Lodge 49’s opening sequence ends in a pawn shop — maybe that’s why the show hooked me. Watching it, I was reminded of the time my aunt gave me a necklace, a family heirloom, at a moment when I was trying to scrape together the money to move out of my then-boyfriend’s room in his dad’s apartment in Malden, a working-class suburb of Boston. She helped me haggle cash-for-gold dealers into paying $500 for it — exactly the amount I needed for rent. That’s the kind of quotidian desperation that doesn’t usually make for the most compelling television, but in Lodge 49, it’s the whole point.
In the show’s opening scene, Sean Dudley (Wyatt Russell), or “Dud” as he’s known, finds a ring on the beach with his metal detector. Dud, a laid-back surfer who’s fallen on hard times after being bitten by a snake in Nicaragua and, shortly after that, having his dad die, takes the ring to a pawn shop in a strip mall.
“Found something!” he announces as he enters.
“Salvation?” replies Burt (Joe Grifasi), the pawnbroker, without looking up from his seat behind the counter.
“Even better,” says Dud.
“That’s a Lynx ring,” says Burt after inspecting Dud’s find, the Lynx being a fraternal order “like the Masons or the Elks.” What’s the ring worth? “Nothing.”
“You’re a parasite, Burt,” says Dud, before storming out of the store. A beat passes, and he walks back in, this time holding the metal detector. “How much for this?” With that, the opening credits roll.
In the first few minutes of the show, Lodge 49 becomes what it remains throughout its two seasons: a mapping of debt and unemployment — a “bummerfarce,” as its creator Jim Gavin put it — set in postindustrial Long Beach, where Orbis, a fictional aeronautics company, has been laying people off for years. It’s about all the ways a person can be broke. Fittingly, and maybe inevitably, the show was prematurely cancelled.
Sure, Lodge 49 has a plot: after he leaves the pawn shop, Dud’s crappy car fatefully runs out of gas in front of the Lynx lodge, so he knocks on the door, hoping to return the ring to its owner, and in doing so, sets off the chain of events that structures the show. What follows is a hunt for hidden scrolls and alchemical formulas, with a hint of magical realism.
But more than any of that, Lodge 49 is about “grinding it out” day to day, as one character puts it. Everyone is downwardly mobile, except for the few rich people, who are psychotic grifters and scammers. Liz (Sonya Cassidy), Dud’s twin sister, spends her nights dreaming about her job at Shamroxx, a Hooters-like restaurant, and shows up there on her day off to get wasted and eat onion rings. Everyone dreams about their jobs, explains Champ (David Uhry), who cooks at Shamroxx during the day and patrols the Orbis grounds as a security guard at night.
“It’s a basic feature of capitalism,” he explains. “You can’t shake loose work, even on weekends. You reach the citadel, The Man shoots you dead.”
Burt and his pawn shop are home to a lot of scenes (warning: spoilers ahead). Dud owes Burt thousands of dollars, and, at different points, has to give him his car, television, bike, and his dad’s watch. Burt’s seems to be the most prosperous business in the strip mall that housed Dud and Liz’s dad’s pool supply shop before his dad went body surfing one day and never returned. (At one point, a well-to-do family buys the now-vacant storefront. “We really feel like this is an emerging neighborhood,” the family’s patriarch tells a seething Dud. “Emerging from what?” he replies, not long before stealing their equipment and driving them to leave town.)
The death of Bill (Tom Nowicki), Dud and Liz’s dad, left the kids drowning in debt: Liz had cosigned a loan for her dad and owes the bank $80,000 — she works at Shamroxx because she can hide her cash tips from the bank, which is garnishing her wages. Though Dud and Liz argue over whether Bill was killed by a shark or committed suicide, it doesn’t matter: a shark or debt, it all adds up to the same thing.
In one scene, Liz asks a bank teller if she’s ever been in debt herself, to which the teller replies that yes, she has school loans.
“So you took on debt so you could enforce other people’s debt?” says Liz. “Living the dream.”
