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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Violence begets violence: How <i>The Purge</i>’s satire gets even more timely this season

Violence begets violence: How The Purge’s satire gets even more timely this season

Photo: USA Network, Screenshot: YouTube, Graphic: Allison Corr

It’s nighttime in New Orleans, and something very large is on fire. I shouldn’t say what, exactly, because the producers of The Purge, USA Network’s adaptation of the film franchise of the same name, have slapped me with a very strict embargo on any and all spoilers. Frankly, I don’t want to see what happens to anyone who violates a Purge embargo. But let me just say, the flames feel hot even from dozens of yards away, and when a character steps down from this inferno, looks toward some antagonists, and smiles, it captures most of the reasons people like this series. For all of the sociopolitical commentary, neon-lit allegories, and class-warfare intensity in The Purge, it’s hard to beat this type of violent “fuck you.”

The series’ first season started off strong before spinning its wheels with a confused and absurdist revenge fantasy that dragged the night of the Purge through 10 long episodes. But audiences were on board: The Purge was USA’s top scripted series last year, and a second season was quickly put into production. The most appealing change for round two is also the thing that initially makes it sound less exciting—after another premiere set on Purge night, the majority of the season takes place the other 364 days of the year. But before you can say, “Aw, when all crime isn’t legal?” know that the show has introduced a new wrinkle: A massive conspiracy and a murder mystery of sorts—only some of the victims are still walking around. It’ll all make sense soon enough.

“‘Violence begets violence’ is kind of the main theme of our season.” That’s executive producer Krystal Houghton Ziv, explaining their vision for season two, and after only a handful of episodes, that concept does indeed stand out. Each iteration of The Purge has elaborated and expanded upon the universe and ideas of the previous installment. The first film somewhat squandered the premise, turning the most intriguing conceit—a night of collective nationwide violence where (almost) all crime is legal, sanctioned by an authoritarian far-right governmental body—into a routine home-invasion thriller. The sequel delivered far more on the potential, with Frank Grillo as an avenging angel going citywide during the Purge to protect innocents and punish the one percenters. The third and fourth films became explicitly political in terms of electoral politics and government, with the former about a presidential candidate trying to end the Purge and the latter traveling back in time to show how the first Purge was manipulated by higher-ups to turn a celebration into a campaign of bloodshed against the nation’s Black underclass.

Making the shift to TV, The Purge did its part to continue expanding this world: Set in an anonymous mid-sized American city, it followed different groups from diverse racial and economic backgrounds as they made their way through a single Purge, trying to convey how the experience would vary depending on status. If it was ultimately lacking in overall narrative, it at least contributed to establishing the “reality” of the Purge in a practical and engaging way, showing the responses of small neighborhoods and corporate high-rises alike, and detailing how protection is afforded those who kowtow to the wealthy—until those same workaday folks manage to turn the tables on their supposed betters.

Illustration for article titled Violence begets violence: How The Purge’s satire gets even more timely this season
Photo: Alfonso Bresciani (USA Network)

Again filming in New Orleans, the new season wisely abandons the “anonymous city” tactic, instead embracing the striking environs and architecture of the Big Easy to create a singular story that becomes all the more universal by zeroing in on its particulars. In just the brief time I’ve been here, I’m shown some of the luxe, gothic interiors that have been found to double for the various locations the series uses this year, with production designer Steven Wolff proudly showing off images straight out of the city’s more ornate buildings. But the season’s real evolution is in the psychology—and psychological effects—of something like the Purge. “If you’re brought up in a culture that has something like the Purge, does it give everyone a little PTSD?” Ziv adds. “Because everybody has to witness these horrible things, every year.” Tackling this idea both subtextually, through character development, and explicitly, through the aforementioned conspiracy involving those behind the Purge, makes for a show dealing with its issues on all fronts.

