, all riveted by a nature documentary as they chew on candy canes. Yet soon the duo are tasked with a favor in exchange for their freedom: to find Florida.
Things happen quickly on Hap and Leonard — they have to since there are only six episodes in each season — but the show never feels hurried or rushed. The fourth episode, the final one sent out for review, dedicates most of its hour to Florida and the truth of her story, and it’s the most somber of the bunch. However, it’s also the first to not show a flash-forward of Leonard and Hap, with their unlikely but unshakable bond, being truly shaken. They’re been beaten almost to death, and aren’t looking at or speaking to one another as they’re transported back to LaBorde. It’s a jarring contrast to everything else we see leading up to the event, where the two — close as ever — continue to rely on each other and protect one another in a town that would be thrilled to see both of them dead. The mystery behind their silence is perhaps the most potent one of all.
For fans of the series, there are many reliable constants, including a fantastic cast of new and familiar faces. Purefoy and Williams again bring a unique and soulful chemistry both in quiet moments and most especially in their banter. Corbin Bernsen is another standout as the inscrutable Grovetown sheriff, as is the wonderful Louis Gossett, Jr., who plays a cook trying to warn Hap and Leonard to get out of town. The show also seeks to give new layers to the character Sneed (Evan Gamble), as well as Cranston Johnson’s Detective Hanson, while introducing us to a bevy of Grovetown bad guys and ghostly figures. But ultimately, everything comes back to the bond between Hap and Leonard, which Purefoy and Williams continue to cultivate with exceptional heart and nuance.
The villains of the Hap and Leonard stories are big, loud, and have done heinous things, but the show tempers that with both its meditation on the nature of male friendship and a casual acceptance of life as a messy, disappointing, and sometimes very funny thing. The lesson seems to be that you have to get your laughs where you can, and the show continues to do that in the most natural way possible in such a mixed-up world. If there’s comfort to be found in the show’s intense and relevant third season, though, it’s that at least it’s clear who the villains are. They may have their moments of triumph, but we never lose sight of who to fight against.
Rating: ★★★★ – A Peak TV gem
Hap and Leonard: The Two-Bear Mambo premieres Wednesday, March 7th on SundanceTV.