Previously, on Quarry: “Seldom Realized”
Quarry S1E5 “Coffee Blues” | Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Jodi Balfour, Peter Mullan, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Damon Herriman, Edoardo Ballerini, Chloe Elise, Josh Randall, Happy Anderson | Written by: Jennifer Schuur | Directed by: Greg Yaitanes
After our brief vacation stay in Arkansas where Mac and Joni’s relationship got its groove back, this episode returns us to the city of Memphis where we begin to see the forced bridging of a divide just may not be for the best.
To fully appreciate the events taking place in this episode, you first have to understand a little Memphis history. By the onset of the American Civil War, Memphis, Tennessee, had become one of the largest slave trading centers in the Confederate States of America. Shortly into that war, the city was taken by Union forces and thus became a refuge for slaves fleeing from all over the area. The war ended and slavery was abolished. Sounds great, right? Well, yes, but no.
The remnants of Memphis’ slavery-ridden history persisted well beyond the war because, you know, it’s a part of the United States which, as a whole, has had its slavery-ridden history persist like the herpes of systemic problems. Sticking just to Memphis, though–and, perhaps more importantly, this television show–the city is still very much beholden to its past today, let alone in the setting of 1972 we see here.
All of that history is present, felt, and taken head-on in “Coffee Blues”. From its use of actual slave cabins which are still standing today, to the desegregation of schools, this episode deftly draws direct lines between two eras in American history where we tried desperately to rid ourselves of racism and the practitioners of its evil, while reflecting our failure and continued struggle to do the same today. Over 200 years of American history, and we are still dealing with the same ignorant motherfuckers.
This episode isn’t just a commentary on systemic racism and its unfortunate persistence–although, if it were, that would be fine; shit, we need all of that we can get–it also manages to use that commentary to further its plot because Jennifer Schuur is a pretty darn good writer (also having previously worked on Hannibal, among several other things).
Much of this episode centers on desegregation busing, which began after Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in 1971. If you are unaware, desegregation busing was a well-intended attempt to integrate schools in the United States; students in black neighborhoods were bused to schools in white neighborhoods. The pros and cons of this approach have been discussed for the 40-plus years since, and the argument continues over whether or not it was a successful program. I will let you seek those conversations out for yourself, but I will say the events of this episode do put forth a clear representation of why it was not a good idea to use schoolchildren as a human lance to poke directly into the acidic boil that was/is white racism.
How does that further the plot? Well, it would seem to be a potential metaphor for Mac and Joni’s attempt at reconciliation. Now that Joni knows the truth about Mac’s involvement with The Broker, the two of them are entangled together in the same web of murder and deception. That would be fine (relatively), if they didn’t seem to have different feelings on the matter. You see, Joni wants Mac out as quickly as possible, while killing as few people as possible. Seems reasonable enough, and Mac acts as if he wants that, too; maybe part of him does really want it, but he is also visibly growing more receptive of his new life. This is shown in this episode as Mac ends up spending some recreational time with The Broker and actually allows himself to be influenced, if only in the small gesture of how he takes his coffee, by The Broker’s almost fatherly charm. These charms conveniently come right as Mac’s actual father is distancing himself from his son. While Mac begins to accept his role and excel in it, will Joni still want to stay by his side, or will she flee? I guess we’ll see.
As always, music plays a large part in this episode (it is called “Coffee Blues”, after all). This week, Chris Thomas King (whom you may recognize from O Brother Where Art Thou?) sits in to play parts of four of his own songs (“Red Mud“, “Judge Harsh Blues“, “Soon This Morning Blues“, and “John Law Burned Down the Liquor Sto“). I’ve mentioned my admiration of how this show uses music in every review I’ve written of its episodes, but this one elevates my feelings to love. To this point in the series, the music has largely been representative of the Memphis soul of the 1960s and ’70s, which makes sense for multiple reasons (namely the time period and David Porter serving as music consultant), but the music here is blues. It’s not necessarily Memphis blues because King is a New Orleans blues musician (and it’s also the first time the series has used music that is not from its era), but that’s kind of the point.
Just as the horrible parts of Memphis’ history are stripped bare and shown for the ugliness they are, the soul music we’ve heard to this point is stripped to its roots and shown for the beautiful evolution of blues that it is. I don’t know if this was intentional, but enough good things have happened with this series that I am wont to assume nothing happens accidentally: it just makes so much sense to tackle the issues of segregation and busing in the same episode where you highlight a seminal form of American music that saw its influence spread from the American south into the rest of the country largely as a result of what is termed “The Great Migration” where African-Americans left the Jim Crow south and took their music with them, therefore simultaneously demonstrating the negative impact of persistent racism and the positive impact of human perseverance in the face of it.
“Coffee Blues” consists of layer-upon-layer of context and subtext that are so intimately entwined, it’s hard to believe any part of it has happened by chance. Everything here is working together to respectfully address the timely issues of 1972 that still plague us today, while splicing in the story of Mac, his wife, and his new life as Quarry.