For viewers with a penchant for back room politics, espionage, covert action, and ethically compromised characters, the 2018 British series Deep State was manna from heaven. Focusing on Max Easton (Mark Strong, a veteran of this sort of thing since Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Zero Dark Thirty), a former MI6 field agent drawn back into shadows by his old puppet masters and swiftly finding himself tangled in a web of deceit and treachery that stretches from the oil fields of the Middle East to Vauxhall to Langley and beyond.
As the double-crosses and dirty deals stacked up, Strong’s steely, methodical presence anchored the proceedings, a rock audiences could grip onto when the skullduggery had them all at sea. It’s a bit of a shame that Strong won’t be returning for Season 2, but viewers with an eye for character actors will be well pleased to learn that he’s been replaced by none other than Walton Goggins, a man whose acting resume, well populated with a wide variety of snitches, corrupt cops, con men, snake oil salesmen, and garden variety ne’er-do-wells, makes him a perfect fit for a series that trucks in mystery, deception, and betrayal.
Jumping across the Atlantic for its protagonist and shifting its area of crisis to Sharan Africa rather than the Middle East, Deep State Season 2 sees Goggins as former CIA agent Nathan Miller, who just like Strong’s Max Easton is tasked with investigating the murder of a group of American Special Forces operators and their translator who were ambushed and killed in Mali.
What sets Miller apart from Easton is that rather than retiring to civilian life after his time working for The Company, he’s a professional “fixer”, a man who uses his clandestine skills to smooth the interplay between government agencies and private corporations in volatile but potentially lucrative hot spots like West Africa. Where Easton was pulled back into the darkness, Miller’s eyes are already accustomed to the lack of light.
That kind of moral ambiguity has marked many of Goggins’ characters over the course of his career. A native of Alabama who decamped for the bright lights of Los Angeles at the age of 19 to pursue acting, for the first decade of his career Goggins notched up a steady string of guest roles and supporting parts, working his way up from “Shaky Kid” in Billy Crystal’s 1992 directorial debut, Mr. Saturday Night, to “Research Tech #1” in 2002’s The Bourne Identity. Things changed dramatically around then thanks to two developments: The Accountant, a short film he starred in and produced, won an Academy Award for Best Short Subject, and he was cast as wild card corrupt cop Shane Vendrell in the hit crime drama, The Shield, protégé-turned-nemesis to series lead Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey.
In many ways, the role of Vendrell set the mold for the Goggins “type” going forward: self-interested, amoral, keenly intelligent, charming, and entirely untrustworthy, traits underlined by his lean, angular, features and bright, piercing gaze. In a series populated by ruthless villain protagonists, Vendrell stood out as a real piece of work: detestable but utterly arresting.
That’s a neat trick to pull off just once, but Goggins managed it twice. After The Shield wrapped in 2008, he returned to regular television in 2010 for the superb FX series Justified, which ran until 2015. Adapted and greatly expanded from a handful of stories by crime fiction great Elmore Leonard, the series followed the exploits of modern-day gunslinger Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), a US Marshall who is punished by being assigned to the local office near his home town of Harlan, Kentucky, in the Appalachian mountains. There he must contend not just with all manner of crime, organised and otherwise, but also no small number of ghosts from his past. Chief among them is his old childhood friend Boyd Crowder, now a duplicitous, charming, dangerously intelligent criminal – in other words, a perfect Walton Goggins character.
Justified stands as one of the most underappreciated crime series of the modern Golden Age of TV; a brisk, fun, action-heavy modern Western packed with crackling dialogue and indelibly eccentric characters that nonetheless deals with hardcore themes of duty, familial loyalty, identity, class, race, and more. Crowder emerges as a more complex and fascinating character than even the nominal series lead; over the course of the show he shifts from villain to hero, Nazi to preacher (Justified investigates the American South’s complex relationships with race and religion with admirable insight), sworn enemy to lifelong brother, and Goggins makes every switchback character turn seem not only natural but weirdly inevitable. It’s simply a bravura performance.
While Goggins stretched himself elsewhere with guest roles in other series – his turn in Sons of Anarchy as trans sex worker Venus Van Dam is a highlight of the deeply uneven bikie drama – he was also making inroads on the big screen. Mexican-American grindhouse director Robert Rodriguez recognised his charms pretty quickly, casting him in 2010’s Predators as Stans, a death row inmate who finds himself transported to an alien planet to be hunted for sport, and in Machete Kills (2013) as one of the many identities of shapeshifting assassin, El Cameleón.
Rodriguez’s old From Dusk Til Dawn partner, Quentin Tarantino, was also drawn to the Goggins magic, putting him in prominent roles in both Django Unchained, where he memorably threatened Jamie Foxx’s slave-turned-bounty-hunter with castration, and The Hateful Eight, where he played racist former bushwhacker, Chris Mannix.
Like a modern-day Harry Dean Stanton or John Cassavetes, Goggins brings with him a set of tics and traits that make him recognisable in whatever role he slips into, his own personality and the written character working in tandem to create what we see on the screen. And when we get the Goggins effect in full force -- as we do in Deep State -- it’s a pleasure.
Deep State Season 2 returns on Thursday August 8. You can watch the entire Season 1 now at SBS On Demand.