Here’s a pop quiz I’ll bet most of us TV zombies can’t pass — and no fair peeking at Wikipedia, either: Which one was Hatfield and which one was McCoy? Who lived in Kentucky and who lived in West Virginia? How long did their feud last and what finally ended it? And here’s the essay portion: What were they so mad about, anyhow?
Most of us learned what we know about the Hatfields and the McCoys from an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, but the Hatfield vs. McCoy metaphor remains permanently with us 125 years later, coming to symbolize the tension in everything from crosstown football rivalries to homeowner association tiffs. The words “Hatfield and McCoy” handily depict any two citizens whose insurmountable discord leaves the bounds of decent civility. Whatever we have to say about this particularly tragic episode in American history we usually say with a twang and a spit.
In historical fact, the two extended families lived mere miles from one another across the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River. Hatfields lived mainly in Mingo County, W.Va.; McCoys lived in Pike County, Ky.
After the Civil War, the personal animosity between William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield and Randolph McCoy fanned out to their respective kin and escalated to a bloody and violent degree over a two-decade span, claiming a dozen lives, attracting national press attention, and darn near sparking an Appalachian mini-war between the two states. It was about honor, loyalty, murder, retribution, hard feelings and a stolen pig — not necessarily in that order. You could also attribute part of it to the fact that an entire nation was acting out profound symptoms of post-traumatic stress, which was usually medicated with moonshine. You could also say the Hatfields and McCoys just didn’t like one another.
The History channelwades right into the thick of Tug Fork this week with a lushly produced but ultimately unthrilling dramatic miniseries version of the story. “Hatfields & McCoys,” which airs Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, gets the essential outline of the tale correct, but it also raises as many questions as it answers. (My first question: Did the movie have to be filmed in Romania ?)
Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton are promising choices as co-stars, but that promise soon dissipates as the first episode begins to drag and you realize you’ve got many more hours to go. Surely Hatfield (Costner) and McCoy (Paxton) were more interesting than the stilted dialogue “Hatfields & McCoys” imagines for them and their families — and if not, then the writers should have worked harder. Both Costner and Paxton give the movie their full powers of presence, but the roles just aren’t meaty enough; there’s no character depth or thematic takeaway. The two actors can only do so much smoldering and glaring, and we’re well into the final night when their characters seem to broaden, showing the burden of rage and remorse.
Between all that, there is a lot of shooting in the woods and valleys. “Hatfields & McCoys” succeeds at least on this front, serving up the gangbusters and saloon brawls with plenty of violence and gore. Tom Berenger, sporting so much mountain-man crag that I still doubt it’s really him under there, plays Hatfield’s hatred-prone uncle, Jim Vance, upon whom history has placed much of the blame for the early bloodshed. Powers Boothe is a steady presence as Wall Hatfield, Devil Anse’s brother, who, as justice of the peace, is unable to broker a cross-state accord between the families.
The story itself is profoundly sad, strewn with one tragic decision and regrettable outcome after another. The characters are stubborn beyond all else, and to the film’s credit, a viewer is never quite sure which family is more in the wrong. They both are. Like the saga on which it is based, “Hatfields & McCoys” can offer no sense of hope that people are basically good at heart; by the time it’s over, you just get the sense that people are generally no good. Nowhere is this more plain than in Mare Winningham’s mournful portrayal of Sally McCoy, who sees so many of her children killed that she eventually loses her mind.
Much of the series dwells on the star-crossed (and documented) romance between Devil Anse’s handsome eldest son, Johnse Hatfield (Matt Barr), and McCoy’s virginal daughter, Roseanna (Lindsay Pulsipher). Forbidden from seeing one another, the two nevertheless find time to frolic and skinny-dip, whereupon Roseanna discovers that Johnse is in possession of Appalachia’s only set of genuine washboard abs, which are indeed a marvelous wonder to behold. She gets pregnant and is banished by her father to a spinster aunt’s house. A heartsick Johnse winds up marrying Roseanna’s double-crossing cousin, Nancy (Jena Malone), and partaking in the execution-style killings of Roseanna’s brothers.
What a mess, you keep thinking. The point of the entire saga, it seems, is to make you lose track of what the feudin’ was about, and how it managed to burn out of control. It will always be tempting to view their story through any modern analogy of one’s choosing — such as partisan political stalemates or the red-blue socioeconomic divide.
But maybe the story of the Hatfields and McCoys doesn’t amount to anything at all. Maybe, since it also doesn’t make much of miniseries, it was meant to be a footnote and nothing more.
The three-part miniseries begins Monday at 9 p.m. on History. Continues Tuesday and Wednesday at 9 p.m.