On the one hand, “The Bottoms” takes some shortcuts that reduce my expectations for Hap And Leonard. On the other, it contains a surprise alligator attack.
The climax of “The Bottoms” encapsulates my reaction to the episode. Trudy and Hap are floating down the river at night. Apparently she’s found the river and kept it to herself, and now she’s interested in sharing that information with Hap. Next she drops a road flare into the river, and Hap trails a fishing rod. That’s their plan? The fact that they manage to pull up the license plate of their target cash cab beggars belief, but their joy is contagious. Their celebration is cut short, though, when a gator lunges at them, jaws wide open, and they abandon the raft. In short order the episode inspires character intrigue, narrative disappointment, and pulpy thrill. That about sums it up.
The main problem is emptiness. This is the fictional story of six strangers picked to live in a house, work together on a far-fetched heist, and have their lives taped, except in place of Real World idle time, it just has nothing. The guys go out bridge-hunting all day—and I mean all day, having gotten up at the crack of dawn to try to beat the others—and barely get to know one another, although they do begin to bond when the fat one falls in quicksand. That’s an easy but reliable joke; the real comedy is when they finally pull him up and out of his pants. The point is they spend the day together but make almost no progress, and I’m not talking about the bridge. I’m talking about relationships. Then they come home and have dinner, this time with two more uneasy allies to placate. Then everyone peels off to go to bed (or walk the perimeter and then go to bed). That isn’t life. That’s a schematic.
True, “The Bottoms” begins to fill in all these cracks. Hap and Paco start talking about Paco’s time as the leader of a Weathermen splinter cell, The Mechanics. He was a bomb-maker, and one of his creations backfired, hence his face. They, Leonard, and Chub all share a laugh over the quicksand incident. Back home, Howard cranks up the tension, and Trudy plays wild card, sympathizing with Hap. It’s just that these are all such brief interactions. The episode makes impressions instead of building relationships.
What gets lost in this approach (and the six-episode order) are some of the details, some of the life. What might Howard, Trudy, Hap, and Leonard do at night if they didn’t immediately retire? Who does the dishes? What do Leonard, Paco, and Chub talk about? Does Leonard find that cheeseburger he’s looking for? And why does he go looking for a cheeseburger anyway if he’s such a fan of Howard’s cooking? Things like Trudy’s work uniform laid out and Chub calling the shower are small touches that do a lot to bring a real sense of life to Howard’s sad little ranch.
Another touch: The makeshift mannequins in the yard, some going at it, another with a Reagan mask and an arrow through his eye. If there’s one thing “The Bottoms” is dogged about, it’s hippie idealism giving way to cynicism and greed. Howard alone embodies that, one week all open arms and the next mean-drunk. (What exactly is he insinuating about Hap anyway? And how come nobody explains that Chub’s accident took a lot of time off their clock? Details.) Then there’s Trudy’s work. “Welcome to Family Burger, where everyone’s family.” Open arms commodified. Meanwhile Hap and Leonard think they’re being pretty sneaky about getting out on the trail before Howard and everyone wake up, when it turns out Howard was just as suspicious of them. Later, when the guys split up to cover more territory, Paco makes sure to split up Hap and Leonard. So the four of them branch off, leaving only one thing in the shot aside from the jungle, their Volkswagen bus, a relic of the ‘60s left behind. Even the episode’s mystery comes with a thematic double-meaning: “How does a river just disappear?”
Trudy’s like a dog with a bone about Hap’s lost idealism. “Leonard’s rubbing off on you,” she tells Hap. “He sees the world through dirty glasses.”
“Maybe the world is dirty.”
“A little optimism never hurt.” Later she tells him, “I miss the way you used to be. Always the noble one. Ready to make a stand.” How sincere is she exactly? Is she trying to stoke Hap’s youthful fire to take advantage of him? When he admires her sense of hope, she deflects. And again, her motives during the scene are pointedly unclear. Why clue Hap in instead of Howard? Why clue in anyone at all? Trudy’s scenes are alive with mystery in a way the rest of the show isn’t yet.
Whatever is responsible for getting Trudy out on the river at night with her (allegedly) favorite ex-husband, there’s no denying the sincerity of her reaction to the goddamn gator sneak attack. How they manage to out-swim it is lucky, as is the fact that it doesn’t keep chasing them on land. Whether it does or not, I’d think twice about just lying there on the bank and getting nakeder, but Hap doesn’t. And more to the point, Trudy doesn’t. There’s no mistaking her sincerity here. She’s not trying to manipulate Hap. She’s just been through a frightening experience with an ex, like, say, being mugged on the street in 1965 Manhattan, and she wants to feel okay. Maybe this is an indication of her feelings for Hap in general. Maybe she really does love him. Afterward they lie there in each other’s arms on the riverbank. No Howard, no alligator, just the license plate off a treasure chest.
- “The Bottoms” is written by Nick Damici and Jim Mickle and directed by Jim Mickle.
- Hap wakes up in his truck in front of the Marvel Creek sign. He gets out to pee and winds up spraying a raccoon corpse. This show really knows how to let loose.
- Chub goes for a walk with Leonard. “So Trudy says you’re a gay. What’s that like?”
- Well, it’s not too bad. Leonard’s ex Raoul (Enrique Murciano), a nurse back in Laborde, comes back into his life when Leonard’s uncle has a heart attack. It’s another case of the episode making impressions (that awkward re-encounter, the chit-chat, the glimpse of sex), and in this case they’re awfully enticing in that noirish, blast from the past kind of way (not that I suspect there’s anything ulterior about Raoul’s return). I look forward to seeing more of them together.
- Paco: “Only hurts when I smile”
- When the guys get back, Chub’s still pantsless, so he races off to shower. I’m gonna hose off my coin purse.” Leonard tells Hap, “Surprisingly big dick.”
- Howard: “I’d hate to see you let her down. She thinks so highly of you.” Hap: “Trudy’s taste in men has always been questionable.”
- Two lovely, revealing interactions in a row: Trudy offering her sympathies to Leonard, and then saying to him about Hap, “Sweet, actually, the way you pretend he needs you.” Then Hap comes out and hugs his buddy and tells him they’re still in this 50/50, whether Leonard’s there or not. I’m not sure she has them as figured out as she thinks.