Last week, the klaxons sounded, kicking off another Purge Night. This week we watch as everyone goes about their business in the early hours of the Purge. Some have plans to stay safe by doing as little as possible. For Jane, the night is supposed to involve occasionally checking an app to see if her boss has been killed yet. For Rick and Jenna, it means engaging as little as possible as they wait out the Stantons’ serial killer–themed party, hoping their endurance pays off with a fat check for a good cause. Others have an agenda. Miguel is on a quest to find Penelope. Penelope, on the other hand, is on a quest to get killed.
Then there’s a new addition: a masked figure we see in the opening scenes, listening to a pro-Purge motivational speaker explain that America is a land of freedom and, “The Purge is the ultimate night of freedom.” He has plans, too, though the extent of them aren’t exactly clear. They definitely involve making sandwiches, loading an armored truck full of weapons, and driving around listening to that speaker talk about the greatness of the Purge. They also involve an app with a woman’s picture on it. As for the rest, we’ll have to wait and see.
That’s true of every aspect of this second episode, “Take What’s Yours,” which slowly reveals details of a near-future, alternate reality America that’s been taken over by the far-right New Founding Fathers of America; and of the characters trying to make it through one Purge Night a few unspecified years into the NFFA takeover. The second episode also reveals a bit more of how the series plans to work. The first installment, “What Is America?,” provided the occasional flashback of Rick and Jenna engaging in a threesome with the woman we now know is Lila Stanton (Lili Simmons), daughter of the NFFA-loving hosts of the party they’re attending. This week, it’s Jane who gets the flashback spotlight, which will presumably shift to other characters in upcoming episodes.
So what’s Jane’s story? It’s apparently as straightforward as we might have guessed from the hints provided last week. She worked hard to land a spot at the investment firm overseen by William Baldwin’s David Ryker, then worked harder to get ahead. But the work hasn’t been enough. We see David running his eyes over her body at the end of a job interview, see Jane gently rebuff an advance after he mentions a probable promotion, then watch as David makes her work late instead of attending a party, leaving instead with another employee named Anya, a woman Jane’s seen him hugging just a little too long to celebrate the end of a deal. The promotion never came, leading Jane to reach out to an assassin named Bracka (AzMarie Livingston, a former America’s Next Top Model contestant who’s also appeared on Empire) to take him out.
On the surface, this isn’t the most complexly developed storyline, but I like the way it depicts how Purge-inspired thinking has crept into the heads of even those who find the event repulsive, now that it’s been normalized by several years of government-mandated Purge Nights. Their worst impulses haven’t just been permitted, they’ve been encouraged. (A parallel: There’s a three-year gap between the shock of Trump calling Mexicans rapists, and Tucker Carlson running prime-time segments suggesting diversity isn’t in America’s best interest without raising much of a stir.) This surfaces again when she talks to sweet, meek (but sneaky) Alison, who says everyone has a list of those they’d like to take out during the Purge, even if they don’t act on it. She even notes, “Now you don’t even have to leave your home to Purge, do you?” We’ve seen her snooping around Jane’s desk. Is this a suggestion she knows about her plan, or a subtle admission that she has a plan of her own, possibly involving her rival Mark?
Rick and Jenna don’t get the flashback treatment this week, but we get a better sense of what happened between them and Lila than we did last week. Though Lila assures them both that everything is peachy and she’s happy to move on, she treats them differently. Rick receives veiled threats suggesting that perhaps Lila’s father wouldn’t be so supportive of him and his cause if he knew the full truth about Rick. Lila gets a more hands-on treatment. They speak twice, once exchanging meaningless niceties, then later exchanging kisses by the pool. Jenna’s not into it, until she is, suggesting that whatever happened post-tryst involved Lila’s feelings for Jenna (and Rick getting in the way of those feelings). Either way, it’s an unstable love triangle that won’t get any less unstable by playing out in the middle of Purge Night.
