Sociopolitical horror and crime drama combine with explosive results.
“Commencing at the siren, any and all crime, including murder, will be legal for 12 continuous hours. Police, fire, and emergency medical services will be unavailable until tomorrow morning at 7 a.m., when The Purge concludes. Blessed be our New Founding Fathers and America, a nation reborn.”
What’s the story?
The horror genre has always been the first to tackle societal ills before any other style of narrative dares take the plunge. From the racial politics of Night Of The Living Dead or Get Out to the feminist subtext of It Follows or Teeth right through to the millennial terror of upcoming Assassination Nation, Horror has never been afraid to prey on our deepest fears to extract compelling or disturbing entertainment. Because crime drama feeds on the same primal instincts as Horror, they often make great bedfellows – witness the distinctly noir-ish descent into hell in procedural Angel Heart or the psychological cat and mouse intricacies of kidnapping drama Spoorloos to see how heady a mix they truly can be.
Whilst crime drama in this golden age of television is abundant, horror has struggled to fulfill its promise in a long-form format. The odd exemplary series aside (American Horror Story, The Terror, Carnivale to name a few), there hasn’t exactly been a surfeit of pure horror shows – even less so any mixed with a crime aspect to them. And so, to The Purge. When USA Network picked up the television rights to this popular horror thriller franchise I’m sure they hoped they could translate it’s good fortune onto the small screen and have a gift-wrapped hit on their hands. What they got was something entirely different to what they were no doubt expecting.
So why talk about The Purge here? Well, for anyone unfamiliar with the series of films this show follows, the whole concept of the story is based around crime – or in this case, a lack of it. Set in a very near future America, the ruling NFFA party (New Founding Fathers of America) has almost eradicated crime by introducing one hugely controversial law – once a year for one twelve hour night-time period, all crime is legal. It’s an interesting and tantalizing high concept, and whilst it could be explored in any number of intriguing ways, the films tend to default to a The Warriors-esque journey through the streets during these frenzied hours where the protagonist (normally Frank Grillo’s gruff vigilante ex-cop Leo) guides a haphazard group of terrified people to safety against a variety of cartoon-ish mask-wearing murderers and rapists. It’s back-of-a-napkin stuff in terms of plot for sure, but what it does do well is expound on the sociopolitical implications of the Purge – as the films progress we learn the Purge is little more than a thinly-veiled government-sanctioned pogrom on the poor and dispossessed, and whilst the majority of Americans take to the streets to exact petty revenge or live out their twisted criminal fantasies, police death squads are busy at work targeting the underclass and systematically murdering them in their thousands.
Whilst this genocidal concept itself might seem outlandish, the sentiments behind it are very real. Dwindling police resources, racial profiling, the militarization of authority, capital punishment and the rise of vigilantism are all core aspects lifted directly from the front pages of today’s media and fed through the horror grinder to produce the hallucinatory and visceral results articulated in the Purge. But a ninety minute film can only go so far, and so I had high hopes for the TV show exploring these concepts in a more nuanced way.
What’s good about it?
The show apes 24 in depicting the twelve hour period of The Purge almost in real-time. As a result, the series begins on a surprisingly welcome slow burn as we are introduced to the set of characters who will take us through the night. The show is set some years in the future when The Purge is already a well-established American tradition, and we get to see the sheer size of the industry built up around it accordingly as the series progresses. Overall the dystopia it sets out to establish feels real. Radio chatter advertises gun sales and home defence systems as people decide to either barricade themselves in their homes or get prepped for a night of extreme violence. As the clock counts down to the eventful hour, the streets lay deserted as people desperately nail up their windows and doors as if a hurricane is about to pass through. In a way, it will.
Our main protagonist is Miguel (Gabriel Chavarria), a marine on leave trying to find his sister Penelope (Jessica Garza). Their lives have always been inextricably intertwined with The Purge since as children they witnessed their parents slaughtered as an OMF (Original Martyr Family). The OMFs were the first wave of people to be murdered by the government and their ‘sacrifice’ has created a sick sense of celebrity about them as the precursors to the current tradition. The trauma led Miguel to enter the military and escape to other countries, whilst Penelope wandered through drug abuse and abusive relationships before joining a bizarre cult that celebrates The Purge, delivering it’s brainwashed followers to their deaths each year, led by the charismatic Good Leader Tavis (Fiona Dourif on fine form as always).
Miguel’s journey is the most traditional route of all the characters in The Purge, as he desperately bounces from location to location as our witness to all sorts of maniacal behaviour, only to find out he’s always one step behind finding his sister. Their tense relationship is set up in flashback sequences to flesh out the reasons why Miguel abandoned his sister in the first place, and why she willingly joined an organisation so enamoured with everything she hates. Similarly, it’s also not left unquestioned that Miguel finds the idea of legalised violence abhorrent but doesn’t see the similarities in his own line of work abroad – something that a fellow marine points out in one scene. Needless to say his military skill set comes in handy against the hordes of well-armed civilians he meets, and whilst Miguel’s Iliad-lite trials and tribulations are good fun to watch, the more interesting story lines happen away from the wild streets of chaos and behind locked doors.
