The rules of The Purge are straightforward and terrible: for 12 hours, once a year, all crime including rape and murder is legal. Instituted by the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA, a thinly veiled jab at the real life NRA), this one night of violent purging is meant to “purify the soul of America” and lower crime for the rest of the year. In reality, The Purge is state-sponsored violence in order to cleanse America of unwanteds — in particular minority, low income, addicted, and other marginalized communities. First a series of social commentary heavy horror movies, now USA’s The Purge is a 10-episode exploration of this grotesque fictional night taking place almost in real time.
The Purge films are all ensemble efforts, and the television show gives us more time with the team of leads. Miguel Guerrero (Gabriel Chavarria) is a recently returned marine looking for his sister Penelope (Jessica Garza). Pen is a recovering addict, and Miguel finds out she’s joined a cult of people who offer themselves as sacrifices on Purge Night.
Jane Barber (Amanda Warren) is a financial advisor working to close a huge international deal on Purge Night in her office. Jane’s #MeToo moment has culminated in her hiring a hitwoman to murder the boss (William Baldwin) who has sexually harassed her and prevented her from moving up in the company.
The Betancourts, Rick (Colin Woodell) and Jenna (Hannah Emily Anderson) are dressed to the nines on their way to an NFFA Purge Night party in order to secure an investment from one of the NFFA’s leaders Albert Stanton (Reed Diamond) for a sustainably-built low-income apartment complex project they have designed. Their night is quickly complicated by the entrance of Stanton’s daughter Lila (Lili Simmons) who not only had a threesome with Rick and Jenna, but went on to have a secret affair with Mrs. Betancourt.
A masked man (Lee Tergesen) with a DIY armored van listens to an “inspirational” Purge radio broadcast encouraging Americans to do their civic duty and take advantage of the night. The other three leads are quickly situated as heroes. The masked man is ambiguous until a surprising twist toward the end.
Alternating between these principal characters in current time as well as a flashback, their stories unfold as family dramas of different stripes. Miguel and Pen are so-called original martyr families, whose parents were killed on the First Purge. Jane’s immigrant story shapes her ambition, and her overbearing mother insists she needs to be leveraging her sexuality more in order to get ahead. Jenna struggles with her strained marriage, and intense feelings for Lila, which Lila reciprocates even more so after finding out Jenna is pregnant. All of this with the grotesque backdrop of random murders, creepy masked people, and a soundtrack filled with gunfire, screams, and Purge sirens.
The Purge strikes a remarkable balance between the family drama aspect and the horror movie that is Purge Night, a spiraling back to the intimate setting of family survival from James Demonaco’s original movie The Purge. The fact that this show aired on network television is subversive by itself. Instead of focusing on the “torture porn” aspects, they focus on introspective moments amid the chaos. It’s the first opportunity in the franchise to spend more than 90 minutes with people trying to survive the night, and the fact that the show is almost as long as the night itself adds a different sense of urgency to the narrative than the films.
The show also gives us a peek at the various Purge subcultures that have emerged as the years have gone on. The Matrons are a group of women who drive around on Purge night protecting other women. In a chilling conversation, they discuss the issue of gender-based and sexual violence on Purge night, an issue we’ve never heard mentioned in any of the films. The Matrons train all year long to combat the “gendercide of The Purge” where the majority of crime is actually against women and those who survive report tens of thousands of rapes.
We also meet The Nuns, a group of creeps who kidnap and torture their victims in gruesome tableaus. The Collectors, men who make their salary for the year on Purge night catching people and selling them at the Carnival of Flesh. The Carnival, a place where abducted people are sold at auction and where the sellers can choose their method of murder in themed sideshow tents. And Pete’s Cantina, where an ex-cop and veteran marine (Dominic Fumusa) offers a kind of sanctuary for certain Purge players, and where Miguel goes for help finding his sister.
The Purge in long-form gives us a lot of valuable time for character development, so much that even the bit players from these various Purge groups end up with three-dimensional stories. My biggest criticism, though, is that there are no Asians of any kind on screen in this show. Which often stopped me in my tracks.
But as disturbing as the erasure of Asians from The Purge’s narrative is Jane’s heartbreaking arc over the course of nine episodes. From her poor immigrant background, her abrasive mother, to Jane’s rejection of leveraging her sexuality and how it subsequently denied her opportunities — even before this Purge, Jane had already been through so much. As her guilt over putting the hit on her pervert boss takes control, she goes out into Purge night to stop it. She survives a new series of horrors, only to be captured by the masked man — a “Purge Lone Wolf” — who kills her because they went on a brief and bad date. She didn’t laugh at his sexist and racist jokes, that’s all it took to end up on his Purge list. White male entitlement and toxic masculinity are powerful drugs.
It’s taken me days to accept Jane’s death. At first, I was upset they’d do this and especially to a Black woman. But as I reflected on the events, I realized this is arguably one of the most realistic commentaries The Purge franchise has accomplished regarding violence against women. Every day in America Black women live and die, often at the misogynoir-istic whims of white men. More than anyone in The Purge I wanted Jane to live. That she didn’t, and for such an absurd grievance, is a ferocious (and brave) indictment of the real world we live in. It’s also a testament to Amanda Warren’s beautifully nuanced and vulnerable performance as this powerful, yet flawed woman who met her end like so many do in real life.
The point of Purge Night is to level the playing field and let Americans run wild with their basest instincts. Watching the three concurrent protagonist storylines was Dorothy Gale going on a Shakespearean tragedy journey instead of an adventure. They meet friends and foes along the course of the night, stuck in an embattled world that for 12 hours makes absolutely no sense. The light design is beautiful and adds so much to the horrific yet ethereal quality of Purge Night. It also helps allay some of the more graphic violence happening often (and thankfully) just off-screen.
Ultimately this installment of The Purge asks one important question: Just because it is your right granted by the government to rape, kill, steal, and more — should you? “It can’t be immoral if it’s legal, right?” Jane says, the philosophy of oppression in a nutshell.
Also, how can a person safely live in a society where the smallest infraction on 364 days of the year — like a bad date or not saying “thank you” when someone holds a door — could lead to death? The implications are bloodcurdling.
Because it’s one of the most socio-culturally relevant franchises at the moment, I’m pleased to report that this extended format of The Purge has been picked up for a second season. I really hope to find out that there are still some Asians left in America.
You can catch all episodes of season 1 on USA Network’s website.
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Sezin Koehler is a multiracial Sri Lankan American, uncertified scream queen, and Frida and Keanu devotee who writes about horror, social justice, and representation for Black Girl Nerds. You can also find her on Twitter ranting about politics (@SezinKoehler), or Instagramming her newest art creations and tattoos (@zuzukoehler).