This article contains spoilers.
So far, Cleverman has left some viewers exhilarated and others frustrated by its slow-to-unfurl character arcs. It has been taking its time with character building; it took two full episodes for our supposed hero to do one sort of redeeming thing. It is beautifully and lovingly shot, with a camera that likes to linger on grim corners and realizations. At times, the show seems to be savoring its own existence. Yet when the pace lags or the dialogue is a touch too on-the-nose, Cleverman is buoyed by its stellar performances.
None stand out quite so brightly as newcomer Tysan Towney playing Djukara, the young hairy man who was turned in to authorities in the first episode and held prisoner in the shady secret government Containment facilities. The show took a gamble with a brutal torture scene in episode 2, that might have been gratuitous – if it weren’t played so brilliantly by Towney.
Cleverman is a show brimming with anger. It seethes within many of the characters but especially Djukara. Between his rage, superhuman strength and thick beard, at first it’s easy to miss the fact that Djukara is just a teenager. In Episode 1, we see him fight free of the arresting officers with ease, the first time we get a sense of the Hairies’ physical powers.
Episode 2 however, sees him, quite literally, stripped bare. Held in the Containment facility, one of the guard’s takes offense to Djukara’s defiant attitude and decides to make an example of him. Towney told Inverse via Twitter that he looked particularly to Malcolm X and other African American civil rights leaders as inspiration for his portrayal of the character. It’s fitting, as the show is an obvious allegory of violent racism that could apply to most countries with a colonial past.
Ultimately, the guard’s target Djukara’s father to finally force him into submission. The subsequent scene, in which Djukara is tormented and ultimately humiliated, is a testament to how raw and unapologetic Cleverman can be. The guard’s dialogue, delivered with almost cartoonish malevolence, is a weakness, but Djukara carries the scene wordlessly with raw pain. Strung up and shaved from head to toe, we see his face clearly for the first time. His youthfulness is fully revealed, augmenting the horror of it all.
It’s a bold scene, and so compelling it carried the episode and buoyed my hopes for the series. While the other characters have been slow to develop—Koen is still unlikeable, Waruu grows more so, Jarrod Slade remains enigmatic—we’ve already seen an impressive range of Djukara. He’s the most openly emotional characters with a commanding screen presence. Last night’s episode saw him sprung from Containment and safe for now. There’s a moment in which you see him, and the other two Hairies he escaped with, as the young boys they truly are, and a brief smile is all the more powerful.
Cleverman is only his second screen role, but Towney’s performance so far is one of the show’s great merits. It’s already been guaranteed a second season so it will be keeping Towney busy for a while, but will likely be a breakout role for the young actor. He’d like to make it to Hollywood one day, and says he’d love to work with directors Martin Scorcese, David Fincher or Steve McQueen.
Cleverman airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on SundanceTV.