tv review

Lodge 49 Nails the Sad Absurdity of Modern Life

Wyatt Russell as Sean
Wyatt Russell as Sean “Dud” Dudley. Photo: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

“I told you it was a shark.”

That’s what Sean “Dud” Dudley (Wyatt Russell) tells his sister Liz (Sonya Cassidy) at the end of Lodge 49’s first season, sprawled on the beach and grinning beatifically while Samaritans staunch the bite wound on his leg. Dud is always on the lookout for signs and symbols and often finds them; this one feels like an underlined-and-boldfaced answer. Liz even came racing up the beach at the exact moment Dud was pulled from the water, as if summoned by a signal that only she could hear. Such is life in the world of Lodge 49, a charming stroll through the ruins of late capitalism that feels real and metaphorical at once.

Dud survives that shark attack after going in the water for the first time since the death of his debt-ridden father, Bill (Tom Nowicki), and not long after recovering from a snakebite in the Nicaraguan jungle and joining a struggling local fraternal lodge that he believed he was destined to find. (He made a good case: He found a pin depicting the lodge’s symbol, the Lynx, buried in beach sand while prospecting with a metal detector, then just happened to run out of gas in front of the lodge’s entrance.) All this time, Dud and Liz worried that their late father was a depressive who gave up on the struggle of life and killed himself, leaving the family-owned beach store to foreclosure and saddling them to clean up the mess, along with debt of their own. The sheer unlikeliness of the son nearly dying from the same thing that he believes killed the father, and in the same spot on the beach, feels like proof that papa Dudley was done in by an external threat.

Then the camera rises towards the sky, diminishing Dud and the crowd. On top of being a lovely image of a character we care about being relieved of an awful burden, the moment fuses two of the show’s main concerns: family obligation and economic devastation. The big question surrounding Bill’s death was, “Did he choose to die, or did something else kill him?” The show hasn’t given us any definitive answers yet — that might wait for season two, which AMC just recently ordered — but the bite on Dud’s leg at least opens up the possibility that something other than Bill killed Bill, economically as well as physically — and series creator Jim Gavin and showrunner Peter Ocko have established that the two things are more connected than we want to admit. The shark is a shark, but it’s also the economy that Dud, Liz, and the vast majority of the other characters who aren’t rich struggle against. Ditto the snake. With its unusual interest in the decline of an economy that actually makes things and gives people real jobs, and the rise of a so-called “gig” economy that makes nothing, exploits its workers, and eventually turns everyone who isn’t a millionaire into a temp, Lodge 49 often feels like a sun-baked, magical comedy-drama riff on those T-shirts, mugs, posters, and cards that reassure exhausted working people, “It’s not you, it’s capitalism.”

“I’ve been talking with a lot of my friends recently  about the dirty little secret no one is supposed to talk about,” wrote Joe Brewer in a 2016 essay built around that sentiment. “The shame people feel when they can’t find a job. Or pay their bills. Or go to the dentist. Or that they have to move back in with their parents. Or they can’t afford to have children. We are supposed to pretend, in this stupendously individualist culture, that it is our fault. The buck stops here. I am responsible for my failings in life. Of course this is demonstrably not true. We are merely living through late-stage capitalism, and our parents lacked the foresight to warn us about it.”

A potent mix of pride, despair, and denial permeates Lodge 49, however warmly its eccentric characters stumble through the rubble of a manufacturing economy that once gave Long Beach, the show’s principal setting, jobs so good that one working parent with a high-school education could comfortably support a family. The Dudley home was repossessed just like the surf shop, and Dud was arrested for repeatedly trespassing there. The city’s most important employer, the aircraft manufacturer Orbis, has been closing its doors for five straight years. Its headquarters are nearly empty now, save for an executive in charge of firings (Jocelyn Keller’s Gloria, a.k.a. “The Angel of Death”); Dud, who briefly helps Gloria, a future fling, collate “termination folders”; and a night crew of ex-employees, led by Gil Sandoval’s Jimmy Gonzalez, who have commandeered a hangar and use it as a gladiatorial arena-slash-proving ground, testing homemade trebuchets strong enough to lob refrigerators (a nifty nod to the lodge’s medieval knight iconography, and Dud’s fascination with it).

Everybody owes everybody on this show, or so it seems. Dud owes thousands to a pawn-shop owner, Burt (Joe Grifasi), who at various points owns his television, his bike, his car, and his father’s watch, and never turns down an opportunity to loan him money. When Dud sets about raising $2,000 to give to Ernie as a lodge initiation fee, he’s already in debt to his own sister for $3,000. Turns out the initiation fee is really $200, and Ernie inflated it because he has debts of his own. Liz owed $80,000 to a bank for co-signing her dad’s business loans and only got them reduced after telling the branch’s loan officer that she was about to kill herself from despair over never being able to pay them off. Liz bursts into tears in the parking lot afterward, looking at her “paid” notice. How many viewers would react similarly if their own debt were reduced or voided? Some banks — though one suspects not too many — would be moved by suicide threats, the bottom line being what it is.

