The History cable channel pulled off a terrific feat this week, airing the most massive, highest-rated miniseries in basic-cable history, HATFIELDS & MCCOYS. And it was a damn fine, mighty entertaining three night, six-hour production that made history seem stranger than fiction. For instance, I had no idea so much of the Hatfield/McCoy feud was tied up in state’s rights issues!
The feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys is one of those American stories that has become almost mythical; it’s a shorthand for two groups who don’t like each other so much it practically reaches a molecular level (think Yankees vs. Red Sox), so perhaps the greatest feat of this miniseries was to bring the story back down to Earth and make the McCoys and Hatfields human beings. But the rivalry loses none of its brobdagnigian proportions; in fact, the truth makes the battle somehow even huger, because it really happened.
This series showed us how events snowballed out of control to become a serious blood feud by bringing us back to the beginning, to the U.S. Civil War – what the South would call “The War of Northern Aggression.” William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield (Kevin Costner) was serving in the same unit as Randolph McCoy (Bill Paxton), which was about to be overrun when Hatfield decided there was no point to getting killed in a hopeless war and deserted over the protestations of McCoy. Hatfield returned home, and McCoy served out the rest of the war in a Union prison camp in Ohio.
When McCoy returned home, things just got worse from there, with accusations of pig-rustling, real and imagined slights, Hatfields romancing McCoys and cousins backstabbing cousins, tangled with political corruption and legal maneuverings to mix up a stew of hatred, and once the killing started (Anse’s uncle, Jim Vance, killed Asa Harmon McCoy for joining the Union Army), there was no turning back.
Watching the series, one could feel the weight of history practically pressing down on the clans, forcing them to kill each other in vain attempts to satisfy a blood debt that only continued to increase. No matter how many McCoys were murdered, there were always more cousins around to execute seemingly endless Hatfield kin. The Hatfields lived in West Virginia, and the McCoys were just across the Tug River in Kentucky, so each foray into the others’ territory involved crossing state lines, resulting in issues of legal authority and state sovereignty. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually got involved (Mahon v. Justice, 1888).
I’ll admit that there were so many characters that it was hard to keep track of who was a Hatfield and who was a McCoy, but it didn’t really matter, because the feud so large that transcended individual characters. And so much blood was spilled on both sides that it seemed inevitable that both clans would be nearly wiped out.
H&M is the best thing Kevin Reynolds has ever directed – which is the dictionary definition of “damning with faint praise” (this is the guy who directed Waterworld and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). The pacing worked well for a production spread over three nights, and he allowed enough time for characterization to let the audience care about who’s shooting whom.
This production was no small affair, and not just in scope; the cast was amazing, and included such talents as Tom Berenger (Inception), Powers Boothe, Jena Malone (Sucker Punch), Lindsay Pulsipher (TRUE BLOOD) and Mare Winningham. This miniseries will no doubt garner armloads of Emmy nominations, and for my money Malone should get a supporting actress nod for her performance as the calculating Nancy McCoy, who cleverly ingratiated herself with inveterate ladies’ man Johnse Hatfield (Matt Bahr) and used her position to feed intel to her family. Then, when the wind changed, she hooked up with bounty hunter “Bad Frank” Phillips (who cashed in on the bounties associated with the feud) to stay alive. Winningham was also a standout who got to run through a gamut of emotions. Costner hasn’t been this entertaining in years, and this was Paxton’s best role since the legendary Hudson in Aliens.
Of course the miniseries took liberties with the actual facts for dramatic purposes – for instance, Asa McCoy was not killed in a shack, he was shot in a cave to which he fled after being threatened by Vance, and Cottontop’s hanging was attended by thousands of curious Kentucky citizens – but overall, the series was historically accurate. And, certainly, the dialogue was made up, but that sort of thing is to expected and did not ruin the enjoyment for me.
HATFIELDS & MCCOYS showed us that the story was so much more than the stereotype of barefoot hillbillies sucking on moonshine and shooting rifles in the air; it was bloody serious business. If all history were as painless to learn as this History production, today’s kids would be a lot better educated.