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Opinion | House of alcohol and alchemy

'Lodge 49' made me think hard about fruition, about the fact that characterslike you and mefind validation after they find their beliefs to be proven right

Wyatt Russell plays scruffy, easy-going Dud in ‘Lodge 49’.
Wyatt Russell plays scruffy, easy-going Dud in ‘Lodge 49’.

Is there a more immediate visual shorthand for aimlessness than the sight of a man with a metal detector? It is evident such a person has too much time and too little ambition, as one who would rather stumble upon riches than make their own, and yet—just a few degrees removed from a revered mystic water-diviner—there is an invariable touch of the romantic to this wastrel: anyone desperate enough to search for buried treasure has to be a dreamer.

Lodge 49 begins with such a raggedy beachcomber, and for a while, the show resembles that guy, with its story branching off, flakily, in unrelated directions. I prescribe patience, dear viewer, because the lack of immediate goals makes for highly rewarding digressions. Is there, in this age of high-concept television loglines, a higher compliment than a show too difficult to describe? A beautifully bewildering show—streaming in India on Amazon Prime—this anything-goes story covers faith and fortune, water and gold. It is a modern-day fable, a slacker comedy with the soul of a magic realism novella. This may be a modest, meandering show but I assure you it’s glorious.

Created by Jim Gavin and named in tribute to Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern classic The Crying Of Lot 49, this show is ostensibly about a Long Beach lodge that houses the ancient—and entirely irrelevant—Order Of The Lynx. The great hall is now used to give Boy Scouts their breakfast, and those that have been ordained Knights and Squires show up mostly for the beer. Our lightheaded leading man Dud stumbles upon this once-impressive sanctuary, and for the first time in forever, he feels like he belongs. He does. Lodge 49 is home for the curious. And like that California establishment immortalized in an overplayed song: “You can check out any time you like...."

According to mythology, the lynx, an intriguingly weird wildcat, was known to see through walls, and ancient Greeks claimed that its urine hardens into a precious, amber-like stone. Going from that to the clairvoyant art of alchemy is but a short hop, and this show, featuring modern-day apothecaries and secret scrolls, is all about turning things golden by looking at them hard enough. This is why you need to stop expecting and keep watching, because in this surreal pocket of southern California, magic happens after you least expect it.

The characters could have their own novels. There is Dud’s sister, Liz, a waitress in a “breastaurant" who shuts out everyone who rightly says she’s made for better things. Sonya Cassidy is super as the star refusing to shine, and sounds so definitively SoCal, I find it hard to believe she’s a British actress. There’s Blaise (a soothing David Pasquesi), a nut who puts the “pot" in “apothecary", and romanticizes the unreal. There is a mystery man referred to as “Captain," played by someone perfectly apropos whose name I shan’t reveal, a dashing actor himself known for a series of films about a young man and a certain enchanted book containing musty secrets. There’s the disgruntled Ernie Fontaine, all too bothered by things that are going nowhere: like his courtship, his career and the crows outside his house. Played by a pained Brent Jennings, Ernie listens to pulpy audiobooks about a secret agent featuring spies who hide “in plain sight like blood on a matador’s cape".

Those books are a joke, a plot-heavy contrast to the events lazily, sporadically unfolding around Ernie’s life, but there’s more to everything in this show, and these novels (read out by executive producer Paul Giamatti) hold secrets and hints. This is a show about life at its most banal and its most befuddling, and as it narrates vaguely interlinked stories of dreams and debtors, of fates and friendship, it cycles around several of the same tracks a few times over. Men of import, for example—Dud’s father; the sovereign protector of Lodge 49; Captain—all rack up debt and vanish. The repetitive mandalas drawn by the narrative makes it clear there are patterns all around us. Hiding in plain sight.

There is nothing heroic about Dud. Played by a scruffy Wyatt Russell, he’s a lanky, limping fool who never knows better. He experiences the magic of Lodge 49 and the alchemy of the ordained only because he’s open. He’s open to what may be, and open to what anyone around him may believe, and in that openness lies both callousness and kindness. It’s a warmly sloppy character, and Russell—son of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell—covers his soft David Gilmour face behind gingery, filthy fuzz and shuffles through the part with the amiability of a shaggy dog. It’s a friendly, flea-bitten performance.

I realize I haven’t told you much of what actually happens. That is because this show houses snakes and surprises, ladders and love affairs. It is frequently absurd, and best stumbled upon by the unsuspecting viewer. What I can tell you is that Lodge 49 made me think hard about fruition, about the fact that characters—like you and me—find validation after they find their beliefs to be proven right. Yet we need to look at that with not only optimism but also caution. Caveat emptor. We need to be careful about the validation we want, the prophecies we choose to believe, in case they come true. All must not glitter.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

He tweets at @rajasen

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