(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!)
So, the series is over. The feud is ended. The results are…. okay.
Let me just start this by warning you that there be spoilers below. It’s hard to have a spoiler in a historical drama, I know, but I’m going to give away not only what happens but also how director Kevin Reynolds handles the events. Because he makes some interesting and, to my mind, troubling choices in the end.
But before all that, let me say once again how awesome Tom Berenger is in this series. Up until the final moments of his (SPOILER?) death scene, he rocks this film, and if his acting weren’t so brilliantly underplayed, he’d have stolen this whole series. (How unfair it is that the best acting is the acting you don’t notice?)
His character’s death, actually, is a good example of how, in some ways, the story is best paced in this last episode. The violence and the motives for violence are explored in their most even balance here. This isn’t to say it’s perfect — the series gets a little heavy-handed in the last half hour — but it’s the best they’ve done.
But it’s that heavy-handedness throughout the series that has bothered me the most. I know that all history is in the eyes of the beholder (and the words of the victors), but even considering that, I was a bit surprised by how much editorializing this series did considering it was a History Channel production.
I pointed out in the last post that the series had been playing on types rather than deep characterizations when it generally portrayed all McCoys as pious and indignant and the Hatfields as basically the mob. I’ve been aware, too, that one Hatfield hanger-on in particular, a young man called “Cotton Top,” had been written and was being played as mentally retarded. What I didn’t realize until last night was that “Cotton Top” was the nickname — not often recorded in the blander histories of the feud — for Ellison Mounts, the man whose trial and hanging for murder effectively ended the bloody warfare.
It seems to me a conscious decision to focus on Mounts’s nickname rather than his given name in order to disguise his famous role in ending the feud and so give even the (casually) informed viewer a bit of a surprise at the end. As a narrative device, it works. But what bothers me is the extent to which they focus on the character’s mental disability. The historical records I’ve seen, if they mention a disability at all, mostly refer to Mounts as “dimwitted” or easily manipulated. The term “dimwitted” is, of course, more appropriate in context, considering that mental retardation wasn’t really an accepted term back then (and is problematic today). But “dimwitted” is still a far cry from the derisive “mushhead” most characters in the series use when referring to Cotton Top.
And the series doesn’t stop with simply playing on (or exaggerating) Mounts’s mental disability. They also work in moments like Mounts whistling a jolly tune to content himself in the midst of the siege on the McCoys’ home, or shooing rabbits away from a battlefield. In the historical record, Mounts’s last words on the gallows turn the blame on his kinsmen (and indeed, there is a general consensus that the murder he hanged for was committed by someone else); but in the series, the filmmakers take pains to emphasize his line “They hornswoggled me with love,” the last word all but cut off by the snap of his neck in the noose. These are blatant attempts to rouse our sympathy and make us weep at the senselessness of all that violence. It’s a storyteller’s device (and a fairly broad one at that), but it feels out a place in a historical account.
Even more heavy handed is the treatment of Randall McCoy and Anse Hatfield: for all the careful, stock-character emphasis on McCoy’s righteousness and Hatfield’s mob-bossery (I just invented that word), I should have seen the sudden role-reversal coming. Because sure enough, at the end of the series, McCoy is a bitter, hateful drunkard out for blood even as he regrets the conviction and hanging of “the one person who doesn’t deserve it.” And Hatfield takes his family into a cool, quiet copse in the hills to read what is essentially a sermon on the importance of peace.
Actually, I would have been perfectly happy with this ending, because the two scenes were well written and very well acted: in the jail cell just before the hanging, McCoy drunkenly tries to get Cotton Top released, but you can see in Bill Paxton’s face all the confusion of the moment, feeling sorry for Cotton Top and regretting his role in the arrest and conviction but hating the Hatfields all the more for making him doubt his revenge. It’s a beautiful piece of acting. And in the woods, Kevin Costner does a fantastic job of expressing the utter exhaustion of all the years of hate and warfare. Combined, the two scenes serve as a terrific reminder of the early Civil War scene from the first episode in which Hatfield, tired of war and the cost in human life, decides to desert the army and go home while McCoy, honor-bound to fulfill his duty to God and country, twists and frets over whether to bring Hatfield to justice or let his friend go home.
If it had stopped there, it would have been terrific. But it doesn’t. For one thing, we need all those loose ends if not exactly tied up then at least burned off, so we get various bits and pieces about who wound up marrying whom or dying alone or living out bitter days trying to forget the feud. And then, in case we’d forgotten that excellent role-reversal from earlier, the filmmakers beat us over the head with a reminder: literally the last two scenes in the series are of McCoy, white-bearded and alone in his cabin, mad with grief and a bitter heart, accidentally setting himself on fire and hallucinating one final show-down with his nemesis Hatfield; and then Hatfield, long-bearded and hung with a clean white shirt, being baptized in the river and thereby redeemed. It even ends on a freeze-frame.
Why? It feels so forced, so manipulated. A good half-hour after Cotton Top gets scapegoated (and by the way, I love the period/regional term in the film, “Judas goat,” even if it does seem a bit inaccurate — a Judas goat gets spared, not slaughtered), we ourselves get manipulated into viewing the events through one lens alone. It’s part of the filmmaker’s job to present us with a perspective, of course, but it’s a part of an artist’s job to offer us more than one perspective, more than one possibility. Even Powers Booth, who narrates the obligatory text-over-screen afterward about the feud’s place in history, seems strong-armed into so flat a presentation, delivering the last words of the film in a deadpan monotone, as if bored and ready to get the film over with.
Still, I got what I wanted out of the miniseries: a lot of wonderful historical details, especially in the language (I’m a sucker for dialect), a lot of violence and heartbreak, and some damn fine acting. If they ever decide to re-edit this into a directors cut (and right now I’m unsure whether a shorter or a longer version would be better), I might even decide to buy it. I’m glad I watched it. But I’m also glad it’s over, because I want now more than ever to get back to revising my own violent historical narrative!
Writing desk, here I come.
- Hatfields & McCoys – episode 2 (snoekbrown.com)
- Hatfields & McCoys (and play-pretties) (snoekbrown.com)