Well, having seen the conclusion of History Channel’s Bonnie and Clyde, I can sum it up this way: pedestrian, but mostly competent and mildly entertaining.
If that sounds like a not-very-glowing remark, it is, and it is in great part due to the inevitable comparison of this piece of television programming with its cinematic predecessor, which served as one of the inaugural entries in the New Hollywood. However, even taken on its own terms, the story that History Channel tells with this most famous and glamorous of criminals is, for the most part, entertaining enough (and we’ll just leave aside the question of historical accuracy).
For the most part, the leads manage to do a passable job of conveying some of the youthful spirit and wild energy that made Bonnie and Clyde so charismatic and so unpredictable. However, we never quite connect to them, in large part because the leads are so average, especially when one considers their predecessors (to be fair, though, who could possibly measure up to the sexual energy conjured up by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty?) Hirsch is by far the better of the two, while Grainger does a fair job with the script that she’s been handed.
And that, for me, was really the true rub about watching this miniseries. Throughout, we get the sense that Clyde is the more sensible and level-headed of the two, and that it is Bonnie who goads him on to bigger and grander jobs in an effort to boost her own self-image. In fact, the ending reinforces this quite strongly, for it is made explicitly clear that Clyde deliberately leads them into the final trap that will end in their death, largely in an attempt to contain Bonnie’s ruthlessness. In doing so, the series suggests that, while it is Bonnie that is the alleged “brains” behind the outfit, she is also the one that needs the most containment, and it is significant that, at the very end, even her most steadfast supporter, a young man who loves her, contributes to her death.
In doing all of this, the miniseries continues to argue that, while Bonnie is clearly the more driven and ambitious of the two criminals, she is also the one who must bear the burden of their mutual sins. Thus, while Clyde’s voice continues to guide the narrative (in a rather strange and unsettling posthumous voiceover), Bonnie has no voice of her own. The series also takes great pains to show us Clyde’s tombstone, while there is no sight of Bonnie’s. As a result, Clyde emerges from this story as a hero, while Bonnie is just another dangerous woman that leads him astray into the dark world of crime (which, significantly, includes the death of his brother).
Nor is Bonnie the only woman who comes in for a healthy dose of condemnation. The reporter PJ Lane receives her own fair share of vitriol, for the series, through the voice of Frank Hamer (the Texas ranger who comes out of retirement to hunt them down), makes the point that it is largely due to her glamorization of Bonnie and Clyde that people view them as folk heroes rather than as the murderous criminals they really are. Again, the suggestion is that women who step outside of the appropriate bounds of feminine behavior must be tamed by a man, or their actions will lead to nothing but death and destruction of innocent people (usually, it should be pointed out, men).
If anything saves the series from absolute mediocrity (though not from its problematic gender politics), it has to be the performances of Holly Hunter and William Hurt, who play Emma Parker (Bonnie’s mother) and Frank Hamer, respectively. Hunter manages to capture just the right amounts of sadness and devotion to her wayward daughter and, though she does not speak in the second half of this drama, her silent refusal to answer her daughter’s telephone call speaks louder than her words possibly could. How can one not feel an infinite measure of sadness at the great gulf that no separates mother and daughter? For his part Hurt, with his usual measure of strangeness and distance, manages to capture some of the restless and enigmatic energy that drove a man like Hamer to so rigorously hunt down Bonnie and Clyde.
What do we feel as a result of having watched this little drama? Or, more precisely how are we supposed to feel? In some ways, the death scene stands out as being not that remarkable at all. At this point, due to Clyde’s voiceover and the indictment of Hamer, we have come to see their deaths as not only inevitable but necessary. Their world has closed in about them, their glamour (this is made especially clear as they sit and watch newsreels at a movie theater, in which it is revealed that the public has fallen out of love with them) has vanished into thin air, and their love for one another is almost strained to the breaking point. Their deaths are thus hardly tragic–at least, not in the way of the film version–but instead their (especially Bonnie’s) just desserts.
All in all, this is a competent representation of two of the 20th Century’s most charismatic and eye-capturing crime duos. It remains highly doubtful, however, that it will ever be able to measure up to the high level of artistry of its predecessor on the big screen. Considering the very problematic way in which it positions its female characters, I can’t help but think this might not be such a bad thing.