Premiering September 9 at 10pm ET on Cinemax, Quarry tells the story of Mac Conway, a Vietnam veteran who returns home from the dwindling war to Memphis alongside his friend and fellow soldier, Arthur Solomon. Although cleared of any wrongdoing for seemingly having taken part in a civilian massacre, both remain accused in the court of public opinion, and consequently they struggle to find work and to reconnect with their families. As a black man, Arthur faces the additional employment barrier of deeply entrenched prejudice; after being relegated to a menial factory job, he eventually accepts an offer from a mysterious character known only as “The Broker” to become a paid assassin (an offer Mac had previously rejected). Similarly unable to find meaningful work and unwilling to let his friend take on the dangerous mission alone, Mac reluctantly joins Arthur on the first assignment.
At first impression, Quarry readily merits comparisons to AMC’s period drama Mad Men and its neo-noir hit Breaking Bad. Like the former, Quarry is a detailed period piece which articulately recreates the social and political angst of 1972 with skillful callouts to real events such as the Munich massacre weighing on characters’ minds. Like Breaking Bad, the series follows a man with a debt to pay and a set of skills that best lend to criminal enterprises, but, except for these thematic crossovers and the overall caliber of the actors’ performances, the similarities between narratives might end there.
Without giving too much away, in episode four something so unexpected occurs that it sets Quarry apart from its predecessors. It becomes apparent how a string of television’s finest shows beginning with The Sopranos and ending with Breaking Bad has conditioned audience expectations of Golden Age antiheroes, but Quarry adds a complicated new wrinkle which has not played out onscreen before. Mac Conway—the quiet assassin given the titular codename “Quarry” by the Broker—is unlike any character on television today, and one disconcertingly simple decision will doubtlessly wreak devastating consequences across later episodes.
There is so much to be optimistic about for the remainder of the season, even if it takes an episode or two to adjust to the show’s alternately slow-burning and explosive method of storytelling. Quarry is neither a rapid and splattery pulp series nor a drawling, O’Connor-esque Southern Gothic, but it draws visibly from both genres. Keeping with the show’s hyperreal style, brief stretches of relative quiet are interrupted by a sudden gunshot or an outburst of frustration, and characters scramble in response to rapidly changing circumstances beyond their control. These fully-realized main and secondary characters add to the sense of inevitable surprise, as every independent player seems capable of completely rerouting the plot at any moment.
It’s still too early to know whether Quarry will rival Breaking Bad and Mad Men in ratings and awards, or, like SundanceTV’s Rectify, reap critical praise without ever finding the mainstream following it deserves. Either way, acclaim seems all but guaranteed. With this most recent addition to a programming library that includes such hits as The Knick and Outcast, it’s certain at least that Cinemax is a major contender in the field of prestige drama.