‘Hatfields & McCoys’ Review: “Part One”
Are you tired of that pansy show ‘Mad Men‘ with those fussy men in their prissy little suits? The History Channel has the antidote: A three-part, six-hour mini-series on one of the greatest feuds in history — ‘Hatfields & McCoys.’
The opening of “Part One” sets the tone quite well, as Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton) and “Devil” Anse Hatfield (Kevin Costner) fight side by side in the trenches against Union forces in the Civil War. The jarring image of a young boy struck in battle and begging Hatfield to help put an end to his misery is enough to give us a concept of the time and place in history we’re dealing with here. Welcome to the 19th century, yee haw.
Hatfield, having had enough of this senseless war, decides to head back home to his family, while McCoy believes him to be a traitor. Hatfield goes home and works on his lumber business, while McCoy becomes a prisoner of war. The feud begins brewing before McCoy returns, with Harmon McCoy — a Union soldier — drawing the ire of Hatfield’s Uncle Jim (Tom Berenger? Tom Berenger), who kills Harmon. But not before Harmon’s wife can beg Anse to intervene with, “Your uncle Jim Vance is the only one my Harmon accused of fornicatin’ with his hounddog.” Such a civilized people.
Thankfully Harmon is killed anyway because the actor playing him (Chad Hugghins) is awful. As are most of the supporting actors, with some of the more somber scenes between the secondary cast feeling like an ‘SNL‘ western melodrama sketch. Still, with talent like Costner, Paxton, Mare Winningham (a TV drama pro), and Powers Boothe, these tone-deaf scenes aren’t too prevalent.
I have to give props to the History Channel for not trying to sex this up to make it more appealing, but most of this series looks primed to be all, “Ya’ done killed my kin, I’m gonna kill you!” — etc. ‘Hatfields & McCoys’ shies away from every racy moment, choosing to be provocative with dialogue instead of skin. The History Channel’s target audience is men, aged dad to grandpa, with a fondness for a worn-out recliner and learning about instruments and honorable men of wars past. So when ‘Hatfields & McCoys’ introduces an older Roseanna McCoy (Lindsay Pulsipher of ‘True Blood‘) becoming smitten with Johnse Hatfield and subsequently losing her virginity, this thread takes a cloying turn that’s just a bit too saccharine to gel with the already established, grimy tone.
I’d lash out at romantic cliche, but I don’t think most of these people know how to read and Shakespeare probably wasn’t available at their local bookin’ hole.
McCoy finally returns home to find his wife isn’t doing so well, as indicated by her plain expression of, “I’m prepared to do my duty as your wife, but I ask that ya’ spill your seed outside of me.” These were simpler times and most of these people were illiterate. It’s good to see that they at least had a rudimentary grasp of safe sex practices. Sort of.
The feud truly begins with McCoy’s return, as he still believes Hatfield to be a traitor and deserter, and discovers that Uncle Jim killed Harmon. Things start with a modicum of civility as Randall’s lawyer cousin Perry Kline decides they should take the Hatfields to court over a lumber dispute, but since the suit is based on fraudulent evidence, they take the Hatfields to court over a stolen pig instead. The courtroom scene gives the idea that this entire town is apparently populated solely by Hatfields and McCoys. Just move to another town already, you stubborn yokels. Even the judge is a Hatfield, but at least it’s Powers Boothe, which means he’s the distinguished, literate one, and he brings some gravity to the proceedings.
At one point Randall McCoy yells out, ”This is about honor. And lyin’. And stealin’. And murderin’!” And, like its ungraceful characters, ‘Hatfields & McCoys’ similarly reveals its theme with a single line of dialogue.
The first episode climaxes as Johnse Hatfield is taken hostage by the McCoys for his rendezvous with Roseanna. Her family don’t take too kindly to her sleeping in the Hatfield’s home or her plans to marry Johnse (Paxton’s “Beg your damn pardon” line is so delightfully stilted here). Roseanna tips off the opposing family and Uncle Jim, Devil Anse, and various other Hatfields rush to Johnse’s rescue.
Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t really find its pace until the back half, but it does so by loosening up a bit. Once the characters sink in and start embracing their absurd, hick-ish nature, and the show stops trying to marry its inherent tone with stuffy, needless melodrama, it becomes a much more enjoyable ride.
To boil it down: Do you like men hitting at rocks with pick-axes, country words like “bidness” and “fornicatin’,” that guy’s kinsfolk killing this guy’s kinsfolk, or a time when a man was defined by his beard, his word, and his horse? If you answered yes to any of the above, this mini-series is for you.