(UPDATE — 8-31-2014: I mentioned while writing this series of posts that I was revising my Civil War novel at the time and was watching this miniseries for atmosphere. That novel I was revising is Hagridden, and it’s out now from Columbus Press. If you like this miniseries, you might like that novel. Click here for more information!)
I felt the first episode of Hatfields & McCoys was uneven because in some ways it felt too rushed and in other ways it felt too slow. I said I hoped that the second episode would feel more engaging because of the great emphasis on action (read: violence). Unfortunately, it felt too violent, too active: it focused so heavily on advancing the action and the deaths in the feud that it didn’t pay enough attention to the psychological underpinnings of the story, to the motives behind the killings. And for me, that’s the most important part. It’s good action to show all these people dying, but it’s good narrative to show — not to explain, but to illustrate — why people are killing and dying the way they are.
To be fair, we do get hints here and there. In one of the most pivotal moments of the bloody feud, we get to watch as what starts out as taunting and then rough-housing escalates rapidly and naturally into deadly violence, which then unleashes a horrible but weirdly understandable retribution.
But for much of the second half of the second episode, violence simply begets violence, often just for its own sake, and the resulting story feels somehow both cheap and aggrandized. The scenes in which Nancy McCoy’s brother is hunted down and killed, or in which a pair of McCoy snipers get sniped themselves, feel inserted rather than organic.
Which raises another concern: the characters themselves can often come across as stock. This is most evident when looking at the whole families rather than at individuals, but generally speaking, the McCoys are painted as legalistic self-righteous prudes while the Hatfields are essentially a hillbilly mafia. It’s too easy.
But the episode still feels satisfying because of a few key points. For one thing, the acting is superb. I could take or leave Johnse Hatfield or, for that matter, Roseanna and Nancy McCoy (though the actress playing Nancy has a couple of excellent moments in this episode). But Bill Paxton is terrific, and the woman playing his wife is flat-out unearthly. Kevin Costner is turning in one of the finest performances of his career in this miniseries. Powers Booth is, as always, delicious. Generally speaking, the acting is absolutely first-rate.
Chief among all the performances, though, is Tom Berenger’s. This is a true story: I was almost half an hour into the second episode by the time I started wondering which character Tom Berenger was going to play, and when he’d turn up on screen, before I realized that he’s playing Jim Vance and has been on screen practically from the very beginning! He disappears completely inside his character, not so much playing or even inhabiting Jim Vance as curling up inside the character and letting Jim Vance do whatever he damn well pleases. It’s a careful, studied, nuanced, stunning performance.
There are also some nice moments of directing and scripting. They seem a bit obvious, but in an episode starved of subtext, they stand out as at least helpful. I particularly liked the scene when Devil Anse Hatfield is hunting turkey and then finds himself hunted by McCoy snipers. The scene when Hatfields take custody of McCoy murderers, through legal arguments and threats of lethal violence simultaneously, is harrowing, and the execution scene in the woods is haunting.
But that’s all the series is giving us in this second episode: scenes and moments and a few stand-out performances. It’s enough to keep me on through the last episode, but I’m hoping for a stellar finish or else I might wind up disappointed in the series overall.