Set in Buell, a small Pennsylvania town devastated by the collapse of the steel industry, the first episode of American Rust was full of good people making bad choices. Whether they were coloured by addiction, unemployment, or past traumas, the lives of Buell’s locals moved (surprisingly) slowly – or at least, the show’s pacing made it feel that way.
Yet, in snatched moments played masterfully, American Rust found flashes of brilliance.
We met police chief Del Harris (Jeff Daniels) taking his morning meds, crushing pills before weighing them carefully and mixing them with coffee. Del was in the process of weaning himself off this cocktail, calibrated to medicate PTSD resulting from a military past; in the present, he was settling into life in Buell where he had fallen in love with local seamstress Grace Poe (Maura Tierney).
Their nascent affair went some way towards explaining Del’s ostensibly helpful behaviour (like turning a blind eye to foul play at an auction, thereby allowing Grace to keep her repossessed home) – but when Grace’s wayward son Billy (Alex Neustaedter) was linked to a murder, Del found himself tampering with evidence and in over his head.
Increasingly, his decisions to intervene in Grace’s life began to seem less than altruistic; Daniels’s performance pivoted on tight-lipped stoicism, expertly deployed to allow glimpses behind the mask.
Grace wasn’t the only person in Buell who was in need of a helping hand; as the episode cut backwards and forwards in time, Billy’s troubled friend Isaac (David Alvarez) made a desperate bid to escape small-town life even as Billy opted to forego freedom in the form of a football scholarship.
Meanwhile, intergenerational friction and grinding anti-glamour kept the episode’s head above water (as Billy did Isaac’s – just about).
Teetering on a knife-edge between inch-along pacing and a prestigious slow-burn, this pilot episode introduced a sprawling array of themes, characters and storylines. As such, big narrative promises have been made – the question is, can the series make good on them as it continues?
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