USA’s new period epic, Damnation kicks off with a bang in its pilot episode. Aptly titled “Sam Riley’s Body,” this first episode succinctly and engrossingly introduces us to this 1930s Midwest world, its inhabitants, and its evils, not the least of which is an all-out war between society’s rich and its destitute. This war is most explicitly reflected, too, in the relationship between two opposing brothers: Seth Davenport (Killian Scott), a communist extremist who presents himself as the new preacher in Holden, Iowa, and his cowboy brother, Creeley Turner (Logan Marshall-Green), who’s hired by an unknown employer to end the town’s dairy farmer strikes led by Seth.
Catch up on the new hour-long from creator Tony Tost (Longmire) with Episode 101’s highlights below.
Seth is a man of God, but he’s not a God-fearing man.
We open with Seth Davenport, at this point still unnamed, nailing a pamphlet onto a nearby telephone pole. “A reckoning between God and America,” it reads. While he at first seems an agenda-pushing holy man (he’s got the clerical collar to match), it’s quickly established that Seth is not your typical preacher, and that he may, in fact, not be a real preacher at all.
After coming upon an old farmer, Frank, unloading his shotgun into his chicken coop because there’s an egg thief inside (who we later learn is a homeless girl named Lorrie), Seth promises him a ticket to Heaven and some additional dairy goods if he lets her go. Later, we come to find that Seth actually snatched a pair of eggs himself while saving Lorrie from the bullet. “What kind of denomination are you?” she asks him after their escape. “Pick one,” he says. He also assures her that he doesn’t run “that kind of church” when she sticks up her nose at an invitation to mass.
Seth is instead set on righting the economic imbalance in the midst of America’s Great Depression by preaching the gospel of the farmers’ strike. He plans on “breaking the system’s back one a--hole at a time,” and says his sights are set on one asshole in particular: Calvin Rumple, a banker who price-fixes the system to keep the farmers’ income at a fraction of what they need to survive. “He must be making someone rich,” Seth posits. “You do that, you can get away with just about anything in this country.” But what does all of this have to do with God? "We’re all a part of God’s body. All I did was shift these eggs from God’s left hand to His right,” he says upon giving his stolen goods to Lorrie. It’s an unlikely bit of Biblical justification, but Seth wears the shoe well.
We get a better idea of Seth’s relationship with God, too, when he gives his sermon come Sunday. The dairy farmers of his town of Holden, Iowa are heading a strike and refusing to bring their product to town for the sellers. If they hold out long enough, the sellers won’t have any choice but to offer them a livable compensation, no matter what bankers like Rumple say. While at the pulpit, Seth explains that Jesus was crucified not because he was a peaceful miracle worker, but because those in power were afraid he would usurp their position and give power to the poor.
“My friends, we’re living in Biblical times again,” Seth says. “There is a holy war in this country. The rich versus the poor. It’s the same war Jesus Himself was in.” He wraps up his call-to-arms by placing a pistol on the pulpit. “Jesus knew he was at war,” he says, “but the question is: do you?” Seth sees his position in the church as one that is meant to use the word of God not to understand the world, but to change it.
Creeley Turner's a no-good cowboy with a helluva shot.
Back in town, Bill, the grocer, is meeting with Rumple and bemoaning the fact that the farmers’ strike is leaving its mark on business -- and on his empty stomach. Rumple quells his concerns by telling him to pay the next dairy farmer to bring in a shipment of milk twice the normal pay. It at first seems like a simple tactic to manipulate and shake up the farmers’ loyalties, but there’s something else at play here with the introduction of Creeley Turner.
Pete Collingsworth is a dairy farmer on strike, but he’s broke, hungry, and his wife is pregnant and sick, so when Rumple offers him double pay to break lines with the strike, he succumbs. When he takes his truck of milk cans down the road that leads to town, however, his fellow strikers stop him and threaten him and his goods at gunpoint. The man who takes the lead in this standoff is Sam Riley, who demands Pete empty the cans and get to going home. Then a gun goes off -- and Sam Riley falls dead, a bleeding hole square in his forehead. The culprit with the smoking gun is one Creeley Turner, a cowboy who reveals himself under Pete’s tarp in the back of his truck. He jumps down from the truck’s bed while Sam’s son, Sam Riley Jr., and the rest of the strikers look on in shock and dismay. Creeley claims that everyone there will agree that this was a killing in self-defense and that the farmers’ strike is officially over. “No go home,” he says, “because tomorrow you’re going to sell your goods in town.”
Creeley loads Sam’s body in the pickup and has Pete drive the three of them into Holden. Pete is disgusted at Creeley’s behavior and spits on his shoes (but still gets double pay from the grocer). Creeley, meanwhile, brings Sam’s body into the local bar, morosely sits him in at the nearest table, and orders everyone a round of whiskey. The rest of the bar’s patrons are dumbfounded, and with a flash of his gun, Creeley gets what he wants.
