This is a review of the entire season. Recaps of individual episodes are posted HERE as I complete them.
Hulu’s new retro noir series Reprisal is a unique show filled with unique characters. As such, it deserves a spot in their pantheon of shows such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Runaways which highlight complicated characters in fictional worlds that just keep improving the more involved the viewer gets. Altered Carbon is on Netflix, not Hulu, but it’s another show with a similar viewing experience, where it takes several episodes for the characters and the world to click into place and the plot to really take off. Then the viewing experience just gets better and better, as we’re plunged into an immersive world, where everyone has an agenda and anything can happen.
Reprisal takes place in an alternate universe that’s not set in a particular time period, but isn’t the future. It’s set in a neon swingers’ punk gangster scene that combines the look of the late 1940s- early 60s Rat Pack with a few more modern conveniences like 2000s flip phones and 70s muscle cars. It’s gorgeous and lives by its own rules, as this show does in every way.
The center of the gang scene is the Bang-a-Rang, a chain of burlesque clubs owned and operated by the Banished Brawlers, the most powerful gang in the Midwest. The Bang-a-Rang 707 is the original club, where the Brawlers gang have a compound that includes living quarters and working operations. They are a tight knit, loyal family operation with a strong chain of command, clear rules and swift punishment. Many of the members feel that the Brawlers saved them from a terrible fate, giving them a second chance at life.
The head of the brawlers, Burt Harlow (Rory Cochrane), had a sister named Katherine (Abigail Spencer), but she betrayed the family and as punishment was dragged behind a truck and left for dead. Burt has recently retreated from public life, so his right hand man, Joel (Rodrigo Santoro), currently runs the day to day operations. Joel and another Brawler, Bash (Gilbert Owuor), who was close to Katherine, were also involved the night of Katherine’s punishment.
Things have been going well for the Brawlers for years, since a major gang war with their rivals, the Ghouls, ended in a sweeping truce agreement that was very favorable to them. But with Burt out of sight and many younger members who don’t remember how bad the war times were, tensions are rising. The Ghouls are sniffing at the edges of their territory, waiting for them to stumble, looking for the opportunity to help them trip and fall.
Katherine Harlow was not dead when her brother was done with her that night, and she was innocent of any wrongdoing, framed for Burt’s convenience. She left town, changed her name to Doris and started a new life hundreds of miles away. Eventually she married another man, Tommy, who owns a restaurant business. She made Tommy’s business even more successful by adding a catering wing to it.
But now sad times are upon her again, as Tommy is succumbing to a fatal illness and someone from her old life has found her, reminding Katherine/Doris, that she has some scores to settle.
The story picks up during Tommy’s last days, as Doris must cope with Tommy’s greedy, dimwitted son, Colin (Michael Esper), and his numb wife, Molly (Bethany Anne Lind), plus a local gangster, Big Graham (Ron Perlman). She enlists the help of an acquaintance from her past, Witt (W. Earl Brown) and a couple of new friends, Earl (Craig Tate) and Cordell (Wavyy Jonezz). Doris also has an inside man at the Bang-a-Rang, Ethan (Mena Massoud).
Ethan gets to know the Brawlers, the dancers known as the Pin Ups, and the drivers known as the 3 River Phoenixes, who run cash and more between Bang-a-Rang locations. The Pin Ups and River Phoenixes are Brawler adjacent, but aren’t technically Brawlers, which causes some tension in the crew.
Matty (Rhys Wakefield) and Johnson (David Dastmalchian) are River Phoenixes who audition Ethan for the part of their third. Queenie (Lea DeLaria) runs the Pin Ups and keeps the books at the Bang-a Rang. Meredith (Madison Davenport) is a Pin Up and Burt’s daughter. She takes advantage of her position as Daddy’s girl to break the rules as often as possible, but she’s considered everyone’s little sister and protected at all costs.
This may sound like a standard revenge plot on paper, but Reprisal is more than the sum of its parts. The writing and acting bring out a depth and complexity in each character and relationship. The art and technical aspects are all well thought out and work together to bring depth to the story.
Most importantly, while this is Katherine’s show, this story is also true ensemble piece. Every character gets their due in the storytelling. Every piece of this story makes sense, if you pay attention. Every motivation is explained, every reaction is accounted for. Yet the story still remains unpredictable.
That, to me, is the true test of great storytelling. If you can keep me guessing, but also explain, in an artful way, why things are the way they are, I will be hooked. The season has a satisfying ending, but some storylines are left open, since they clearly would like a season 2. There is much more story to tell for these characters and this world.
In season 1, the women, in particular, are on a slow burn toward figuring out who they really are and what they really want. The first thing they want is to express their anger toward everyone who’s hurt them and held them down over the years, as the title suggests. All of the women in Reprisal, and I haven’t listed them all here, and the men of color, and even the white men who have been kept down by various circumstances, are so much more than they’ve had the opportunity to express.
We are shown, in powerful, visceral ways, how powerful men, and sometimes women, use unfair ways to keep the characters down and pit them against each other, in ways that are both individual and systemic. Their methods create resentments that make it difficult for
us the characters to see the humanity in each other, so that we they turn against each other, rather than against the powerful people who really hold their fates in their hands. We’re shown a systemic breakdown that’s aided by the people it hurts the most. Characters try to keep the worst from happening, even as they’re helplessly driven to take part in events they know will bring about their worst fears.
It’s a timely message, if you’re ready to receive it.
The characters’ backstories and points of connection are where this show shines and where viewers can connect to it as well. Whether it’s social awkwardness, the feeling of having been at war with something your whole life, the feelings of numbness and helplessness or the desire to turn away from something uncomfortable, so that you can continue the comfortable life you’ve built, we’ve all experienced something like it.
Visually, it takes us back to a sepia-toned, nostalgic limbo that, as a culture, we often remember as prosperous and happy for everyone. But behind closed doors, alcoholism, domestic violence and sexual abuse were accepted as normal family behavior in the post-war era. Racism, ableism, homophobia and misogyny didn’t have to hide, as they did later on in the 20th and early 21st century, up until the last few years. Reprisal reminds us of these truths, as well.
The Rat Pack era was a good time to be a white man, and there are many who’d like to go back to that time. Reprisal uses the look and many of the cultural messages of that time, but not all. There is more integration and interracial romance in Reprisal than there was in real life. More options appear to be available to women outside of the gang’s world, but they don’t appear to be easy to achieve or to hold onto.
Over the course of the season, the betrayals and lies add up and the characters have to decide how they’ll deal with each new revelation. Tension builds and in some relationships, the lies stack up like a house of cards, waiting to collapse.
Sometimes the lies are to meant protect someone. Sometimes they’re meant to protect the business. At what point does that stop mattering, especially if the lies weren’t ever meant to protect you? How thin can loyalty be stretched before it breaks?
Reprisals was created by Josh Corbin, who also wrote half of the 10 episodes in season 1. The series is executive produced by Corbin, Warren Littlefield (Fargo, The Handmaid’s Tale) and Barry Jossen. The production design is by P Erik Carlson, with art direction by Brian Baker.
Grade for season 1= A