“All that hope and change bullshit didn’t get us anywhere,” Joe says late in this, the final first-season episode of The Purge. “America was circling the drain until the Purge.” And with those lines he makes undeniable what’s been pretty clear for a while: The Purge is, beneath it all, a series about life in MAGA America.
It wasn’t that way when it launched as a film series, seemingly 1,000 years ago in 2013. But it is now. If James DeMonaco first set out to use a dystopian future in which crime became legal for 12 hours every year as a reflection of America’s dark relationship with guns and violence, the changing political winds have since led to mission drift. This summer’s The First Purge featured some references to Trump that might have seemed a little on the nose if they weren’t part of its horrific phantasmagoria of ripped-from-the-headlines fascist and white-supremacist imagery. (Then there’s the awkward matter of Trump trying to copyright a phrase from a previous Purge film as a 2020 reelection slogan.) The USA series has continued to go all-in, and has been all the more effective for it. That this first-season finale is airing on the same night as a midterm election that doubles as a referendum on where our country is headed just makes sense.
It’s a shame it’s not just a little better. “A Nation Reborn” brings the first season to a satisfying, if not that surprising conclusion. The series has had an impressive run of last-minute twists, but it seems to have emptied its bag of tricks by this final hour. Everyone’s story line gets tied up and, after a brief epilogue, the series closes its doors for another year (just as news hits that it will be back for a second season.)
It’s a solid entry in the series, however, one directed, like the preceding episode, with intensity and focus by Ernest Dickerson. It benefits from his sure hand and from continuing to let Lee Tergesen command center stage as Joe, the disaffected Everyman (an ordinary Joe, you might say) who’s bought into the Purge propaganda he listens to 24/7 and has decided to settle all old scores by kidnapping his perceived enemies and holding them hostage in an abandoned high school.
The action unfolds on two fronts, only one of them particularly compelling. Miguel and Pete the Cop’s battle with Rex and the collectors is well-staged, but it also feels a bit like an attempt to fill out the running time. The real action unfolds inside Thomas Paine High as Joe puts Rick and Jenna on trial, accusing Rick of trying to cheat him out of money he’s owed for security work on Rick’s new building by claiming that Joe’s work wasn’t up to code. Thing is, Joe’s right. Rick — a character whose resemblance to Jared Kushner looks less and less coincidental the more we learn about him — has been cutting corners by stiffing a contractor.
“Everyone screws everyone, all the way down the line,” he says, and it’s a pretty weak defense. In the grand scheme of The Purge, it’s that kind of slippery-slope thinking that leads to legalized lawlessness. Everyone else is doing it and the government says it’s okay, so why not try to kill your neighbor over a parking dispute? Jenna gets her own moral dilemma when Joe forces her to shoot Rick to save herself and she does, only to find he’s given her an unloaded gun.
And speaking of screws and shoddy contract work, Penelope exploits a weakness in the cage Joe’s built on stage to stick a screw in his eye, in the episode’s most shocking, and grossest moment. Chaos ensues as dawn starts to break and the Purge enters its final moments, eventually leading to Joe’s “hope and change bullshit” speech as he holds Penelope at gunpoint. Penelope’s been the series’ most fluidly defined character — a committed cult devotee one moment, a Purge debunker the next — but Jessica Garza makes that easy to forget as Penelope holds her own against a man who embodies the Purge, or at least the poor suckers tricked into thinking the Purge will help them. She’s ready to die without admitting Joe’s right, but she doesn’t have to, thanks to the arrival of Miguel, who tussles with Joe then kills him — after the Purge has ended. Some laws you just have to ignore for the greater good.
So, as the season ends, Rick joins Jane as the second protagonist to bite it. (RIP to a morally compromised semi-scumbag.) Jenna starts to think that trying to work with the New Founding Fathers of America for the greater good (and her own personal gain) might not have been possible without selling her soul. (True.) When we flash-forward to one year later, she’s given up on America and taken up residence in Paris, where the news reports suggest the EU might have some plans for its own Purge in the future. Pete the Cop continues to make his bar a Purge Night safe space. And Miguel and a newly tough Penelope hit the streets to protect the innocent.
I’ve got some misgivings about this finale. Everyone’s final fate seems a little expected and there are some loose ends that will apparently stay that way. (Lila is really dead? What about the Stanton house? What about Catalina? What about Alison, poor, sweet, murderous, blood-smeared Alison?) But it also confirmed what I’ve been thinking for a while: This is the best incarnation of The Purge yet. The mythology of the films has been begging to be unpacked a bit, and the series has done that without explaining too much in the process.
More importantly, it’s offered a deeper dive into the franchise’s themes, which have felt alarmingly timely this season. (We really did watch a man get radicalized by right-wing propaganda as the recent bomb scare unfolded in real life.) Horror is better equipped than most genres to process the anxieties and, well, horrors of the times in which we find ourselves, and The Purge hasn’t taken that lightly while still offering darkly thrilling entertaining week after week. (We’ll never forget you, Carnival of Flesh.) That’s no small feat. Let’s sound the klaxons and prepare for what awfulness awaits next year.
• I don’t know if I’ll dwell on it for a whole year, but I’m going to spend a little time trying to figure out whether it’s best to leave a screw jammed into your eye until you can receive medical treatment or pull it out.
• The Purge is set up as an anthology, so I would not expect to see too many of the survivors return next year. A second appearance from Pete the Cop, however, would make sense. Dominic Fumusa plays him well as a cool character in a hot world.
• One strand I do expect to see next season: Bobby Sheridan, the unseen Purge self-help guru. He’s been mentioned too often for the show to forget about him.