American Rust, Showtime TV's 9-episode adaptation of Philipp Meyer's 2009 novel of the same name, has come to its grim - and unsettled - conclusion. It is a murder mystery, which always from the outset aimed to be something more than that, especially since, as a murder mystery, it suffered from the fact that the likely killer was always fairly obvious, while the victim was utterly unsympathetic. In some ways, the murder investigation was almost a distraction from the larger, more interesting portrayal of a troubled town in post-industrial decline and the as terribly troubled lives of its characters, who generally seem to manage to make their lives even worse to the extent possible. One reviewer (Zach Handlen) has written: "American Rust likely has a story worth telling, and a setting worth exploring, but this version fails to make much of a case for either." Having stuck with it faithfully for all nine episodes, I can see his point, but I still think the series has more going for it than such reviews are willing to concede.
Set in a dramatically decaying, terminally ill, "rust belt" town in a naturally beautiful, but heavily drug-dependent and socially stressed corner of Pennsylvania, American Rust poignantly illustrates the crises of post-industrial society, both social and cultural (as in widespread family dysfunction) and economic (as in unemployment and underemployment), a left-behind world of lost and unfulfilled lives.
As I observed back in September, American Rust will inevitably be compared to HBO's super-successful Mare of Easttown, which was also set in a similar post-industrial dystopia. This is indeed, as I said then, apparently the right time - socially and politically - for shows of this sort. Mare Sheehan's world, however, while also riddled with substance abuse and family dysfunction, somehow had more social stability, and so, while saddled with similar problems, somehow seemed less hopeless.
In American Rust's Buell, as in Mare's Easttown, people's relationships, mutual support, and commitment to community managed to mitigate some of the constant trauma, which is why I think it is wrong to fault either series for highlighting such side stories. Even in the middle of a murder investigation (or an opioid epidemic), people remain more than just their problems, and how they cope and how they support one another remains an important part of their story. In this regard, however, the social support systems of family and community are even weaker in Buell than they were in Easttown. Notably, while communal religion remained a real presence in Mare's world - albeit maybe more in the sense of belonging than believing - in Buell religion is effectively absent, even if there are crucifixes in homes and everybody at least seems to have heard of Jesus. The contrast between Buell's empty, apparently abandoned church building and Easttown's well attended church is not insignificant.
The other major social institution at the heart of both stories is law enforcement and the justice system. While both Mare herself and her colleague Colin were at times imperfect law officers, they transcended their personal flaws and ultimately served the ends of justice, however tragic the consequence of pursuing justice all the way turned out to be for both of them. In American Rust's Buell, even the justice system is also a failure (not to mention the only other seemingly stable institution in that community, the local pharmacy). As for repentance, there have been some subtle signs along the way for two of the characters, especially in the later episodes. But in such an unforgiving environment, repentance means self annihilation in one case, and apparent but incomplete absolution in another.
In Mare, the final, shocking revelation of the killer's identity came as a final crushing blow. In American Rust there is no comparable surprise, just a cascade of continuing, numbingly tragic behaviors. So our response is more muted, as we contemplate the multitude of ways the various characters could have avoided some of the harmful outcomes their ill-considered and impulsive actions have led them to. For, along with the destructive socio-economic-cultural context in which they are largely trapped, the characters themselves are trapped in webs of their own spinning because of ill-considered past mistakes and failures to check their own emotional responses.
The characters are well drawn, their sorrows are stirring, but we leave them stuck in the tragedy they were both born into and have all contributed to, leaving them perhaps worse off than when we first found them.
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