Amanda Warren (The Leftovers, Black Mirror) turns in another electric performance as Jane Barbour, a high-flying executive that has never managed to crack the glass ceiling due to the fact she won’t sleep with her sleaze of a boss David Ryker (played here with ample grease by William Baldwin). In the age of #metoo and the effects of toxic masculinity, their embittered relationship is played out for everything it’s got, as we learn Jane has hired a “pay to Purge” assassin to murder David in his own home after one too many leering indiscretions. This concept is an intriguing addition to the franchise canon and makes perfect sense in a chilling way – there would be a lot of people willing to make a profit off those too squeamish to exact their own revenge personally. Unfortunately for Jane she is locked into her office with her team on Purge night as they try and secure a deal with an overseas firm, but when one of her colleagues discovers her plan and murders her own work rival in a grim homage, Jane realises she has made a grave misjudgement and takes to the streets to warn David of his impending doom, only to have that decision have deadly results for the both of them.
Jane isn’t a hardened soldier like Miguel, so her experience of the Purge in all it’s horrific glory is altogether more terrifying, and it’s an interesting juxtaposition that displays the disproportionate threat leveled against women on the show as opposed to men. This is explored in more detail when she is saved from a sexual assault by the Matron Saints, a crew of women who specialise in using the twisted legality of The Purge to help victimised women escape their abusive spouses – but not before these men are brutally beaten and permanently scarred with the word “PIG” on the foreheads using a cattle brand. The Matron Saints are all former abuse victims themselves that have channeled their rage into what they see as a productive show of feminine force against “the gender-cide of The Purge”, with leader Marge explaining for every man killed during the Purge, three women are also murdered – with thousands of victims never even being reported. Put simply, they want to “level the playing field” – but their brutal methods don’t sit well with Jane despite her own traumas, and her constant adjudication of the amorality around her anchors the audience to some form of moral compass.
What’s bad about it?
Jane’s traumatic journey is an illuminating example of the writers adapting the principles behind the core idea into more claustrophobic and personal situations, and The Purge works best when exploring these individual dilemmas rather than trying to recreate the city-wide carnage the films can easily depict with a larger budget. Ironically, the street scenes are the weakest – with the masked assailants indistinguishable from each other and bizarrely timid in comparison to their filmic counterparts who could obviously indulge in more gore and violence than a TV show can allow. Therefore the element of threat just isn’t as potent in these group examples as it is in the bizarre normalcy of some of the individuals we meet one on one (a guy sharpening a machete cheerfully tells Jane not to worry – it’s not meant for her), and it’s in these little asides that the horror element really works.
The weakest story-line involves architects Rick and Jenna, a preppy couple who’s invite to an NFFA funding party led by wealthy industrialist Arthur Stanton leads into madness as the rich elite scoff canapes and champagne at his secure mansion whilst homeless people are battered and shot for their amusement, the thin veneer of civility eroded in the company of equally depraved citizens. Rick and Jenna’s soap opera involving Stanton’s tearaway daughter Lila is probably the least compelling of the series, and it’s telegraphed loudly from the start that the party will come to an abrupt end when an anti-NFFA faction breaks in and massacres everybody (viva la revolution!). Maybe it’s hard to care about people from an especially unobtainable world of high money, or those who rub shoulders with the originators of this terrible policy, but their ensuing psychodrama and life choices felt flat, with the resulting home invasion that stems from it was the most obvious facsimile of similar stories like The Strangers or Martyrs – but without the dynamism or dark humour.
Perhaps the least compelling story arc is the also the most developed – that of vigilante loner Joe. Lee Tergesen (The Americans, Generation Kill) plays the blue-collar working-class guy who’s shock redundancy sees him spiral into depression and a subsequent identity crisis when salvation comes with The Purge. On the surface, his transformation into a masked alter-ego that cruises the streets in a home-made battle wagon looking to help the victims of violence by delivering his own brand of justice against their assailants seems admirable. However, his story soon develops into something much more sinister as we discover his brand of salvation comes with a price and a purpose, and the bait and switch the show offers us is supposed to make us question our own morals. The subsequent ‘court’ he holds, where he rails against the shifting sands of modern culture with an emasculated welp is probably the most obviously political statement the show makes, with accusations ranging from rejections of an internet date or a woman not thanking him for opening a door as meriting murder. Tergesen makes great mileage out of his character’s supposedly assailed rights as a man, but it’s just far too close to modern reality to be anything but darkly reminiscent of daily newspaper headlines.
Perhaps the most frustrating issue with the show is how it handles it’s high concept in it’s quieter moments. There’s a long standing series of parodies of the films online that tackle the more obvious ramifications of the trauma that must surely follow this annual night of madness, and whilst the show makes good on exploring the psychological damage it’s characters endure at the hand of their assailants it never runs deeper than addictive fixations on drugs, sex or more violence. It’s a very binary approach that works better with some characters than others, but was ripe for more of a detailed examination into the phenomenon. Altered reality (or alternative history) shows are becoming abundant these days and can be excoriating in the right hands (The Handmaid’s Tale for example), but The Purge gets a bit confused as to what it wants to be – a commentary of modern society or an action thriller.
Why it’s worth a binge…
With a refreshingly broad set of characters and situations, The Purge never outstayed its welcome in any one location. The singular idea behind the show is explored in creative and inventive ways, and will leave you questioning your own behaviour faced with this fantastical setting.
The Purge S1 is available on Amazon Prime