Warning: This contains spoilers. Not caught up with Hap and Leonard? Read our spoiler-free review of Season 3.
“You’re in the Thicket now,” says one of the loathsome locals of Grovetown in Episode 3 of Hap and Leonard’s third season – and boy, do they mean it. The TV series, which sees Hap (James Purefoy) and Leonard (Michael Kenneth Williams) tracking down the missing Florida (Tiffany Mack), is as excellent as ever, fusing the pair’s timeless bond of male friendship with an equally long-standing vein of prejudice in American society, while wrapping it up in a compelling mystery and a sprinkling of Christmas charm. But these middle episodes raise the bar still further, upping the tension and emotional stakes, while still finding time for humour.
That warning, said with a sickening chuckle by our duo’s pursuers, is the basis of a cracking cliffhanger, as Hap and Leonard find themselves ran off the road and having to flee through the forest to avoid being shot. They sprint. A redneck smirks. Cut to end credits. Hap and Leonard is a gorgeous piece of period storytelling that loves to soak up its noir-tinged atmosphere, but it knows how to get you biting your nails when it needs to.
The show’s quest to find Florida is fuelled, still, by Hap’s passionate belief that’s alive. “Don’t be dead, Florida,” he says to himself, with all the angst and wounded conviction that Purefoy can muster (which, if you haven’t guessed by now, is a heck of a lot). He’s matched, though, every step of the way by the equally forceful views of Chief Cantuck (Corbin Bernsen), who just as stubbornly believes that he’s on the right side of history and morality.
Tha underlying tension in the town has made for some wonderfully absorbing episodes, but this hour marks the point at which that background danger breaks through to the fore – and so we see Officer Reynolds (played by Lauren Allen with an equally disturbing sense of righteous purpose) rock up at Hap’s place and, after some unsettling flirtation, drag him off to meet Truman Brown, the friendly face of the local Klan. Portrayed by Pat Healy with a soft but nasty edge, watching Hap refuse his offer of walking away is as endearing as it is unnerving; rebuking the notion that somehow black people are inferior, there’s immense, important victory in his call for empathy, compassion and respect for all humans, but dread in the knowledge that it will likely only lead to more violent ripostes.
You could spend all day just quoting the witty dialogue. “This here’s America,” says Truman. “It’s just a hunch, but I’m guessin’ you never asked an American Indian how they might feel about that,” comes Hap’s reply.
The show contrasts that encounter with the weary words shared between Michael Kenneth Williams’ Leonard and Louis Gossett, Jr.’s Bacon, the local diner manager. A war veteran who fought for his country, he stands with Leonard’s anger at the injustice that has seeped into everyday life for Grovetown, but has an older wisdom that cools Leonard’s fire. “Why does it always have to be a fight?” he asks, with a pensive sense of perspective. “I learned a long time ago you can solve more problems without pulling the trigger.”
Nonetheless, triggers are swiftly pulled by Truman’s men, as Hap and Leonard are hit by their truck off the road – and, as we know, the woods are the domain of Brown and his men, who run the local Christmas Tree racket and love nothing more than mulching things down into tiny pieces with their wood-choppers.
Episode 4 gets off to a running start, but still finds time for amusing banter amid the death and chaos. “I’m sorry for getting you involved in all this,” sighs Hap. “What are you sorry for?” Leonard hits back with a characteristically brusque glare. “It’s not your fault people are assholes.”
With two such compelling central figures, Hap and Leonard could be forgiven for not looking anywhere else, but Season 3, more than ever, gives screentime to its supporting cast. That’s true of everyone in Grovetown, from Evan Gamble’s Officer Sneed, much more humanised than he could be in other hands, to mute Ms. Belinda (Sydney Wease), who sees everything but says nothing. It’s offbeat and quirky, yes, but also entirely believable; these eccentric background characters are essential to making Grovetown’s world seem horribly real.
And so Hap and Leonard virtually leaves its heroes behind for a whole hour, as it dives into that community. We see young Bobby Joe Soothe rescue Belinda from assault at the hands of locals, only to be automatically presumed guilty by the police when he brings her into the station – a flashback that reminds us how the odds have always been stacked in the white authority’s favour.
But best of all is the discovery of a tape recorder in Florida’s car by Hap and Leonard, which cues another flashback to none other than Florida herself. Tiffany Mack has been quietly stealing scenes in Hap’s imagination all season, and a lesser series might be content to leave it at that, making her an object in the narrative but not an active part of it. Not so, Hap and Leonard, and Mack is fantastic as we see her fending off the advances of creepy radio DJ Sonny Knox – a racist in a way that is less overt, but no less pernicious – and trying to make sure her client, the talented musician Soothe, is alive and well. Detective Hanson (as dependable as the boy band his name recalls) warns her not to linger in Grovetown trying to find him, but she naturally ignores – just as feisty, determined and kind as Hap is.
Fast forward to Bobby Joe’s body (and foot) being found by the local bridge and she is insistent that the crime should be a federal case – the kind of exchange that not only reinforces her skill as a lawyer, but also reveals just how much Chief Cantuck was lying to Hap and Leonard about not having any contact with her. In a mystery narrative where the men are the detectives, what a pleasure it is to see an episode that allows the woman being investigated to answer most of our questions.
So what happened to her? Driven to the edge of town by Cantuck, and politely told to get lost, she ignores them and heads back in undercover. She heads to the radio station, only to find that someone else has been looking for Bobby Joe’s tapes. With the Klan closing in, who is the one responsible for her subsequent disappearance? Is it the helpful mechanic, Tim? Tree-chopping devil Truman? Pretty-but-prejudiced Officer Reynolds? With Cantuck himself genuinely believing that Florida had left town, the answers are still to be unearthed in the season’s final two episodes. Oh yes, we’re in the thicket now. And whether we can’t see the wood for the trees or the trees for the wood, one thing’s certain: every twig is something to admire. Blimey, this is good.
Hap and Leonard Season 3 is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.