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The beauty of Lodge 49, a working-class mirror image of HBO’s Succession

The end of history has plenty of sunny days on AMC’s low-key charmer of a drama.

The Lodge 49 characters standing in a line outside a multicolored van.
The gang from Lodge 49 (including Paul Giamatti, center) takes a trip down Mexico way.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Lodge 49 feels a little like a miracle, like it shouldn’t exist and must be shielded from anything bad that might happen to it. Like all miracles, it feels fragile and new. To watch it is to doubt that what your eyes are seeing is real.

But it is real. The AMC drama somehow combines the tones “very weird” and “very gentle” to create a show that feels like the opposite of HBO’s bigger, buzzier Succession. Both programs are ensemble dramas about people in unusual circumstances. But where Succession is about miserable rich people, Lodge 49 is about people who have very little but seem content with their lot in life.

For most of the summer, episodes of Succession’s second season aired on Sundays and episodes of Lodge 49’s second season aired on Mondays. Often, it seemed as though the two were having a conversation, despite how unlikely that might sound. Someone on Succession would declare that money always wins, and then the very next night, somebody on Lodge 49 would insist that alchemy doesn’t work because so many people keep trying to create gold when there’s so much other neat stuff you could do.

Or, as one Lodge 49 character put it back in the show’s first season (which aired in 2018): “People always go looking for unicorns when we’ve got rhinos. ... The rhinoceros is a fascinating animal. All this beautiful stuff, right here in front of us. Screw unicorns, man. What’s the use of living forever if you’re all alone on a Sunday?”

Lodge 49 features quests and mysteries and a love of weirdness you might dub “David Lynch lite.” But at its heart, the show believes we’re only as strong as the weakest among us and modern society is set up to obscure that fact. Better find some way to come together before it’s too late.

Lodge 49 is anti-capitalist but it never feels like a screed. That’s not easy to do.

Three actors on “Lodge 49” looking at one another and at a large board held in one character’s hands.
The friendship between Ernie (Brent Jennings, center) and Dud (Wyatt Russell, right) is the center of this wonderful show.

I have written about Lodge 49 a couple of times before, and each time I’ve made it sound like a particularly sad Great Courses Plus lecture on the history of capitalism and income inequality. When I described the show in August, I used phrases like “the husk of capitalism” and “economic distress” and “American society feels like it’s coming apart at the seams” —and honestly, true.

But I worry that makes Lodge 49 sound more serious than it actually is, because it also features hidden treasures and secret rooms that can only be accessed through mysterious passageways; one of those rooms is buried deep in the ground and can contain everything from a sky full of stars to a landscape full of snow. The show has a serious message but a lighthearted way about itself, like a gregarious, burnt-out hippie who hangs out at a local donut shop and moans between puffs on his Juul about how “they” fucked it all up.

That’s why each time I’ve written about the show, I’ve also written about how hard it is to explain, usually settling on discussing its raw premise — a young wastrel named Dud (Wyatt Russell) finds new purpose when he joins an ancient fraternal order (think the Masons) in the city of Long Beach, California. However, as I watched the back half of season two (which boasts a truly sublime performance by Paul Giamatti as a rumpled, vaguely disreputable crime novelist), I had an epiphany: Lodge 49 is a series about the power of friendship.

“The power of friendship” suggests something much hokier, I realize, but the show earns the inherent sappiness of the phrase. For one thing, it’s built around two deeply felt depictions of friendship, one between Dud and his mentor Ernie (Brent Jennings) and one between Dud and his sister Liz (Sonya Cassidy). And even more importantly, it presents friendship as an end unto itself.

The central idea of season two is a treasure hunt for some magical scrolls that will hopefully revive the lodge, which has become a shadow of its former self. It’s a fun and goofy adventure that involves locating hidden rooms within the lodge and uncovering its secrets, including a deeply heartbreaking flashback to the story of the woman who set this whole quest in motion.

But the show is blunt about where its true heart lies: The search for the scrolls is really an excuse for the characters to spend more time together. The real secrets of the universe, in other words, are the friends they made along the way. Again, that sounds cheesy, but Lodge 49 dares you to call it cheesy by embracing its belief in the power of human connection with a big smile and a healthy dose of the weird. It weaponizes sleepy sincerity like Succession weaponizes cruelty and insult comedy.

This weaponization is vital to Lodge 49’s whole project. Long Beach is a working-class sort of town, but in recent years, it’s lost sight of its old self in pursuit of money. How are you going to stand up to the forces of progress? By banding together and finding spaces that matter, by nurturing relationships, by finding people who think and feel like you and who long for something else, and then fighting like hell. It’s impossible to do that with ironic detachment. Lodge 49 has no choice but to wear its heart not on its sleeve but as its whole dang shirt.

Lodge 49 is a throwback to some other TV era that was more human in scale

Sonya Cassidy stars in “Lodge 49.”
Dud’s sister Liz (Sonya Cassidy) goes on her own journey to find meaning amid the capitalist ruins.

The closest comparison show I can think of for Lodge 49 is the 1990-1995 CBS series Northern Exposure, a small-town dramedy set in the burg of Cicely, Alaska, where a New York-raised doctor arrived to find a collection of quirky oddballs prone to philosophizing. Both Lodge 49 and Northern Exposure have a hefty interest in religion and philosophy, and both are fond of flights of fancy that take the characters out of reality and into surreal dreamscapes that seem designed to make them realize they live in fiction.

Both shows also touch on the idea of the end of history, but in very different ways. The 1990s were a time when the slow petering-out of the Cold War birthed a world where the US was the sole superpower and where it seemed as though Western liberal democracy was just the way things were. Northern Exposure reflects this era: There’s a certainty to it, a sense that the best is yet to come and that, with all of that messy conflict over, we can finally build utopia on the Alaskan frontier.

Lodge 49 is very “of the 2010s” in its approach to the idea of the end of history. Unchecked capitalism and wealth accumulation have created a situation where nobody is sure of who to trust or how to survive. Work increasingly feels disconnected from meaning and money is ever more illusory. Everything feels a little made up. In Lodge 49’s worldview, the end of history doesn’t mean that time has stopped; it means that whatever promises were made to us were bankrupt from the start. The only real meaning is self-created.

Thus, Lodge 49 is about how you build a community amid those ruins in a world that’s been wrung dry of whatever promise it once held. The characters don’t have any answers, but they also come to understand, quickly, that success is all well and good but it means nothing if it’s not wedded to some sort of connection.

That Lodge 49 weds this awareness to a fraternal organization of the sort that used to be central to working-class communities in the mid-20th century is not a coincidence, I don’t think. Lodge 49 isn’t a harangue against technology or the false, forced bonhomie of social media or anything like that, but it’s also not not that. It’s about what happens when people start to get together in the same space and meet face to face again. It’s about how the world takes on a tinge of magic when you’re open to the idea that what’s weird about being alive doesn’t have to be any more complicated than the way that, sometimes, exactly the person you need to know walks into your life at exactly the right moment.

It’s about these minor miracles and other flights of fancy, and it’s kind of about saving the world, one city block at a time. Its ratings are so low that I won’t be surprised if it gets canceled, but I hope dearly that it returns, because visiting its world every week felt like a corrective to something I didn’t realize needed correcting. So many other TV shows endlessly blare that something has broken but only Lodge 49 dares suggest the glue that might put things back together again.

Lodge 49 is available on AMC’s streaming platforms. Season one is on Hulu. Let’s hope there’s a season three!