American Rust Season 1 Episode 1 Review: The Mill

Spoilers

Chief Del Harris makes a decision on American Rust Season 1 Episode 1 that might be the end of him.

That’s a large assumption, but as a man struggling with PTSD after spending time in the military, Del was already hanging on by a thread.

So many factors are at play here that it seems to be creating a perfect storm, and Chief Del Harris could be its victim.

There aren’t many options for advancement or a large dating pool in Buell, but that didn’t stop Del from relocating from Pittsburgh to the small, rural rust-belt town.

He’s weaning off of his cache of carefully weighed prescriptions meds. He’s got his eye on a local, Grace Poe. He might not have known what he was getting into moving to Buell, but he seems to be fitting in pretty well.

But as with many small towns in southwestern Pennsylvania that once relied on the steel industry, the economic situation in Buell is dire. Unfortunately, good people make poor decisions when circumstances are out of their control.

Del finds himself in the middle of a situation with Grace when her son, Billy, gets into trouble. The first incident that Billy gets involved in was self-defense.

It was plain as day that the kid on the ground was going to keep getting on his knees, knife in hand, as long as he remained conscious. The last thing he needed was to look bad in front of his friends, and there were plenty of them around.

Billy pleaded with that kid not to start something. The kid not only didn’t listen but first started touching Billy’s face before getting a knife from one of his buddies and striking the first blow, cutting Billy in the abdomen.

You’d that would be enough for Billy to walk. It wasn’t. But Del understood the circumstances. A video of the event was helpful, but Del still questioned hitting a man when he was down.

If you read my early review of American Rust, you know that I know this area as a southwestern Pennsylvania resident. I know these people. It’s portrayed carefully and with accuracy. Thank goodness showrunner Dan Futterman is a fan.

When your economic existence is stripped away, your decision-making process falters. But what Del recognized in Billy (and the kid on the ground whether Del realized it or not) was indicative of young men everywhere, in his opinion.

Del: You’re a fuckin’ moron, you know that? There are times you need to walk away.
Billy: I did walk away.
Del: You didn’t do a very good job.

It’s a scene portrayed with the same care that Futterman sets the stage for American Rust.

Jeff Daniels delivers Del’s words in such a way that you can’t deny the effect he’s describing, of men, and young men, in particular (and all people if you ask me) who get lost once they’re put on the defensive.

The instinct is to make sure the threat is gone. My sister was an FBI agent, and she said that in her training, they used to role-play those situations and then ask them later how many shots they believe they fired. She said it was always well above their recollection.

You cannot fight instincts, and our human instinct is to defend ourselves and survive.

So, Billy found himself in that situation, and Del reacted appropriately.

But the timing couldn’t have been worse. Del had carefully planned a date with Grace, right down to the French champagne. They were moments away from consummating their relationship when Del got the call about Billy.

His affiliation with Grace likely played a role in how Del handled the situation, but it seemed like a good call. After Billy got probation, though, he second-guessed himself when he hoped to celebrate the long day with Grace and found Virgil already taking care of that.

You got a lot to celebrate. Your son’s gonna avoid jail time, even though he beat a kid with a two-by-four. Even though he clubbed him in the skull when he was down on his knees. That boy of yours got off with probation. Lot to celebrate.

Del

So much fed into Billy’s situation in the parking lot. They were facing eviction. He discovered his former girlfriend and best friend’s sister had gotten married. And Issac thought it was a good idea to test the waters of his mother’s possible murder — literally.

Grace has a lot on her plate, too. She toils away at a repetitive job that is stressful on her body. She just wanted a hot shower. When she arrived home to a warm home and running shower, her reaction found her taking out her frustrations on Billy.

Six months earlier, the perfect storm. And now, six months later, we find that happening again.

Everything that happened the first time Billy got into trouble fed into the moment Del hid evidence in a murder, including Billy’s letterman’s jacket. We know Billy and Isaac went into the mill after Novick, but we don’t know how Novick died or why Billy left his jacket behind.

When Del talked with the judge after Billy’s first incident, the judge reminded Del he was wading into a potentially dangerous situation, warning him that before you know it, you’re in over your head.

He didn’t take his advice to heart. Add that Del is tapering off his drugs and at the point in that process that will cause agitation, and it’s worrisome.

American Rust will take all of the characters we’ve met on the premiere and explain what happened to Novick, sure, but it will also reveal why it’s so easy to choose the wrong path when it seems all other paths have been blocked.

I hope you’ll follow along because, in my estimation, the story flourishes as it continues.

You’ll grow close to the characters and will ache for their circumstances. You’ll also better understand that just because something looks dire from the outside doesn’t mean that life itself is hell.

It’s a part of America very often left out of entertainment, and in that case, American Rust has a big job ahead of it. I think it will measure up.

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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