“You know what guns means. It just mean more guns.” That’s Leonard (Michael Kenneth William) in Season 3 of Hap and Leonard. SundanceTV’s hugely underrated gem is one of the best modern TV shows around, despite the fact that it’s rooted so firmly in the past. Once again set in East Texas in the 1980s, the swamp noir is stuffed with period charm and old-fashioned warmth, but feels tragically pertinent. It’s a window onto a past filled with guns, racism and prejudice – and, as that past remains present in much of America, a reminder that sometimes, nostalgia can be extremely harmful.
Season 2 was bookended by a powerful, ominous glimpse of the Ku Klux Klan in action, and Season 3 picks up from that thread with a horribly relevant new story. Within minutes Hap (James Pureoy) and Leonard are once again at the local police station – not for torching Leonard’s neighbour’s drug den, but because the cops need their help with a missing persons case. The missing person? Florida Grange, smart legal mind and Hap’s former flame. The catch? She was last seen in Grovetown.
Walking into town with a photo in hand, it’s immediately clear that they won’t receive a warm welcome. The town is racist to the bone, from its almost-definitely corrupt sheriff to the local branch of the Klan. They’re hounded out of diners, they’re refused at hotels, their car is vandalised. If it weren’t for the period costume and retro cars, it’s the kind of hostile environment that you could easily see in some parts of the USA today.
It’s the fact that Hap and Leonard doesn’t shy away from such themes that makes it such a rewarding watch; there’s a weird to this pulpy world of amateur detective work, a grit that goes beyond the grimy, colourful aesthetic. But co-creators Nick Damici and Jim Mickle (Cold in July) don’t let that get in the way of their signature blend of gripping mystery and offbeat quirk – the town’s Klan-filled history is explained through a superb supernatural prologue, which takes us back to a time when a famous folk singer, L.C. Soothe (Curtis Harding), swapped his soul with the devil for his musical fame and talent. The deal saw Lucifer steal pieces of each listener’s soul and replace them with bits of his own – and as Soothe gets more and more popular, the result is a community of hateful, evil people. The Klan was born.
Decades later, that familiar myth lives on in a surprisingly tangible form, and it’s that legend which draws Florida, Hap and Leonard into the town’s orbit. Kicked out repeatedly back to LaBourde, the duo re-enter relentlessly, determined to find out what happened to their friend. Death and the occult might sound like a mighty dark affair, but the series manages to piece it together with a familiar vein of humour. A lot of that stems from the dialogue, which is tougher than old boots – “If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking,” says Corbin Bernsen’s wonderfully foul Sheriff, “you better think again.” – and a lot of that is down to Hap and Leonard’s weary banter.
Indeed, the duo’s friendship remains at the very heart of Hap and Leonard’s charm, managing to infuse even the nastiest plot with an endearing warmth. The character’s affection for each other is undeniably sincere, with Michael Kenneth Williams and James Purefoy’s chemistry as strong and sparky as ever. But for all their laughter, both with and at each other (one scene in which Hap pretends to be Leonard’s employee is a laugh-out-loud treat), there’s an honesty and depth that underscores their loyalty. Williams’ Leonard remains an aggressive landmine, making his efforts to stay calm in the face of abuse even more striking, while Hap wears his heart on his checkered sleeve with a vulnerability that’s remarkably raw; a flashback to him dancing with Florida reminds us that even as the pair face fresh knocks, Hap is a man who is already bruised. It’s a treat just to see both actors back in these roles – between this, Altered Carbon and the recent High-Rise, James Purefoy is enjoying some of the best roles in his career.
The writing is as settled into the characters as the cast, and the show has a real handle on how to craft each standalone story – based on Joe Lansdale’s The Two-Bear Mambo, you don’t need to have seen the previous two seasons to follow this, but why wouldn’t you want to spend more time in this world? Each six-episode run is an impeccably crafted tale, short enough to grip but slow enough to lose yourself in it, the kind of pacing that many of Netflix’s original series, for example, would dream to have. Two chapters in and this third season shows no sign of that high standard dropping, as Hap and Leonard continues to weave a moving, entertaining portrait of male friendship against the odds. The story’s themes may be timeless, but so is that bond.
Hap and Leonard Season 3 is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.