In its first season, Lodge 49 has been the definition of a pleasant surprise, a warm drama that’s both agreeable and compelling, full of heady topics and seemingly low stakes. It’s difficult to describe yet easy on all of the senses, combining top-notch performances from Wyatt Russell, Brent Jennings, and Sonya Cassidy with a meticulously crafted mystery that sometimes feels beside the point. Creator Jim Gavin and executive producer Peter Ocko have built a world in which anything could happen—including some exceptionally creative uses of a narwhal statue—but which is often at its most fascinating when just letting its characters be. Lodge 49 lives in the moment, not for it.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t more secrets of the Order Of The Lynx to uncover, which will undoubtedly shape the just-ordered second season. But Lodge 49’s greatest rewards are in its more intimate storytelling, which focuses on the permeable but unbreakable bond between twins Dud (Russell) and Liz (Cassidy), the search for community, as well as the loss of identity that comes with the loss of employment. The A.V. Club spoke with Gavin and Ocko about their rudderless but lovable characters, competing with puzzle-box shows by not competing with them, and looking the gift shark in the mouth.
The A.V. Club: Your show is a delightful oddity in so many ways, not least of which is the very deliberate pacing. Was that difficult to maintain over the course of the season, especially when so many other TV dramas are dropping these supposedly earth-shattering revelations every episode or week?
Peter Ocko: Jim has a better answer for this, but early on, our lousy soundbite for this was, “We thought we’d make noise by being quiet.” We were very aware that if we didn’t get the balance right, that a lot of the stories we wanted to tell would instantly become less interesting. That in order to tell the kind of stories that Jim [Gavin] had in the pilot and that he is so wonderful at telling, that we needed to create an environment where the mysteries created kind of a curiosity and excitement, but without being a distraction or something that would make people fast-forward through scenes to get to the next bit of information.
Jim Gavin: On some basic level, both in writing the pilot and moving forward, we were always moving towards scenes we wanted to see, which were these moments between characters. That drove us more than some kind of relentless plot. As a writer, I’m more concerned with character and moments, but we do put a lot of work into making those all meaningful, having them build on each other. A lot of crazy shit happens on the show, but it’s all coming out of the characters and their dilemmas. We’re just committed to that.
I think some of our biggest moves, both plot- and scene-wise, are often done offhand. We do ask a lot of the viewer, but hopefully that’s a pleasure. I definitely understand how some viewers may not want to invest, but I think that’s where having such an amazing cast—people you just want to hang out with in general—helped us out a lot. Peter and I and our staff are committed to following our noses and making what we want to make, and we have the luxury of AMC letting us do that. So yeah, I understand that in this current world, we are definitely a slow burn. But I think at the same time, a lot is happening all the time, and hopefully we’re training our audience to get on board with that.
PO: I would say, and I think Jim would as well, that there are so many television shows, and so much clamoring for attention. I feel like breathless is the new boring, you know? I’m put to sleep now by shows that are begging for my attention. I think we compete with all those shows by trying something different. [Lodge 49’s] not meant to be slow and lugubrious. But we do find it more interesting and more engaging to take our time, which is something that’s not done a lot on television these days.
AVC: The show rewards close attention, but not just through dropping clues—although I have to admit that a few episodes in, I started paying more attention to the wall hangings, looking for tarot references and stuff.
PO: Paying attention to the walls—I love that! I’m glad, because we’ve put a lot of care into the texture of the scenes themselves, the construction of the mythology, and our galaxy of references. But that’s all there for the taking if you want it. In the foreground, you are watching some hopefully very relatable characters kind of stumble through our world and this crazy plot that’s kind of thickening around them.
JG: I’d say our bar was to make a show that people want to watch more than once. These days, most shows feel like you watch them so you can check them off a list and not have them take up space in the DVR. I have a strange love of erasing things from my hard drive, and I find that television consumption has become that. We just wanted to make something that you weren’t rushing to get rid of after you watched it.
AVC: Was there ever any pressure from the network to deepen the mystery or pick up the pace?
PO: No, I think quite the opposite. AMC understood this was a voice, and to capture the voice they had to agree to embrace the pace. To their credit, they understood that, and enjoyed it as much as we did. They certainly helped us along the way, and encouraged us to do more of what we were doing. But there was not any pressure to turn it into something else, which was such a breath of fresh air, honestly.
JG: Yeah, and I think a big thing—which Peter can express more eloquently—is that the shows that we loved growing up and in the last 20 years, more than the story they told, they made you feel a certain way. Even now, when you turn it on, you enter a mood or a feeling. It hopefully can feel like a bit of a retreat or a respite from what’s around you. That was big for us—we wanted to create for the viewer the feeling that Dud has when he enters the lodge, which is that it is kind of a retreat, that there is the possibility for magic and the unexpected, with one foot firmly in reality. And I think AMC understood that.
AVC: You’ve succeeded in making a great hangout show, but Lodge 49, like another AMC show, Better Call Saul, has a lot to say about work—not just our relationship with it, but the ways in which different types of labor are valued in this country.
