For the past year, while trying to explain to friends why AMC’s Lodge 49 is the only TV show I really care about, I’d say it was because, in this series, the stakes are so refreshingly low. No one in Lodge 49 has superpowers or special abilities. All of the characters are broke, living in Long Beach, California, and in no position to save the world. They eat breakfast in a strip mall joint called Donuts and pawn their flat-screen TVs to pay off debts they should never have taken on. Of the two main characters, Ernie Fontaine (Brent Jennings) is a black, middle-aged plumbing supplies salesman who worries that he’s over the hill, and Sean “Dud” Dudley (Wyatt Russell) is a shaggy blond surfer many years his junior, exiled from the waves by a wounded foot that just won’t heal. When asked what he’d choose if he could do anything with his life, Dud answers, “That’s easy: clean pools.” I can imagine a blockhead studio executive complaining that there’s no reason to care about any of this trivia, yet somehow, miraculously, the series goes on.
Lodge 49 began airing its second season this week (you can and should stream the first season on Hulu), following up on Season 1’s cliffhanger ending in which Dud, finally out surfing again for the first time in a year, got attacked by a shark. In Season 2’s first episode, Liz (Sonya Cassidy), Dud’s twin sister, gets a job waiting tables at a restaurant called Higher Steaks, a ridiculous pun that, to be honest, spooked me a little bit. I had just been repeating my low-stakes speech to someone a few hours before watching it. This is a very Lodge 49 coincidence, for the show is full of sly signs, portents, and odd, incidental details that end up paying out many episodes later. (The show’s title is itself an allusion to Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, another work with a taste for wordplay, SoCal malaise, and paranoia-inducing symbols.) In Season 1, a bunch of laid-off aerospace workers sneak into their former employer’s vast, deserted factory at night and build elaborate devices out of the decommissioned equipment, including a trebuchet designed to launch a refrigerator far out into the ocean. Much further along in the story, Liz freaks out at a corporate orientation event on a boat and jumps overboard in her pantsuit. During the long swim back to shore, just as she’s flagging, what should float by to serve her as a makeshift raft but that very refrigerator?
The eccentricity of Lodge 49 is never merely gratuitous. It is a story about how ordinary people try to get by, have a bit of fun, and sometimes save each other’s lives on the ragged fringes of a post-industrial economy. And it’s also about alchemy; the credits are a radiant collage of turquoise swimming pools and esoteric medieval etchings and glyphs. The hinge of this unlikely convergence of a down-at-heel beach town and the millennia-old arcana of the Western hermetic tradition is Lodge 49 itself, the Long Beach branch of the Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Lynx. As with other similar fraternal organizations (the Elks and of course the Freemasons), the history of the (fictional) Lynxes comes festooned with mystical symbols, secret rituals, and lore about its founder, one Harwood Fritz Merrill, who supposedly discovered the legendary goal of all alchemists, the philosopher’s stone.
In the series opener, Dud finds a Lynx ring while running his metal detector over the beach. (Any similarities between Dud and the Dude from The Big Lebowski seem pretty intentional.) Then, driving his vintage Volkswagen Thing, he runs out of gas in front of the lodge, a building he’d never noticed before. That’s enough for Dud to decide that becoming a Lynx must be his destiny. He knocks on the door, and Ernie answers. “I had this image in my head for a long time of a young man knocking on a door, and an old man opening it. And that was it,” the series’s creator, Jim Gavin, told Variety. “The meaning of that moment is the whole show.” Dud, eagerly swept up in the myths, legends, and (admittedly threadbare) pageantry of the lodge, is a holy fool, determined to invigorate a community of weary elders primarily held together by the lodge’s tavern, where they can run a tab. As part of the order’s initiation process, Dud is appointed squire to Ernie, who is a knight.
What does it all mean? That question—applied to both the lodge and life itself—glimmers at the center of Lodge 49. Ernie might be a substitute for the father Dud lost a year ago in either a bodysurfing mishap (Dud’s theory) or a suicide (the scenario favored by the nihilistic Liz). From another angle, Dud is Ernie’s Magical Caucasian, the one person capable of jolting him out of his midlife doldrums. As far as Dud is concerned, Ernie is the “rightful king” of Lodge 49, destined to restore and reign over the “true lodge,” which may or may not be a figment of the fevered imagination of the chapter’s previous leader, who spoke in ominous riddles.
The characters in Lodge 49 spend the series’s meandering episodes watching TV, working temp jobs, cheating on their spouses in motel rooms, and chasing sacred scrolls and semilegendary figures with nicknames like Captain (a wealthy but elusive real estate developer played by Bruce Campbell) and El Confidente (a Guadalajaran who won the true lodge’s scrolls in a poker game, played by Cheech Marin). Some of them, like Dud and Blaise (David Pasquesi), the lodge’s bartender and an amateur herbalist who runs a pot dispensary, believe that mystical forces underpin their doings and control their fates. Others, like Liz, refuse any such consolation. But even the demented corporate executive training program that Liz joins—for a food service company presided over by an absurdly intense Elizabeth Holmes–style CEO—seems to dabble in cryptic mysteries. Its orientation agenda includes such items as “Iron Cage,” “Cloud of Unknowing,” and “Vivisection.” When asked to talk about her previous job in a Hooters-style bar, Liz says, “What’s underneath the tits and everything else? I’d say loneliness and despair. It’s like we’re all bound together, pervy customers, staff. We all kind of washed up on the same shore.” The orientation leader loves this speech.
The heart of Lodge 49, however, is the battle for the soul of Ernie Fontaine, who not coincidentally has the same name as a 16th-century alchemist. Among the many alchemical symbols and literary references in the series comes one in Ernie’s very first scene: He shoots a pellet gun at a flock of crows, a bird representing the undiscovered self. According to Ernie, kicking off a memorial softball game in Season 1, all that the Lynxes do is “get together and celebrate this beautiful bitch called life.” The lodge is just a “social club.” Dud insists that it’s more than that: “We possess secret knowledge!” The secret knowledge of alchemy consists of the ability to turn base metals like lead into gold, which, as Blaise keeps telling Dud, is a metaphor. In the many twists and turns of Lodge 49’s labyrinthine plot, just when it seems that Ernie has been proven right, that the series’s characters inhabit a disenchanted universe, the perspective flips to Dud’s bedazzled and thrilling view of life. Perhaps neither of them is right, and perhaps they both are.
The Long Beach of Lodge 49 is, like the rest of America, most definitely a fallen world, a realm of layoffs and terminal illness, of collection agencies, rent hikes, and snotty workplace rivals. But it is also magical. The lodge can turn dross into gold, maybe through alchemy, but through friendship and storytelling and beer and softball as well. “When I’m out there,” Dud tells his fellow Lynxes, “I feel like I’m all alone. And all these things are chasing me, dragons and dickheads. But it’s different in here. I can see what this place is. I can feel it. Can’t you?”