Eight minutes into the pilot episode of Cinemax’s new crime show Quarry — an uneven but largely rewarding translation of Max Allan Collins’ crime books into emotionally challenging, character-driven television — Marine Lloyd “Mac” Conway, Jr. (Logan Marshall-Green) returns home a day early from his second tour in Vietnam. By the end of the episode, Mac will have been unwittingly sucked into a high-risk job as an assassin, but for now, his concerns are strictly domestic — not the usual stuff of tough-guy paperback potboilers.
His buddy Arthur (Jamie Hector) doesn’t think the surprise idea is a good one: Mac is liable to show up at the house and walk in on his wife with another man, Arthur warns, half-jokingly, in the gift shop of a Memphis airport. But Mac is still all smiles when he gets dropped off at home; he releases a can’t-believe-it grin as he slings his mud-colored pack over his shoulder and approaches the front door.
He lets himself in and strolls around the room. Van Morrison is spinning on the record player (“Tupelo Honey”) and there are stray clothes draped over the couch. (Perhaps Arthur was right in his suspicions?) Mac soon locates Joni (Jodi Balfour) in the backyard, sweeping leaves out of the pool. He pauses at the kitchen exit and watches her. He charmingly quizzes her about what she’s done with his Otis Redding collection and she comes racing toward him, leaping into his arms. He gives her flowers (“Got ’em on discount”) and they move into the living room. They hold each other; Mac, for a moment, seems someplace else, looking at Joni and describing thoughts that trail off into nothing (“Just doesn’t seem…”) as if he were in a dream. She tries to pull off his dog tags and at first he resists, then relents. They make love on the couch.
All of this action — from Mac’s approach on the front lawn to the couple’s embrace in the living room — is presented in a single shot that runs for more than five minutes and covers a good chunk of the concerns that reside at the heart of the show. (This remarkable extended take — like many others in the series that navigate between the interior and exterior of the Conways’ home — was achieved by Greg Yaitanes and Pepe Avila del Pino, who directed and shot, respectively, all eight episodes of the first season.) There’s Mac’s glee at coming home and Joni’s great relief at having him back unharmed, but there are also the more grueling emotional currents: their impossible desire for an earlier, untainted domesticity, and the crippling fear that things will never be the same again. Joni’s post-coital line to Mac — “You really home?” delivered with a smile while the two are sharing a joint on the floor — is both fantasy and nightmare. They’ve been through this once before, after his first tour; she knows that he’s here, but not here.
This time, though, Mac comes back to small-town Memphis as a pariah. His and Arthur’s participation in the “Quan Thang massacre” — a My Lai-echoing tragedy that has been roundly decried by local protesters — leaves them with a tarnished reputation. Mac, a former swimming champion who built his and Joni’s 35-foot pool with his own two hands, pays a visit to his high school and is promptly turned down for a coaching position on the swim team. His father (Skipp Sudduth) doesn’t even want him to come by to visit. (Later, Mac disregards this and arrives at his dad’s place, and the first thing he does is make a beeline for the Maker’s Mark.) Then Arthur, who is black, goes to interview for a management position at a furniture-parts factory, only to find his handshake refused before being saddled with a deafening job on the assembly line.
Into Mac’s life at this precarious juncture walks the Broker (Peter Mullan), who shows up on the porch one night, requests a glass of Four Roses (“Civilization begins with distillation,” he quotes, from Faulkner) and invites Mac to work for him as a contract killer. His eyes appearing almost black against the blue glow of the pool at night, the Broker goes through Mac’s rap sheet, pegging him as a man of violence. “Why’d you go back?” he asks, meaning Mac’s decision to volunteer for a second tour. Mac tells him off, but the seed has been planted — the money is big-time, and it’s not like he has job offers elsewhere.
Of course, circumstances soon leave Mac with no other choice than to join the enterprise, at which point the Broker gives him the nickname “Quarry,” describing him as “hard as rock” yet “hollowed out on the inside.” (Yes, they're in a quarry when the Broker comes up with this, and yes, he looks around at his surroundings as he bestows it. Does he select meetup points based on their nickname potential?)
In subsequent episodes, creators Michael D. Fuller and Graham Gordy — both alumni of the Rectify writing staff — branch out beyond Mac’s specific deal-with-the-devil compromise for a more panoramic look at the turbulent South in the early '70s. In episode five, a group of white men, fearful of new laws aiming to integrate schools, board a bus filled with black schoolchildren and threaten them; one of the students gets beaten on the lawn outside the vehicle, leading to revolt and the institution of a town-wide curfew at sundown. Other flashes of terrorism (the slaughter of Israeli team members at the 1972 Munich Olympics) and political frustration (George McGovern inveighing against the Vietnam War) are heard on the radio or glimpsed on television.
Many of these subplot explorations of race and politics are more compelling than the characters Mac comes across in his shady dealings. That poses a bit of a balance problem: At a certain point, the scenes in which over-the-top villain-types harass and threaten women or kill people in awful and disgusting ways just seem dull when compared to the marvelously tender chapters about a widowed black mother (Nikki Amuka-Bird) valiantly managing all the moving parts of her overwhelming life.
At the diner where she works, that woman develops a gentle infatuation with a biscuits-and-gravy regular played by Mustafa Shakir; back at home, she feeds her children and struggles with how to answer their inquiries — posed in front of a television set broadcasting the news — regarding the racially motivated violence plaguing their town. One amazing moment has the eldest child discovering that the family’s milk supply has run out; unfazed and sensitive to his mother’s massive workload, he barely remarks upon it and quickly, uncomplainingly fills his and his sister’s cereal bowls with tap water.
But even as most of the killing assignments linger in the realm of the rudimentary (This target has one leg! This target deals drugs!), Mac’s damaged psychology — expressed with tremendous depth by Marshall-Green — centers the show. The actor is often unrecognizable underneath long sideburns and a bushy, walrus-y mustache, and he even buries much of his delivery; it sometimes feels like he’s reciting his lines underwater and the words are struggling to come up for air. His unrelenting aura of defeat is the guiding anchor of Quarry: Even as the show spawns, to mixed results, new and varied characters, Marshall-Green keeps it entrenched in the absorbing, upsetting mindset of the rattled soldier returning home.