JG: You know, that’s interesting, because on the most basic level, I was just writing about jobs I’ve had—you know, what I know about the plumbing industry. But I do think someone like Ernie [Brent Jennings] is embodying someone who is overlooked by the culture in many ways. He’s good at his job, he’s trying his best, but there’s less and less reward for his hard work. That’s everywhere, including with Connie [Linda Emond], who gets laid off from the newspaper. There’s an overall sense that the future is kind of eroding, and we’re all going to be scraping by with different jobs. And Dud embodies that with his journey through Temp Joy. We’re now in this world where work doesn’t necessarily provide stability, where you might need some place else to sustain yourself and have a sense of identity. We’re very conscious of that, and I think we write towards it.
PO: And I think we’re proud of the fact that we have the least aspirational characters on TV, and that’s not a judgment. We just find that a lot of times that gets framed as a goal, that the character’s not really living unless they’re striving for something fantastic. And on our show, what we’re trying to suggest in some ways, as Jim describes, this kind of crumbling—you’re getting less and less of an identity from your job, so you’d better find it somewhere else. I think Dud naturally finds it in the company he keeps, rather than the job he does. And I think that’s going to be a useful skill, both in and out of the show.
AVC: How does the soundtrack, which is full of great psychedelic and surfer rock tunes, and the limited presence of fancy gadgets fit in with the rest of the show?
JG: I think they’re of a piece with these lodges that feel like they’re out of time. They feel like relics, but they’re still here. And that mood of stepping into the lodge and going back in time, there is a timeless quality to it. We tried to capture that in different ways—the soundtrack hits on different moods. What we’re trying to create is a timeless environment with a fable quality to it. I don’t know how conscious we were of it, though we didn’t think we had to have a lot of people texting and stuff—there’s not a lot of drama in that. In the end, the lodge itself is about people interacting face to face, so being able to center that was important to us. I always think of that movie The Net, and how fast technology can look dated in a show or movie. So, the less you have, the more current you can be, in a weird way.
PO: I’ve done a lot of television shows, and on so many of them, the way to go was wish fulfillment—everyone has the latest technology, and it’s all very specific to the time. In a way, hopefully we’re at a tipping point in our own culture, where the wish fulfillment becomes to shed all of that. I know I’m feeling it, and I think there’s a sense that the new wish fulfillment is to have none of that and to be disconnected from technology, and as Jim points out, connect to the people around you, face to face.
JG: Obviously, that’s not gonna happen. [Laughs.] But it’s a noble wish, maybe.
AVC: The finale, “Full Fathom Five,” is a very cathartic episode, in part because we get multiple scenes of Bill Dudley [Tom Nowicki], in flashbacks and something I can’t put my finger on yet. By the end of the episode, is the question resolved of whether or not Bill’s death is a suicide or an accident?
PO: Yes, I would say that when Liz says, “We will never know, and we’ll just have to live with that,” I think she is speaking the truth. I think she and Dud both have a very strong opinion on it, and it is based on who they are and their own experiences with their father. But I think in the part with Dud reaching this almost transcendent moment, he arrives at a new answer. Near the end of the pilot, he was at this place where he was close to accepting the notion that his father said no to the world and checked out. But then in the craziest way possible in the finale, I think he gets this vision or this moment of communion that suggests to him otherwise.
JG: He gets an alternate theory.
PO: Yeah, in the end, Dud and Liz are left with their own theories about what happened. But we were very comfortable to have something unknowable at the heart of their conflict, and their relationship.
AVC: The finale was written long before the show was picked up for a second season. But if it had been the end [of the show], how optimistic is the ending you wrote?
PO: We felt that ending to be completely optimistic, in that it confirmed Dud’s optimistic world view. For us, to see Dud with a smile on his face as we pull away—that was really important.
JG: Basically, getting attacked by a shark was a gift for Dud. [Laughs.] It’s what needed to happen.
AVC: The show’s been described as a modern-day version of a fable or fairy tale, which historically, have some kind of moral or lesson at their center. So, as far as the first season goes, what is the lesson?
JG: One of the bigger tales we were trying to tell was the story of a knight and squire: Ernie and Dud. By the end, they’re sitting on that bench together, and their relationship as knight and squire is cemented. They are on the threshold to carry on Larry’s quest. I don’t know if there’s a lesson in that, but that was a huge thing for us, to kind of build that moment with Ernie and Dud on the golf course together. That was one of two larger, emotional stories we wanted to tell: that of Dud, Liz, and their father, and then Dud and Ernie reaching that moment. I would say that as far as the knight-squire quest, if there’s anything to learn from it, it’s just how much these two people need each other. I think there’s no question that Dud when he arrives [at the lodge], he needs a knight, and Ernie fills that role. But by the end of the season, we see that the knight needs the squire to complete his quest—and we’ve learned enough about Dud to see how much Ernie needs him, too.