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Genre cinema in itself, as we have already seen, can be a great critical tool, commenting and strongly referring to reality. We saw this, for example, in Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood), in which the classic western is reflected in a crooked mirror, revealing its own absurdities, sins and omissions (“cowboyness” leaves a deep wound, killing is not so obvious, evil and good are not so clear, etc.).

These kinds of games are undergoing a renaissance in contemporary TV shows, which have become an extremely interesting medium somewhere in the middle – between mass cinema and artistic cinema, between box office productions and an elitist festival cinema. The  TV shows combine increasingly better quality (technical, directing, acting), charismatic stories with a lot of space for the creators and – as the example of the series from Netflix about which I want to write – a valuable ideological charge.

Damnation uses the western[1], which next to gangster cinema is not only a genre invented in the States, but also the genre through which the States could see and think about the States. In this series, drawing motifs seems simple and graceful – we have a small town and surrounding farms (and the resulting division into working class and small-town aspiring petty bourgeoisie and those who are much higher and hold power – owners, businessmen, capitalist rich). We have a man marked by the past (pastor) who tries to help the local community and raise the spirit of a struggle against unfair prices among workers, by organizing blockades and strikes and building the foundations for revolution. Others come to the city, seeking revenge, so the conflict is quickly drawn and in the end everyone has to choose their side. And everything revolves around the eponymous damnation – can you escape the past? Can you change? Can you change the world? Can you forgive your worst enemy?

With all of this, the creators of the series are not afraid of ideology, they are not afraid to speak openly about injustice in the States[2] (of course, you can pin it on general injustice) and compare the historical situation (1930, great depression, crisis, debt, lack of livelihood), though dressed in a fictional plot, to the contemporary situation (did the crisis of 2008 even ended?), indebtedness, facing choice of eating or buying medicines, difficulty in maintaining a family even when working several jobs at the same time, etc.). Talking about social issues in the US is still extremely difficult, if at all possible in popular circulation. Hence this simple parabola is truly roguish. Not only that the artists undertake criticism of capitalism, clearly drawing a division between good (poor) and bad (rich), referring to human decency (sometimes it happens in the spirit of morality play), they also do it with the help of a native genre, commenting in this way on the condition of American identity.

Damnation dismantles the pillars of power, revealing a society that is controlled by capital. The media, which are manipulative tools, but also those that can be manipulated, are taking heat. The security services (sheriff’s office), which take care of their own interests and re-election get caught in the backlash. It also does not bypass financiers, for whom the only important thing is to maintain high profit, regardless of human life. But the most criticism was devoted to the mythical figure for Americans: the pioneer. It is those people who serve the so-called “progress”, implemented immediately and by force and serving only the interests of the few. It is those people who replaced colonization efforts (and – by the way – destroying indigenous communities) and building housing estates in difficult conditions, etc., with colonization caused by the desire to make a profit. Working class colonization. In the end, it’s easy to deal with the working class (by displacing it, manipulating or buying, etc.) if you have money.

However, all this is not so gloomy, because a light of hope has been left. It is self-organization, solidarity and a common fight – at first for fair prices of goods, and then maybe for more. In short, for human dignity.

The series shows that this so-called “American dream” is a nightmare for the vast majority. And this nightmare is becoming more and more visible, the bubble of idyll and illusions bursts. This is no longer like the opening scene of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet from 1986, where corruption is just below the fairy-tale picture. After more than 3 decades from that famous scene, corruption is already visible at first glance. And at first glance you can see that you should fight it until it is too late.

[1] We can mention Westworld, which also corresponds with American identity, a cowboy spirit, an attitude towards the Other, pioneering, an American dream, etc.

[2] They are not even afraid of this magical word, which is like a scarecrow for many… Communism!

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Mateusz Tarwacki

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Laura Przybylska
Laura Przybylska