But the other big development is that franchise is shifting away from Purge night. The titular “holiday” still bookends the season, but for the first time, the real action happens during the rest of the year. “James DeMonaco, who created all the movies, he’s the one that first came up with the notion of, ‘What if it was in between?’” Ziv says. “A lot of it, he said, was from fans coming up to him at Comic-Con and being like, ‘What’s it like?’ And him thinking, ‘Oh, on a TV show, we probably could explore that.’” The writers room immediately jumped at the chance to dive into the minutiae: the question of time zones, or what kinds of Purge-related businesses spring up, or who are the companies making all those masks every year? Each episode’s teaser features a look at some of these more prosaic elements, creating a world with a far more lived-in feel. And by turning the larger story into a ticking-clock mystery, it loses none of the propulsive momentum that makes the series so enduringly popular.

Still, there’s a fundamental darkness and intensity to these narratives, which is why everyone I speak to talks about the fun they’ve had with the life-or-death stakes of the show. At one point, I’m ushered onto set, for a late-in-the-season scene that may or may not have far-reaching consequences for the entire premise of the series. (Seriously, that’s all I can say; these embargo threats are no joke.) And as I stand there, listening to a crowd of extras—and more than a few of the series leads—yelling in righteous anger, I understand the appeal: Pretending you can really fuck some shit up is a lot of fun, even when you’re just a bystander.

“You know that mentality: We want it fast, we want it quick, we want it in an instant. But even though you have more in your generation, that doesn’t mean that it’s better.” So says Derek Luke, the actor starring in the new season of the show, when I ask him about how he thinks the idea of the Purge reflects contemporary social problems. It makes sense: In a country where people continually look to quick and overly simplistic solutions for serious and complex problems (Can’t find a job? Let’s build a wall!), the idea of eliminating your obstacles to happiness can seem a little too plausible. “What I love about it is, when I talk to people, they say The Purge has a voice,” he adds. “When they watch it, they feel—fictional or not—that, ‘Hey, I can relate to this in my own personal way.’”

Indeed, it seems hard to imagine anyone involved in making the show hasn’t spent at least a little time thinking about what they’d do, were they to find themselves in the Purge. “I like to think I’d be at a Purge party,” Luke says, noting the safety in numbers tactic. Of course, he’s also well aware of the traditional history of the survival rate for people of color in horror: “My mom found out I was in a horror thriller. She was like, ‘Um, I’ll see you later,’” he adds with a laugh.

Paola Núñez on set.
Paola Núñez on set.
Photo: Alfonso Bresciani (USA Network)

Staying safe is pretty much the universal response to the question. Paola Núñez, who plays Esme Carmona—a woman who works surveillance for the authorities on Purge night, only to have her faith in the system questioned when she witnesses a murder that she can’t explain—also immediately laughs. “If the Purge is happening in the United States, I would just go back to Mexico.” Joel Allen, who plays a college student forced to defend himself during the Purge (and who then starts to transform psychologically afterward), agrees. “Honestly, I’d probably just leave the country. But it’s in my nature to help, so I’d be driving around helping people that need it—as long as I had armed guards and weapons!”

Still, for all its over-the-top action and extremes, that easy accommodation of violence returns The Purge to its status as a worrying commentary on American society. “That compartmentalization of life is really interesting to me,” Allan says. “Take kids who are committing acts of violence: Afterwards they’re still just regular kids, who want to play soccer in the yard, who cry when they stub their toe...” he pauses. “It’s, ‘I have to write a term paper, even though I just killed someone last week.’” Luke equates it to social media: “Think about what people will do and say to complete strangers... or how you react when you’re reading all your likes and then you get to that one, ‘I just don’t like you.’ Why?! Boom.” He claps his hands, and it makes a sound like a gunshot.

He’s smiling, but he just captured something vital about the show’s satirical edge: When there’s a tool to hurt others handy, a lot of people are awfully quick to use it. This season’s technique of showing the mental toll that ongoing eruptions of violence actually takes on a population—and our collective resignation to such acts—makes its allegory cut deeper than ever. The series resonates, just as the films do, because of their ties to reality, not despite them. Thank heavens The Purge is still just a TV show. For now.