The Red Road, or “Chanku Luta,” is a (mostly) Lakota belief in a “right path”—a kind of code of conduct that’s difficult to define, let alone adhere to. Its purported to have lent its name to The Red Road, a SundanceTV drama created by writer/executive producer Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners) that aims to dramatize the twists and turns, but leaves its audience pondering the road not taken.
The series focuses on two men, Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson) and Phillip Kopus (Jason Momoa), and quickly establishes who has been on the straight and narrow, and who has, well, not. Harold is a police officer, husband, and father of two, while Phillip is an ex-con and prodigal son who’s just returned to their hometown, from which he was exiled as a teen. That town is the fictional Walpole, NJ, which straddles New York and New Jersey, and has a population split along class and race lines. The “haves” are, reliably enough, white Americans (please pardon my shorthand or lack of more academic terms), and the “have-nots” are the Ramapough Lenape, a real-life Native American tribe whose lack of federal recognition is integral to the plot.
This divide is magnified by the police response to two tragedies: a large manhunt kicks off when a white NYU student goes missing in the woods, but when a Native boy is badly injured in a hit-and-run in the same woods, the Lenape must mobilize to demand a proper investigation of the incident. Harold is at the center of both cases, but ends up on the wrong side of the law—and at Phillip’s mercy—after covering up a family member’s involvement in the hit-and-run.
Harold and Phillip then square off as adversaries, while simultaneously working together to protect that family member—Jean Jensen (Julianne Nicholson), who is Harold’s wife, and Phillip’s ex-girlfriend. In the midst of all the secondary storylines, we witness several turning points in the men’s lives, both past and present. We see how Harold’s actions have both protected and hurt his family, and how Phillip’s current circumstances are not entirely of his own making.
The supporting cast, which includes Tamara Tunie and Tom Sizemore, is great and has plenty to do, but the Harold-Phillip standoff/dichotomy is clearly at the heart of the show. Henderson is better here than in anything I’ve ever seen him in before (which, admittedly, is just The Ring and a Britney Spears video), but Momoa (Conan the Barbarian, and freaking Game of Thrones) is the standout. The show suffers when Henderson is asked to do the dramatic heavy lifting, because he often just looks panicked, and the Harold character is mostly one-dimensional. But as Phillip, Momoa manages to be engaging, intimidating, and pitiable, often in the same episode.
The six-episode season has aired in its entirety, but SundanceTV has yet to announce its renewal. The show’s creator has said that although he has plenty more story to tell, he is also confident that he tied up any loose ends with the season finale. Here’s hoping the show, and Phillip Kopus, get a second chance.