It’s there that he makes the acquaintance of Preston Riley, Sam’s second cousin, and intimidates him into offering the names of anyone who would seek revenge on Sam’s death. The answer? His son, Sam Riley, Jr. -- remember that, as it becomes important later on in this episode. Creeley then gets up and heads out the door, leaving Sam’s body there with his family.
Holden isn’t the only town undergoing a workers’ class strike.
1931 was an impossibly hard time for Americans across all working class professions, and that included the coal miners. Cut to Harlan County, Kentucky, and just like Holden’s dairy farmers, the coal miners are on strike. Tensions rise more, still, between local police (namely, Sheriff JH Blair) and the miners when he helps bring in workers from the north to replace them. At the height of these tensions, Blair enters his office and is surprised to find a woman there waiting for him: Connie Nunn of the William J. Burns International Detective Agency (like Pinkerton but “competent” and “discreet”) and purportedly sent by Governor Sampson himself.
Blair at first seems disappointed that he was sent this woman instead of the National Guard, as requested, but Connie quickly proves her worth; she doesn’t have the brawn of the National Guard (though she certainly has some brawn to spare), but she has the brains. She says it wouldn’t be politically viable for the governor to send the National Guard unless the miners incite a blood bath -- and while there hasn’t been any sign of violence yet, she fixes that later on. (Later in the episode, she’s shown loading a sniper rifle, waiting in the hills, and shooting down two workers as the replacements from the north are trucked toward the mines. All hell breaks loose, and we’ll have to wait see, but presumably enough of a “blood bath” occurs to get the National Guard in Harlon County.)
Before that bloody standoff at the mines, though, we also learn that Connie is on a personal mission to find the man who killed her husband: “His known aliases include Seth Bergson, Seth Dalton, and Seth Fredrick,” she says. “It is rumored he now masquerades as a roving preacher, inciting riots and composing seditious pamphlets. He was last seen in Marion County, Arkansas.” It was there that this preacher—who we know as Seth Davenport—murdered her husband. And Connie wants his blood.
Seth and his wife, Amelia Davenport, lure the Holden Tribune to their cause.
Besides the pulpit, the most direct way to get the word of their revolution out to the Holden masses is through the local paper, which Amelia tries to do herself by paying a visit to DL Sullivan, a young, local columnist who -- while his town is undergoing major political and social unrest -- is forced instead to write about the mundane day-to-day to keep things polite. (Turns out his boss at the Tribune, Burt Babbage, is a friend of Rumple’s.) He refuses, in Amelia’s words, to write about the “life and death struggles of your fellow man” because he wants to keep his job. “But what about your soul?” she asks. It’s then that he’s told of Sam Riley’s death. Instead of writing about it, he runs the news item by his boss who brushes it aside -- before calling Rumple to alert Holden’s own Sheriff Don Berryman of Sam’s passing.
By episode’s end, it seems that DL Sullivan is adequately seduced to Seth and Amelia’s mission. In attending Sam Riley’s funeral on assignment, he gets swept up in Seth’s call-to-arms for the poor and downtrodden to rise up against the banks, businesses, and government who have all conspired “to rip off the very people who grow our food and keep our nation strong.”
You don’t want to get on Sheriff Berryman’s bad side.
We’ve got the unorthodox preacher, the corrupt banker -- Holden is just full of men who run their positions of power with questionable taste -- and Sheriff Don Berryman lives up to that as well. We open to him in the woods beating an Irish moonshiner named Eddie Heffernan bloody. (It is prohibition, after all; punishment is due.) But instead of arresting Eddie, he’s just showing him who’s boss -- and then tells him to start producing twice as much moonshine as he has been and to provide it for his own speakeasy and the local brothel. Do you smell corruption?
Despite his brawn, Berryman is later put in his place when he tracks Creeley down at Madam Della’s local brothel. Creeley has holed himself up there for the week with a prostitute named Bessie, and while she’s beautiful and, indeed, goes through with the expectations of a sex worker, she’s also the only worker at Della’s who can read. He hires her as a secretary. Their first night together, Seth has her read a letter from an unnamed client who wants peace in the heartland and who has hired Creeley to stop the strikes from spreading. But before she can get too deep into it, Sheriff Berryman comes knocking. Bessie’s smart -- and she’s on Creeley’s side; she hides the letter and loudly fakes a quick romp to give Creeley time to undress and greet the sheriff in attire befitting a brothel.
