Warning: Spoilers ahead for “Snap, Crackle, Pop,” last night's episode of Briarpatch.
Over the course of its first two episodes, USA’s Briarpatch has made the structure of its narrative clear. Like most murder-mysteries, the series follows its protagonist — in this case, Rosario Dawson’s Allegra “Pickle” Dill — as she interviews anyone and everyone who might know something about her sister's murder.
In Briarpatch’s central Texas town, that means Allegra spends a lot of time talking to some rather odd characters. Speaking with Primetimer's Aaron Barnhart, series creator Andy Greenwald joked that an alternate title for the show could be Rosario Dawson Talks to Weirdos.
Many shows wouldn't have a deep enough bench to sustain this kind of “different-oddity-around-every-corner” form of storytelling, and if that were the case with Briarpatch, its structure would already have grown repetitive and boring.
Fortunately, Briarpatch has more than enough up its sleeve to keep the momentum going, and sprinkled in between Allegra’s many interviews and chance encounters are a few visually memorable stylistic flourishes. Some notable examples include a tiger feasting on a rotting steak in a ninth floor hotel hallway, repeated dissolves to a burning photo of Allegra’s sister, and a deserted hallway filled with party decorations — a moment that feels strangely reminiscent of The Shining.
However, of the many “weird” moments in Briarpatch’s first two installments, none come close to the vibrant and frenetic musical number that ended last night's second episode. We are, of course, talking about the moment when Jay R. Ferguson’s shady, retired arms dealer, Jake Spivey, dances through his neon-lit mansion to the beat of “High Pressure Days” by The Units.
It’s an entirely unexpected moment, one that recalls some of the notable dance sequences from FX’s Legion and even Oscar Isaac’s iconic disco number from Ex Machina. But as with that latter example, Ferguson’s dance number doesn’t work just because it's weird and delightful — although it's definitely both of those things — but because of what goes unsaid in the sequence. Briarpatch doesn’t just use the moment to show off Ferguson’s moves, but to further illustrate how different Spivey is from the rest of the characters in the show.
Briarpatch spends most of its first two installments setting up the town’s characters and their possible connections to the death of Allegra’s sister. But thus far, none of Allegra’s conversations with the townspeople have been as entertaining as her encounters with Ferguson’s Jake Spivey.
A character that Allegra knew growing up, we quickly learn that Jake has risen from childhood poverty to a life of abundant wealth. And as the show quickly makes clear, Jake attained that wealth through morally dubious means.
Unlike most of the characters in the show, Jake makes it abundantly clear that he has no interest in giving Allegra any of the answers she’s looking for — no matter how bluntly she asks for them. In their first conversation, Allegra attempts to depose Jake for a case her senator boss is building against one of his dangerous, former business associates (Alan Cummings’ yet-to-appear Clyde Brattle).
For Jake, cooperating with Allegra’s questioning would mean admitting to certain illegal activities he and Brattle might have have been involved with in the past. So Jake not only refuses to divulge many details about his arms dealing antics, but instead spends most of the conversation recalling the good ole days he and Allegra shared together. In the second episode, Jake again plays the nostalgia card, offering up little actual information along the way.
While this kind of slippery character could be grating under different circumstances, Ferguson’s confident, scene-chewing performance has made Jake one of Briarpatch’s absolute highlights. His chemistry with Dawson is palpable, and watching the two characters spar has been a pleasure.
But then, in the final minutes of the second episode, we get our first hint of exactly what game Jake may be playing.
Upon acknowledging that he may be the one person who knows her best, and therefore realizing how upset she'd be to see him end up dead, Allegra decides to call Jake and warn him that Clyde Brattle has escaped from Mexico City and may be heading his way. For a moment, it seems Allegra’s warning might get Jake to finally give her something of legitimate worth in return. Instead, the call ends, Jake turns to the woman in his room, and says, “It’s working.”
It seems safe to assume that by “it,” Jake is referring to using his relationship with Allegra to get information out of her. For now, we’ll have to wait to see if that’s correct, but what we don’t have to wait for is to see just how Jake feels about his current situation. Because rather than worrying about the possible danger he’s in, or wrestling with the secrets he might be hiding, he goes to his record player, puts on “High Pressure Days,” and starts to dance wildly through his mansion while high on cocaine.
As he dances, Briarpatch shows us what many of the show’s other characters are all up to at that exact moment. A.D. Singe (Edi Gathegi) is admiring the retainer fee he’s just received from Allegra for his legal services, Gene Colder (Brian Geraghty) is burying his wife’s dead cat, Freddie Laffter (John Aylward) is drinking in a dive bar while jotting down notes for his next newspiece, Yvette Strucker (Connie Jackson) is standing by her husband’s bedside — waiting nervously for him to wake up, and Cindy McCabe (Allegra Edwards) is broadcasting a live cam show of herself on the internet, soaking in the attention she receives from those watching.
For a show that is so much about its conversations, Spivey’s dance is completely dialogue-free. Directed by Steven Piet (The Act), the sequence is pure visual storytelling — communicated through movement, acting, editing, and music. For most people in town, living is about struggling to make it through the daily ugliness of their lives and making sure their most damaging secrets don’t get out. For Allegra Dill, it’s about moving through the shadows and trying not to get killed every time she turns a corner or opens a door. But Jake doesn’t have to worry about any of that. He’s living the high life, totally on top of the world.
The show doesn’t give us a moment to recover from the ecstatic energy of Jake’s dance before hitting us with its final moment either, when Allegra enters her hotel room and is choked out by a shadowy intruder. The last image the episode leaves us with is of Allegra on the floor, unconscious. Meanwhile, across town, there's Ferguson’s Spivey, still dancing.
Briarpatch airs new episodes every Thursday through April on USA.
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Alex Welch has written about television and film for TV by the Numbers, IGN, The Berrics, Paste Magazine, Screen Rant and GeekNation. Follow him on Twitter @alexrwelch.