Lodge member Ernie Fontaine (Brent Jennings) — the successor to the late Grand Protector Larry Loomis (Kenneth Welsh) — is a plumbing-supplies salesman. He spends much of the season trying to sign a local construction project that somehow involves Orbis and a shadowy middle-aged douche bro investor known as the Captain (Bruce Campbell); by the end, he learns that there was no development, just guys behind guys behind guys, moving money around and manipulating local citizenry and the media to increase their take. “Temps are the only ones with job security,” the Captain says, forgetting that the ultimate job security is being rich enough never to have to punch a clock. Larry died leaving the lodge in financial disarray, a mirror duplication of Bill Dudley bequeathing his own debts to Liz and Dud. Jocelyn Pugh (Adam Godley) visits from headquarters in London and pronounces the lodge’s finances amazingly bad, easily the worst he’s seen. A brief glimpse of Jocelyn leaving home reveals that he lives with his parents — to save money, presumably.

“It’s all gone, Dud,” Liz tells her brother early in the season. “Why can’t you see that?” She’s speaking of their meager family fortunes, but also the fortunes of 21st-century America, a fragmented, debt-ridden nation in which the middle class is shrinking, the rich treat the poor like serfs or speed bumps, and every successive generation struggles harder than the one before it.

It’s all so sad that you have to joke about it, otherwise you’d lose your mind in addition to your hope. At one point, Larry’s secret lover, the journalist Connie (Linda Emond) — wife of Port Harbor patrol officer Scott Mills (Eric Allan Kramer), both of them lodge members — goes to her editor, who barely looks old enough to drive, and pitches a series of articles on the emotional devastation wrought by the layoffs, only to be laid off herself at that very moment. She’s so stunned that when her former boss asks her to give the press release a once-over, she bursts out laughing. “In an age of accelerated transformation,” she reads aloud, “our mission is to become an industry leader in the curation, optimization, and monetization of hyper-content.” Like the late, great HBO series Enlightened and its current AMC grid-mate Better Call Saul, Lodge 49 has a nearly perfect ear for the self-important, nonsensical language of the new media/gig economy, and the cult-like worship of modern snake-oil salespeople who’ve made a fortune telling suckers they’ve found the key to success, whatever that means now. One of them is Janet Price (Olivia Sandoval), the CEO of the company that owns the Hooters-like chain where Liz works — a 25-year-old millionaire who has written a inspirational economic gobbledygook best seller, and who tells Liz during a management training cruise, “You’re like a young me.” “I’m older than you,” Liz says.

Moments later, Liz leaps over the railing and swims to shore. She stood to make substantially more money as a boss than waiting tables in a tight T-shirt plus falsies, but it turned out there was more dignity in waitressing, despite the grinding sameness of the job, which made Liz dream about being at work. “There was nothing weird happening,” she explained to her co-workers, gesturing around the room. “There was just … this.” “I’m working two jobs and I dream about both,” says Liz’s Shamroxx co-worker Champ (David Uhry), a conspiratorial crank who also works overnight security for Orbis (with Dud, briefly) and would’ve fit right into Alex Cox’s 1984 social satire Repo Man. “It’s a basic feature of capitalism,” he continues. “You can’t shake loose work, even on weekends. You reach the citadel, The Man shoots you dead.”

Is is possible to transcend such a degrading existence? Lodge 49 remains hopeful, presenting a web of incidents and coincidences that might or might not have a theological or scientific explanation. Gavin, Ocko & Co. draw subtle connections between Dud’s visions of another world beyond this one (dating back to seeing a mirror lying on the grass when he was a boy); the lodge’s steady disclosure of secrets, secret artifacts, and secret rooms; and the tantalizing possibility that there might be an economic world beyond the one that weighs down Dud, Liz, Ernie, and everyone else. “Is there another way to live?” asks a billboard, tantalizingly positioned over a spot in the road where Ernie and Dud just happen to run out of gas. “I don’t get it,” Dud says. “Is it advertising something?” “The future,” Ernie says.

But things have gotten so bad in Long Beach, in the U.S., and in the world at large that the characters take pride merely in surviving from day to day, and seem to view upward mobility as something that might have existed at one point but has been mythologized beyond all reason, like the tales of knights and squires that Dud can’t get enough of. Not for nothing does the lodge’s most compelling lore revolve around alchemy, a fabled means of transforming non-valuable matter into silver and gold: We’re so far gone at this point that only magic can save us.

Fortunately, magic is everywhere on this show. Characters who are attuned to it — like Larry and Dud and, though there’s a medical explanation, Connie — can sense it or see it, and while it rarely has the ability to erase debt or heal a snakebite or mend a broken heart, it makes life more bearable and might even lead to the “another way” advertised on that billboard. The lodge itself, though originally steeped in postwar privilege, has become a more democratic and multicultural and down-to-earth place, founded on ordinary forms of human connection like drinking, smoking, conversation, and karaoke. The show’s linguistic playfulness pays off when Jocelyn files his report (via voice-mail) to headquarters and proclaims that the quality of camaraderie makes the place worth saving even though its finances are a sinkhole: The Lynx provides links between fellow strugglers. “These are good people who’ve fallen on hard times,” Jocelyn says. “It’s the fate of the working class! Or perhaps the middle class? Things are little more fluid here. It’s difficult to distinguish who’s who. But I do know that the more technology isolates us, the more we need places like the lodge. For the first time, I truly see what it means to be a Lynx. It means community and brotherhood.”

Lodge 49 Nails the Sad Absurdity of Modern Life