Berryman doesn’t mince words upon entering the room. He knows that Creeley is the one who shot Sam Riley dead, and even while Creeley claims self-defense, Berryman has his pistol aimed right at the cowboy’s bare chest. Before any shots are fired, Creeley convinces the sheriff to take a step back and look inside his wallet; there is an ID for Creeley Turner, who’s part of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. So it looks like Creeley’s not just a cowboy. He says they’ve been keeping an eye on the local farmers’ strike and that they can’t let it get any bigger. They don’t want a Bolsheviks-level uprising, and the Pinkerton agency doesn’t believe it’s still just a local matter. Berryman protests that he has the farmers under control, but his word has little power here; as the higher authority, Creeley puts him in his place and sends him on his way.
Another note about his relationship with Bessie: He at one point forces her later in the pilot to take his knife and make two hash marks in his left ribcage, matching scars of slices from days’ past. We’re not really sure what that practice is all about, but Creeley’s sadomasochism may be worth revisiting in the future.
Seth and Amelia get blood on their hands.
While they preach of how the bankers and government officials of the world have blood on their hands to pay for, Seth and Amelia get caught up in a home invasion gone wrong and get stained with red themselves. Seth proves yet again to not be your everyday preacher when he hears something -- or someone -- outside while in bed with Amelia and readies his knife to kill. Finding an intruder in the hallway, his knife finds an artery in the man’s leg, and before he bleeds out and dies, Seth learns that a doctor of some sort sent him from Chicago to kill Seth -- and that there are two more men in the house. Amelia, meanwhile, draws her gun and shoots another intruder as he tries to enter the bedroom. The third is killed offscreen. Cut to the early morning light, and the husband and wife are burying the bodies out back with plans to plant a garden to avoid locals’ suspicion. “Unexpected beauty pleases the Lord,” Seth says without a hint of irony. “You’re actually starting to sound like a man of God,” Amelia responds. “Good, because I sure as hell don’t feel like one.
That’s when Seth’s true identity is (somewhat) revealed: For two years, he and Amelia -- who writes their communist pamphlets as Dr. Samuel T. Tompkins -- have been traveling town to town trying to start a revolution of the working class. Two years of marriage and companionship for a common cause, “and you still won’t tell me anything about who you are or where you’re from,” Amelia says. “We agreed we wouldn’t talk about our pasts,” he responds -- but Seth does let on that burying the bodies of three intruders “doesn’t come close” to what he’s done in the past. “I’ve done wicked things in this world.” It seems that Amelia is willing to do wicked things in the name of their cause, too. When it’s clear that whatever doctor sent these men from Chicago will likely send more, Amelia responds with a steely glint in her eye: “Good. That’s how revolutions begin.”
Seth and Creeley reunite.
Though he’s not at fault for Sam Riley’s death, the person to gain the most was perhaps Pete Collingsworth, who did get 200 percent of his usual pay for a dairy shipment. Now back with his pregnant wife, he’s cooked up some eggs and blood sausage to fill her stomach, but she’s not hungry and looks ill. “Maybe later, dear,” she says. (It’s also unclear how she feels about his breaking the strike line; perhaps she doesn’t want to enjoy the benefits his betrayal gained them.) With his wife in bed, Pete goes to the front porch to smoke a cigarette and look out across the fields. Moments after stepping out, he’s shot dead, sniper between the eyes.
The culprit? Creeley Turner, who in an attempt to set up Sam Riley Jr. for Pete’s death leaves a chewed toothpick and bullet shell in the back of Pete’s truck. Later, he anonymously calls into Sheriff Berryman’s office that he heard a gunshot after seeing Sam Riley Jr. headed towards Pete’s home with a gun in-hand. The call works, and while Seth is mid-sermon at Sam Riley’s funeral with half the town in the building and calling out cheers of support for his communist messaging, Berryman barges in with a deputy, announces Pete Collingsworth's death, and places Sam Riley Jr. under arrest.
Seth flees the scene and goes after the “devil” who he knows is behind all of this. He barges into Della’s brothel to room No. 3 where Creeley is mid-coitus with Bessie. “Your work in this town is done, so leave while you can,” Seth says, threatening Creeley for the two lives he’s already taken from Sam and Pete. “Or else what, Preacher? You’re gonna save my poor immortal soul?” the cowboy says, Bessie still straddling him, terrified. “No, I’ll kill you and drag you to hell with me.”
“Who was that?” Bessie asks.
“My little brother.”
Which side are you on?
“Sam Riley’s Body” ends with a focus back on the episode’s namesake. The morning after Sam’s funeral, Seth arrives home to Amelia sweaty and covered in blood, but it doesn’t appear to be his own. Did he kill someone else? No. Through a climactic montage, it’s revealed that Seth, in his greatest effort to inspire a rift and revolution, has crucified the body of Sam Riley, spreading his arms and nailing him to the door frame of a shop in the middle of town. Townspeople gather that morning, stunned and reading the sign that hangs over Sam’s neck: “Which side are you on?”