True, the Stantons’ party is supposed to be a safe haven, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely isolated from the violence unfolding outside. In fact, the violence unfolding outside has an appreciative audience thanks to a livestream of a violent gauntlet that’s been set up on the streets of the series’ unnamed (but extremely New Orleans–looking) city. Forced to run the Gauntlet: our own Miguel, who’s been snatched from his search for Penelope and promised he’ll win a sweet muscle car if he can just make it around the block. Unfortunately, that block is lined with armed opponents and involves navigating a booby trap–filled building, but Miguel gets the job done.
That his struggle is being beamed into the Stantons’ home, like some cross between Twitch and The Running Man, provides the first overlap between the series’ stories. Presumably it won’t be the last. And, honestly, some cross-pollination of the narratives will probably be to the series’ benefit. Amanda Warren’s quite good in this episode, revealing a Jane who used to be able to smile and who’s become so put-upon at a job that’s made her swallow her pride and bottle her feelings that she finds herself venting to a killer-for-hire because she doesn’t have anyone else to talk to. (“Save it for your shrink” is the best line of the episode.) But I’m not sure anyone’s story so far suggests it has enough to sustain interest for ten episodes.
Then again, there’s always violence to pick up the slack. Miguel does battle with gun-toting thugs and a mask-wielding assailant in a series of engagingly staged scenes, while his sister’s pal Melissa dies offscreen at the hands of some golf club–wielding Purgers wearing masks of U.S. presidents. The former is graphic, the latter suggestive, and both scenes work. (That this episode, like its predecessor, is helmed by Anthony Hemingway — a veteran of Treme, American Crime Story, and other series — no doubt helps.) And hints of future intrigue help too. Following a tip from some volunteer medics, Miguel makes his way to Pete’s Cantina in search of Pete the Cop (Dominic Fumusa), who he’s been told will help him. Pete declines, but I doubt we’ve seen the last of him, or his establishment, which demands a password for entry and that all the guests refrain from discussing politics.
The series, on the other hand, has no such restraints. As with the films that inspired it, it’s often most compelling when providing glimpses of the world around its characters as they struggle to survive. Did anyone authorize the street gauntlet that snares Miguel? The partygoers at least know to tune in and it’s a professional-looking production. Does it have sponsors? One of this episode’s most intriguing moments comes when Miguel talks to the medics, none of whom have professional experience beyond a course in saving lives on Purge Night. They’re out there because they want to help others. Though the Purge has sneaked into the way people like Jane and Alison think on a day-to-day basis, they’ve resisted. They even see signs of hope in the way those participating in the Purge leave them alone. “The Purge notwithstanding,” one explains, “the natural human bent is toward order. In the absence of that, people find ways to pay homage.” But the episode closes with a counter-suggestion: Given the chance, maybe the natural human bent is toward swinging a bat without consequences.
• Jenna isn’t drinking, which she explains to Lila is because she’s pacing herself. She has a headache and an upset stomach, which she also tries to wave away. Either these are all the reddest of red herrings or Jenna is pregnant.
• The cult action is mostly confined to the bus, where Penelope volunteers to take her scared friend Melissa’s place only to find her sacrifice isn’t wanted by the cult, at least not yet. Penelope remains a true believer. Will that last? In some ways, the cult’s commitment to turning the Purge into a religion is just a more extreme example of what’s happened to those who’ve accepted it as part of life, be it Jane trying to use it to her advantage from a distance, or Jenna and Rick trying to spin evil into good. If you’re stuck in a world with the Purge, why not try to find a higher meaning in it? It’s these elements and the questions they raise, more than the masked ultraviolence, that make The Purge franchise compelling.
• That muscle car is sweet, but I’m not sure it’s the best vehicle for urban Purging. If this were automotive combat, it would be a different story. (Idea for season two — The Purge: Purge-y Road? The Fast & The Purge-iest?)