Photo: Apple TV+
“Riot quiet…” So says the singsong voice of maybe-a-serial-killer Larry Hall, as overheard by his newfound friend Jimmy Keene. It’s easy for him to overhear precisely because Larry’s statement is accurate. It’s grown quiet, too quiet, in the prison they share, and that kind of quiet is often a precursor to violence; hence the “riot quiet” sobriquet.
When it comes, the riot is sudden, chaotic, and widespread. Guards are beaten down, perhaps to death. Snitches and other unpopular inmates are stabbed with forks and have their throats slit with knives. The mess hall, in particular, is the home of what can best be described as a cross between the food fight from Animal House and the work of Hieronymus Bosch. The whole thing is reminiscent of the similarly horrifying if far more phantasmagorical prison riot in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, which has aged depressingly well.
Both Jimmy and Larry escape unscathed and are tasked with helping to clean up the cafeteria, a task Larry is put in charge of thanks to his extensive experience as a custodian in the past. And this is when the riot becomes a blessing in disguise for Jimmy. Until this point, his interactions with Larry have either been frustratingly brief or just plain frustrating, as earlier in the episode when Larry becomes paranoid about Jimmy for no apparent reason. (Jimmy has been snooping through Larry’s cell and did find a cache of drawings of mutilated women straight out of Patrick Bateman’s day planner, but of course Larry has no way of knowing this.)
Now, with nothing but a hard day’s work ahead of them and some conversation to pass the time, Jimmy can finally really get to know his quarry and open up to him in ways that build trust, even if they’re painful for Jimmy in the process. It turns out that both men come from very different abusive households.
Larry’s gravedigger father would force him to get up in the middle of the night and dig up the recently buried dead to loot them for valuables, even ordering him to clip off fingers to get at wedding bands that won’t slide off. (The finger Larry chops off is his first experience with keeping a grim souvenir from a corpse.) Larry talks about this like it’s no big deal, but in flashbacks, we see him sobbing through much of the work, doled out as punishment for bedwetting .
Jimmy’s story is less bizarre but no less painful. He idealized his dad, Big Jim, and treasured their time playing catch — genuinely happy memories for Jimmy. But Big Jim was largely an absentee father, out for days at a time; he resented his bar-owner wife for her flirtatious nature and general failure to be a dutiful housewife. In time, they separated, and she hooked up with a guy who beat her and both her sons. Jimmy tells Larry how one night he tried to challenge his stepdad after he took a swing at his mom’s face; the guy broke three of Jimmy’s ribs, then had sex with his mom within earshot of the battered teen.
At times, the rambling conversation between Jimmy and Larry takes on a sort of gallows humor, as when Larry suggests that if he had a pet, he wouldn’t mind eating it, since meat is meat. “Have you? Eaten your dog?” Jimmy asks with genuine, if morbid, curiosity. (The answer, for the record, is no, but mostly because Larry’s awful father wouldn’t let him have any pets.)
The moments of pathos, too, extend beyond their mutual background of abuse. At one point, Jimmy wows Larry with the story of how he was a star football player. “Sometimes you remind me so much of Gary my gums ache,” Larry says of his handsome and confident brother. “You both talk so big.” (Gary drops by at the end of the episode to let Larry know the local cops suspect he’ll soon be set free.)
But the tales of football glory are all bullshit, and Jimmy quickly cops to being a benchwarmer. “Dudes try to impress other dudes with stories that make them look bigger than they are,” Jimmy explains of his lie — an obvious, though unnoticed, attempt to introduce the idea that Larry may have made up some of his crimes.
But when Larry pivots from discussing Jimmy’s at-time murderous rage at his mother for her failure to protect him, his familiarity with what happens to a person with a broken neck, and his to ethering girls he meets, it reminds Jimmy that he’s probably admitted not dealing with a mere serial confessor. Even more troublingly, Jimmy directly connects Larry’s depredations with his own joyless womanizing, customarily aided by booze and pharmaceuticals.
“Today was real fun,” Larry says to Jimmy after all is said and done. Jimmy agrees and goes back immediately to compulsively doing push-ups. It’s clear from the story of trying to bulk up to fight back against his abuser that his godlike body is no accident and the sign of deep damage.
It’s worth contrasting Jimmy and Larry’s nascent (if bizarre and ultimately duplicitous) friendship with the forced bonhomie that exists between Jimmy and Carter, the guard who’s threatening to out him as a snitch. Sure, the power dynamics are way different, and Jimmy is forced to interact with the guy just as much as he’s been forced to interact with Larry. But in a different world, it’s easy to see a version of Jimmy that grew up to become a cop or a correction officer instead of a drug dealer and gun runner. He idealized his old man enough to have conceivably made that career choice, right? In that world, it would be Jimmy standing around as a grinning, malevolent presence in uniform, forcing some poor con to be polite to the point where the strain shows on his face, as Carter does to Jimmy in this world.
None of this would work half so well as it does if not for the fine, carefully contrasted performances of Taron Egerton as Jimmy and Paul Walter Hauser as Larry. Hauser’s showier, if you can call the reedy-voiced Larry showy; his distinct manner of speech and off-kilter physicality no doubt reflect the careful study of such men. But Egerton is impressive in his own right, always walking in such a way as to emphasize his muscular bulk — as if to impress women and frighten abusers who are no longer there.
Will his vulnerable-big-brother act have a similarly transformative effect on Larry, eliciting enough information to earn Jimmy his get-out-of-jail-free card? Only time, and the two remaining episodes of this excellent miniseries, will tell. If those two episodes continue the thoughtful, painful work done here by writer-creator Dennis Lehane and actors Hauser and Egerton, it’ll add up to something dark and special.