Later, Liz returns to the bank with $18,000 — everything she has, she explains to the same teller. Either the bank accepts the money and closes out her account, she says, or she will keep the money and throw herself off a bridge, and the bank will receive nothing.
The gambit works, and in the next scene, we see Liz sitting in her car in the bank parking lot, sobbing as she looks at the paperwork that shows her loan marked as paid off.
At night, Dud squats in his old apartment, curled up around a bottle of whisky, and by day, he sneaks into the pool behind the house where he, Liz, and Bill lived before it was repossessed. The family who now occupy the home have him arrested and are granted a restraining order.
Trying to quit borrowing money from his sister and Burt, Dud signs up for TempJoy, the local temp agency. His first job takes him to Orbis, where he is tasked with putting together “termination folders.” His boss Gloria (Jocelyn Towne), a human-resources head, tells him the company has “been closing for five years, building by building, department by department.”
“People call me the Angel of Death,” she adds.
“That’s not fair,” he responds. “You’re just doing your job.”
At the lodge, Dud meets people with problems of their own. As Jocelyn (Adam Godley), who is sent from Lynx headquarters — Lodge 1 in London — to visit Lodge 49 puts it while on the phone with his superiors, “These are good people who’ve fallen on hard times. It’s the fate of the working class! Or perhaps the middle class? Things are a little more fluid here. It’s difficult to distinguish who’s who.”
There’s Ernie Fontaine (Brent Jennings), an aging plumbing-supply salesman who’s in debt to Burt too, and becomes Dud’s mentor and best friend. When they meet, Ernie, desperate to pay off his gambling debts, tells Dud the lodge’s initiation fee is $2,000 rather than $200 — when you’re up against a wall, the temptation to con someone else can be irresistible.
Connie (Linda Emond), Ernie’s not-so-secret lover, is a reporter who gets laid off by her younger boss when the paper makes a pivot to video. (When this happens, Connie reads the paper’s press release out loud to Ernie over the phone: “In an age of accelerated transformation, our mission is to become an industry leader in the curation, optimization, and monetization of hyper-content.” But the layoffs come for the boss too: later, Connie runs into him at TempJoy.) Blaise (David Pasquesi), another lodge regular, owns a marijuana dispensary. He sleeps in the store; that is, until he’s robbed at gunpoint and loses the shop.
The Lynx members’ problems mirror the lodge’s own decline. Once a thriving hub where Orbis employees and their families celebrated, danced, and socialized, Lodge 49 is now perpetually dim and sparsely populated. One of its key attractions is a tavern where members can run up hefty tabs. When Scott (Eric Allan Kramer) takes over as the lodge’s Sovereign Protector and tries to call in the bar tabs in a bid to get the indebted lodge’s finances in order, it nearly destroys the place, throwing members into open rebellion.
And yet, Lodge 49 is a comedy, and an optimistic one at that. Webs of debt and despair, disappointed dreams and displaced lives, initially tie the characters together, but it’s solidarity that makes the bonds last. Without that, Dud, Liz, Ernie, Connie, Blaise, and everyone else would ricochet away from one another, overlapping for one temp job or pint or visit to Burt’s pawn shop and then never again. Dud’s desire to make the lodge different, to free himself and everyone else from the grind, is the alchemical magic the show’s characters so desperately seek.
Watching Lodge 49 is like hanging around in a dive, striking up conversations with the regulars and realizing they’re just like you, that everyone is just trying to keep their heads above water. Watching the show during the pandemic, when we’re more isolated than ever, is a reminder of what paradoxically underlies that current isolation: we’re all in it together.
“Is there another way to live?” asks a billboard above a spot where Dud and Ernie run out of gas while on the road.
“I don’t get it,” says Dud. “Is it advertising something?”
“The future,” says Ernie.
In fact, it’s advertising a mixed-use real estate development project, overseen by a developer known as “Captain.” Dud and Ernie eventually meet Captain, and it turns out that his project, too, is just a scam, a way for faceless investors above Captain to make more money. Whatever; our protagonists keep moving. They’ve got lives to live.