“In the Belly of the Whale” gets Amazon’s revenge fantasy off to a slow start, but establishes the show’s aesthetic and idiosyncratic tone.
This recap of Hunters Season 1, Episode 1, “In the Belly of the Whale”, contains spoilers. You can check out our spoiler-free review of the entire series by clicking these words.
The feature-length opener of Amazon Prime’s oddball revenge fantasy begins in June 1977, at the Maryland home of Under Secretary of State Biff Simpson (Dylan Baker). Establishing the show’s tone early, a Jewish barbecue guest quickly identifies Biff – wearing a “kiss the chef” apron – as a secret Nazi, which prompts him to whip out a silenced pistol and execute every attendee, including his wife and children. Slipping back into his natural accent he laments the waste of his hard work in establishing a cover identity and gets goofily over-the-top in his description of his “swine” American offspring. It’s a brutal opener, but also a kind of silly one, as Biff snarls that the Nazis are here, everywhere, and that the Jews didn’t survive the Holocaust but have simply been marinating ever since. The later arrival of Travis (Greg Austin) to clean up the scene and shoot Biff in the arm to create the illusion that he survived an attack suggests that he’s speaking truthfully about the breadth of Nazi power, and if there’s a scene that really encapsulates the style and tone of Hunters Episode 1, it’s this one.
But that’s just an appetizer. The bulk of “In the Belly of the Whale” is devoted to Jewish teenager Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), a smart weed-dealing Brooklynite who lives with his grandmother Ruth (Jeannie Berlin) and promptly witnesses her being shot by a masked man whom she insists “can’t hide”. Only a couple of scenes in and I’ve already lost count of the executions in Hunters Episode 1 – this isn’t a show that skimps on violence. Ruth’s last words, though, suggest she knew her killer, and later a secret box that Jonah discovers contains a note which suggests she had encountered someone from her past. That past is briefly delved into in flashback form, the first of many and always a curious, tonally mismatched structural choice; in 1931, Ruth’s ghetto is raided by the Nazis and her parents are killed, though Ruth herself is spared a similar fate by Al Pacino’s Meyer Offerman. Back in the present day, Meyer offers Jonah his card and his assistance.
Of course, Jonah’s amateur sleuthing – and the inaction of the police department – ensure he needs Meyer’s help sooner rather than later, but more on this in a minute, since a subplot is developing elsewhere in Hunters Episode 1. NASA chemist Gretel Fischer (Veronika Nowag-Jones) is gassed in her own shower, and FBI agent Millie Morris (Jerrika Hinton), notably a black woman, is assigned to investigate by her New York boss Chief Grimsby (James Le Gros). Millie is switched-on enough to deduce the cause of death and quickly another a photo of Gretel with none other than Adolf Hitler, but she’s relentlessly stonewalled and belittled by racist, misogynist higher-ups.
Anyway, Jonah. After moronically turning to a street gang for help he’s arrested and subsequently bailed out by Meyer, who inhabits a swanky townhouse complete with secret doorways and hidden war rooms. They play chess, and “In the Belly of the Whale” makes the metaphor literal when Meyer regales Jonah with a story about Heinz Richter, a sadistic concentration camp guard who forced inmates to play human chess. This is not a subtle show. Nevertheless, Jonah shows some smarts, first by winning the game and then by stealing a photo of his grandmother’s killer, who he’s able to track to a toy store.
This man is Richter (Kenneth Tigar) himself and lives up to his reputation by tasing Jonah and then using his torso as a dartboard. This scene is rife with silly dialogue that I shan’t reproduce, though I will say that it’s an absolute riot to witness Al Pacino flip-flop between grandiose chess metaphors and coarse, foul-mouthed insults without any warning whatsoever. Oh, yeah, Meyer saves Jonah by stabbing Richter through the throat, which is how he ended up in the scene in the first place, and I must say that I respect the willingness of Hunters to make its villains ridiculous, snarling cartoon maniacs, just to keep their deaths cathartic.
For instance, Travis coerces a politician by brutally attacking his buddies with a bowling ball, and then meets The Colonel (Lena Olin), who lets him know that his services will be required in the creation of a “Fourth Reich” – it’s almost tempting to laugh at these two and their damp-eyed adoration for the late Fuhrer, which I suppose is largely the point. By making its villains silly in this way, Hunters is encouraging extremely brutal actions on their part and endorsing equally brutal revenge to be visited upon them; it’s the righting of a historical wrong in the broadest, most indulgent way possible, with both the wrongness and the forthcoming redemption blown up to outsized proportions.
Hunters Season 1, Episode 1 ends with Meyer explaining his relationship with Ruth and her importance in Nazi-hunting operations, and then introducing Jonah to those operations – more specifically to the diverse and comic book-y team which carries them out. We’ll get proper introductions in the next episode. But for now, the scene is set, and the closing dialogue makes the show’s mission statement clear: These guys are going to be hunting and killing lots of Nazis.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.