Cinemax’s ‘Quarry’ Plunges Viewers Into A Perilous, Sweat-Drenched ’70s Memphis

It’s 1972 and Mac Conway isn’t feeling too great. Having just served two tours of duty in Vietnam, he returns to a Memphis that’s not quite the city he left. Rather than being greeted as heroes, Mac and his buddy Arthur (The Wire‘s Jamie Hector) are met by protests. And not just general protests against the war in Vietnam but protests directed specifically at them for their involvement in a My Lai-like massacre. Things aren’t much better at home, either. Returning a day earlier than he’s told his wife Joni (Jodi Balfour) to expect him, Mac laughs off Arthur’s joke about finding her in bed with someone else. And he’s right to, it seems. He finds her alone and happy to see him and they fall into each others’ arms. But, he’ll soon find out, all is not well.

His problems don’t end there, either. Unable to secure the job as a high school swim coach he expected to be waiting for him on his return, Mac’s instead offered employment by a mysterious man he comes to know only as The Broker (Peter Mullan), who’d like him to kill a few people for money. He declines as politely as he can, only to end up in the Broker’s world anyway. Then an already troubled homecoming turns into a nightmare.

Adapted from a series of novels by Max Allan Collins, Quarry comes from the co-creators Graham Gordy and Michael D. Fuller, both writers for the excellent, little-seen SundanceTV series Rectify. It often plays like an attempt to fuse the sensibility of that meditative show — also about the difficult readjustment of a man who’s been away from his family and home — to the worlds of crime fiction and contemporary prestige TV drama. It’s not always successful at joining those worlds together, or at living up to the expectations of any of them individually, but it comes so close at times it’s hard to look away from it.

Though well played with deep-throated, Andrew Lincoln-like intensity by Logan Marshall-Green, the central character remains too underdeveloped to be compelling. We’ve seen this sort of tortured protagonist too many times for Mac to surprise, tender one moment, violent the next, and with a dark past that may not excuse his behavior but stirs up enough sympathy to make him impossible to condemn. Even less convincing is Mac’s relationship with Joni. A later episode that isolates them in a hotel room only underlines the by-the-numbers-ness of their complicated relationship. Instead of indoor fireworks, their fights and reconciliations too often just seem like two people yelling at each other in a room.

Yet that same episode also illustrates much of what Quarry does right. Set in a remote Southern motel, it guest stars the great Bill Irwin as a charmingly self-deprecating motel manager who doesn’t think twice about calling his establishment a “sh*thole.” In the background, the Munich hostage crisis unfolds, yet another element that makes it seem like the world’s turned upside down. And, like every other episode of the show, it’s both beautifully shot — TV vet Greg Yaitanes directs every episode — and rich in atmosphere. Quarry often seems like a time machine, following its characters from wrestling matches to record stores to gay clubs pumping glam rock.

It’s skilled at capturing the attitudes of that lost world, too. Good ol’ boys rub shoulders with hippie holdovers. When racial tensions threaten to erupt after a white man beats an African American kid as he rides a bus to a newly desegregated school, only to be quickly released, it’s the black characters who are forced to obey a curfew. The first piece of advice Joni receives when she ponders selling her house is to ditch the McGovern sign.

The world Mac reluctantly enters into is fascinating as well. Always good, Mullan brings a relaxed menace to the role of The Broker and Damon Herriman (Justified) gives a standout performance as Buddy, a gay underworld contact who’s unfailingly cordial as he helps usher Mac into Memphis’ violent underside — but willing and even eager to resort to violence if crossed.

Quarry is part of Cinemax’s earnest-if-late attempt to make itself a player in the world of prestige television, and it sometimes it feels like it’s working from a checklist: Difficult protagonist, a graphic sex scene before the pilot’s 20-minute mark, opaque flashes of fantasy, an ever-darkening narrative — you’ll find them all here. Yet for all its imperfections, it’s a compelling show, even if it’s not always the plot that keeps it so. Six episodes into the seven provided to critics — the first season will run for eight episodes total — I found myself caring less about the show’s central mystery or Mac and Jodi’s tempestuous marriage and more about what might be around each corner its characters turned in its dangerous, early-’70s Memphis world, a place realized in such intricate, sweaty, earth-toned detail that the show is sometimes able to get by on atmosphere alone. If it can find more intriguing ways to fill that world, Quarry could develop into the great series it sometimes resembles.