Warning: This contains minor spoilers for the set-up of Hap and Leonard Season 2, as well as spoilers for the end of Season 1.
Hap and Leonard is one of the saddest TV shows around. That may not sound like a recommendation, but that’s precisely why SundanceTV’s adaptation of Joe Lansdale’s novels is so brilliant. The show wallows in melancholy the way a steak and kidney pudding soaks in gravy, surrounded by vegetables – it’s hearty, warming, and just the thing to enjoy on a chilly spring evening.
Season 1 introduced us to the two titular friends (James Purefoy and Michael Kenneth Williams), a devoted duo who stick together through thick and thin – or, to be more specific, through scantily clad killers, submerged cases of money and one heck of a femme fatale. As we catch up with them, the loss of Christina Hendricks’ Trudy still rings in Hap’s ears and still weighs on him, literally, as he carts around her ashes.
It might sound like an obvious display of his grief, but that’s the kind of person Hap is: he wears his emotions on his sleeve, whether it’s his mourning for Trudy or manly love for Leonard. He carries her remains with him, because he doesn’t know any other way of holding on to the past; where the nostalgic first season presented us with characters who were equally steeped in nostalgia, here, that longing for times past takes on added resonance.
It’s this attention to detail, and this understanding of its characters, that makes Hap and Leonard such a treat to watch. But there’s a plot to unpick too, and Season 2 wastes no time in setting it up; Hap and Leonard may enjoy stewing in its emotions, but it barrels along at a deceptively snappy pace. Within minutes, we’ve not just had our heartstrings pulled by Hap, but also seen Leonard unearth a skeleton from his own past, as a dead body is discovered below the floorboards of his Uncle Chester’s house.
“B.B.” is the only clue they have from the remains of what turns out to be a child – and, with the police noting that Uncle Chester used to talk to them about solving the past disappearance of several children in the neighbourhood, Leonard takes it upon himself to investigate and clear his uncle from any suspicion of being involved. Things being what they are, though, Leonard’s investigations lead him into conflict with the police – and Sheriff Valentine Otis (Brian Dennehy) winds up putting Leonard behind bars.
It’s a quietly bold start to this second season, as we see Hap and Leonard separated for the first real time – and, even after only six hours in their company, we know how much that hurts each of them. Hap’s head is turned by Leonard’s lawyer, Florida (Tiffany Mack), who swoops in to help them both, and the easy chemistry between them is almost enough to make us forget Trudy altogether. But that’s not his real crush: that’s Leonard. What might be called a “bromance” in a modern-day TV series feels like it runs much deeper in the Deep South, as Hap still finds himself standing by Leonard as he faces more discrimination, not just because of his race, but because of his sexuality (local Rev. James Fitzgerald swaps heated words with Leonard on the subject, with Michael Kenneth Williams impressing, as always, with the bare minimum of words). Theirs, it goes without saying, is a plutonic bond of loyalty and kinship; the fact that the police only find out about the body in Chester’s house because Leonard bumps into them while chasing a local boy, Ivan, who’s stolen Trudy’s ashes, makes this separation even more poignant; if Leonard weren’t so keen to help his buddy, this might never have happened.
Hap certainly can’t handle the split. He channels that frustration into looking into the body from Chester’s house with Florida and drinking, often both at the same time. (Their chat in the pub is a masterful bit of dialogue. “You ever think of having kids, Hap?” she asks. “You assume that I don’t already have them?” he jokes. Then pauses. “I don’t.”)
What do the initials “B.B.” mean? What’s with the suspicious man in the van following them around? Where are the children who went missing all those years ago? And does Chester’s old voodoo-loving friend, Illium Moon (Wayne Dehart), have any answers?
The questions fly thick and fast, much thicker and faster than the studiously laid-back atmosphere would have you realise – and Hap and Leonard’s balance of relaxed mood and concisely plotted intrigue is as intoxicating as ever. Season 2, though, has added bite to its mystery, as we’re also introduced to Sheriff Valentine’s son, Beau (John McConnell), who’s running in local elections to be county judge. The result is a hint of political conspiracy, a tease of corruption that may go further than institutionalised prejudice; Season 1’s warped violence was dark, but this feels even darker, as Hap and Leonard’s period drama begins to tackle issues that feel unexpectedly contemporary. After a first season about washed-up lefties struggling to face violence after Vietnam, this second run could almost be about 21st century policing.
At its heart, though, Hap and Leonard remains firmly a tale of friends – the Sheriff and his son don’t just recall the present day, but also hark back to the history that tied Hap and Leonard together in the first place. These are brothers who have forged their relationship in the fire of such brutality and strengthened it in the face of heartbreak. Seeing them apart is genuinely moving.
The result is a series that feels like it has an even more confident grasp of its own tone, able to elegantly balance narrative drive and nuanced character work, both of them superbly acted. James Purefoy, in particular, has rarely been better; between this and High-Rise, he’s currently taking on some of his most interesting roles of his career, and his macho physique and lack of mojo combine to make a hilariously tragic figure, as Hap wanders through Leonard’s community with a dazed, lost air. One standout scene sees him go to church with Florida (watch out for the scene-stealing Irma P. Hall as neighbourhood matriarch MeMaw) and try to join in the congregation’s clapping – only to end up horrendously out of time. He turns that, and the disposal of Trudy’s ashes, into gently laugh-out-loud moments of slapstick pain, a downbeat burst of comedy that’s really quite unique in today’s TV landscape. It’s distilled sadness – and you’ll be grinning at it every second.
Hap and Leonard Season 1 and 2 are available to watch online in the UK exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.