Even before the titular chase begins, Manhunt: Deadly Games is a show out of time. The complete second season of this Spectrum Original (by way of Discovery) is already available for binge-watching to Charter Communications subscribers, with a second, more widely accessible viewing window to be announced. But with its measured approach and mid-tier production levels, Deadly Games is more of a throwback to history-steeped miniseries like HBO’s John Adams than a bold mission statement for a programming upstart like Spectrum.
More fastidious in its storytelling than Waco, another recent retelling of tragic real-life events, Manhunt: Deadly Games is also slower and less immediately gripping than that Paramount Network limited series (which was that network’s first new offering). In these days of endless content, it seems counterintuitive not to demand to see all of a season or show at once. But as this second season of Manhunt ambles toward its muted conclusion, making solid points about government overreach and overzealous media coverage, it’s hard not to want to take a more patient approach to viewing it. Deadly Games is a deeply compassionate show, but not one that audiences are likely to burn through.
That would be the case even if Clint Eastwood hadn’t recently given the sad story of Richard Jewell his own folksy, big-screen treatment. Executive producers Andrew Sodroski and Michael Dinner share a similar ethos, preferring substance to flash for most of Deadly Games’ storylines. No assumptions are made about the viewer’s level of familiarity with the events that inspired the series: The 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing and subsequent investigation and vilification of Richard Jewell (Cameron Britton) are all recreated from beginning to end. The premiere, written and directed by Sodroski and Dinner, respectively, walks us through the morning of the bombing, right up to the moment when the narrative around Jewell shifts from hero to “hero bomber.” But where Eastwood’s film resides mostly in Jewell’s point of view, Deadly Games intertwines the FBI’s pursuit of the real perpetrator, Eric Rudolph, played here with steely-eyed elan by Boardwalk Empire’s Jack Huston.
Using Maryanne Vollers’ book on the serial bomber, Deadly Games sets up a dichotomy between Richard, a flawed man who nevertheless acts in the interests of others, and Eric, who was so morally adrift that he co-opted bigoted ideology just to have a place on which to stand. The show introduces additional primary and secondary viewpoints, including that of journalist Kathy Scruggs (Carla Gugino) and her seemingly reckless reportage, as well as Jack Brennan (Game Of Thrones’ Gethin Anthony), who, like Arliss Howard’s Earl Embry, is an amalgam of law enforcement and government agency officers who investigated Rudolph’s series of bombings. Richard’s mother Bobi Jewell commands plenty of attention as well, and not just because she’s played by Judith Light. As Brennan’s second in command Stacey Knox, Limetown’s Kelly Jenrette brings a little personality to the bureau. Jay O. Sanders attempts to shield Richard from attacks as Watson Bryant, a family friend and real estate lawyer shrewd enough to make FOIA requests.
Ten hours sounds like barely enough time to cover all that ground, but Deadly Games still suffers from breaks in action. After setting up Richard’s tragic fall from hero security guard to FBI suspect, Deadly Games waits until episode three to introduce Eric, the man behind the bombings. The time spent with Richard isn’t wasted; Britton uses his size and assumptions about it to turn in another revelatory performance. As Richard, he shrinks from criticism and confrontation, a seemingly impossible task for someone who’s 6'5" in real life. Richard is put-upon but not morose; naive, but no stranger to disappointment. It makes his journey all the more heartbreaking. Eric’s story, meanwhile, is like a distorted mirror image of Richard’s—he becomes a kind of folk hero to anti-government militia men and other residents of North Carolina precisely because of the bombings, which grew more sophisticated and took on more political targets. Huston has Eric revel in his ersatz celebrity, scavenging and swaggering around the woods he remembers from childhood.
Deadly Games would be a solid watch if it devoted itself to just Richard and Eric’s inversely proportional trajectories, though that would also require cutting the episode count in half. But Sodroski and Dinner rightly recognize that Kathy Scruggs’ story also needs to be told, so we see her wrestle with substance abuse, being a woman in a predominantly male field, and what turns out to be only superficial confidence in her journalistic instincts. Gugino makes the best use of costuming, evoking both a fading beauty queen and hungry, stymied reporter. As for the reputation-ruining elephant in the room, Sodroski and Dinner said ahead of the premiere that they were invested in doing right by Scruggs; not by whitewashing any human errors, but by providing a look into her family and her past.
It’s up to the viewer whether or not they avoid making the same implications about Scruggs as Eastwood’s film, but Deadly Games certainly tries to provide as detailed a portrait for all of its characters as possible. That can cause the series to drag at times, especially when dropping in on the parallel investigations led by Brennan and Embry. Arliss Howard fares better with his “redneck bomb Yoda” role than Anthony, who seems intent on playing Brennan as a humorless, stock G-man. Embry also symbolizes the third part of the triptych at the core of the show, that there are three sides to a story: two individual perspectives and the truth. The down-to-earth ATF agent occasionally speaks in silly clichés about “letting the bomb talk to you,” but he’s supposed to be a man without an agenda, which Deadly Games clearly appreciates.
But while gorgons are invoked and the labels are thrown around, this isn’t a story of a hero and a villain, nor even of good versus evil. Deadly Games works its way up and down the bureaucratic ladder to point out just how many things had to go wrong (and in some cases, technically right) for Richard’s trial by public opinion to ensue. Instead of finding people to blame, accountability is sought. Sodroski and Dinner’s conscientiousness produces the kind of episodes that viewers should have to sit with before moving on to the next one, in part because they challenge expectations of what comes next—if only they had the time.