Purge Evolution: Featured

This article will include some minor spoilers regarding THE PURGE franchise. I’d argue nothing you would not learn from watching the trailers. Still, if you are spoiler sensitive you may want to steer clear.

When we first “met” THE PURGE series, five years and a month ago, it presented as a relatively low budget low prestige horror film. With its masked and suited villains and themes of home invasions, you could be forgiven if you thought THE PURGE was some kind of cousin to the first STRANGERS film.

As the franchise has marched on, however, it has increasingly grown beyond its rather modest beginnings. Shedding the horror tropes that powered its first installment, it increasingly embraced political content. As a result, the “world” of THE PURGE deepened and, ultimately, added retroactive political resonance to the initial installment.

With the release of THE FIRST PURGE, the series has returned to where it started, in multiple ways. Now it stands poised to leap to television with a ten-episode limited series. With the franchise still successful, does that make a lick of sense? I say yes. So don your mask, grab your machete, and get ready to survive. Why? Because for the next approximately 2,100 words, all crime is legal.

Purge Evolution: The Purge
Ethan Hawke gazes out at the terrible new world in THE PURGE. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

A Closed Loop

THE PURGE establishes the alternate United States in the loosest of terms. Truthfully, the movie is not concerned about much except the world immediately outside the Sandins’ — the focal family — front door. How does a community act when it longer fears legal ramifications? Will petty grudges lead to violent crimes when society is given a proverbial day off? Do the connections of sharing space hold or do they deteriorate?

If you trace the films in release order the focus begins with how the Purge affects community dynamics. The second — ANARCHY — broadens the lens to take in a full metropolitan area. How does the Purge look when you move beyond a neighborhood? Who participates and who just tries to survive? What motivates someone to Purge once you leave a familiar space?

Then ELECTION YEAR takes it to the macrocosm: the entire country via federal elections. How long will Americans tolerate extreme danger once a year? How long before they notice being pitted against one another violently so the elites can maintain power? When will they realize that despite being told “all the good the Purge does” improvements are hard to find?

Therefore, the films escalate with each installment. Each step up the ladder we learn more about the world and the cascade of results the Purge has sparked. That is until we reach the latest installment.

Purge Evolution: The First Purge
Lex Scott Davis tries to push back against the NFFA in THE FIRST PURGE. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

What THE FIRST PURGE Tells Us

The most important thing FIRST PURGE reveals is that the population of the United States did not get onboard immediately. Despite the whitewashed history we see revealed in bits and pieces in the previous three films, the residents of Staten Island did not immediately turn on one another. Greed and lust seemed to guide most of their choices, not homicidal ideation. It is only with the arrival of mercenary ringers that the kind of kill sprees we grew accustomed to in the prior installments start.

The film turns a lot of what we thought we knew about the Purge on its head. For instance, the masks. While Staten Island residents did wear masks during the pilot Purge, they are utilizing them more like bacchanalia attire. In fact, the only residents of Staten Island we see who try to indulge their murderous desires — the shopping cart women with their explosive obstacle course, Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), the prostitutes, the rival drug dealer, and Isaiah (Joivan Wade) — do it barefaced.

It is not until the government ringers begin to spread violence far and wide that masks become about murder. Then, the media hooks into it and begins to discuss it as the “uniform” of the night. Thus, years later, masks for the purposes of murder are now, if not the norm, incredibly common. THE FIRST PURGE also offers the roadmap to how the day of violence really took hold. The government broadcast images of violence in the cities to the suburbs and exurbs. implying the violence was being committed by people of color.

Fear spreads amongst the mostly white at home audience. This, in turns, births the Purge industry.

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Who Is Hurting Who?

With this information, the nature of the Purge becomes clearer. It began as bad movements in American history often have. Make people afraid of minorities and the socioeconomically disadvantaged.

From there, it becomes a hop, skip, and jump from making the lower middle class hate the middle class and the middle class hate the upper middle class. Then, in turn, the upper middle class became scared of the middle class and the middle class became scared of the lower middle class.

Thus, people like James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) was able to make a living off selling security systems to those around him, stoking resentment on an even more personal scale, turning people of roughly the same socioeconomic status against each other. Therefore, the population becomes too divided against itself to organize. Hence the failure of the anti-Purge group in ANARCHY. As indicated in ELECTION, the group seemed poised to challenge the system but more than a decade later, the Purge continued on and they appear gone.

Additionally, they are too scared because they think the Purge ending will actually make life more dangerous. Finally, everyone is too distracted to notice that the extremely rich have suffered barely, if at all. Moreover, most violent Purgers seem motivated by desperation — so effectively isolated by the propaganda they now have no choice — or very rich thrillseekers. The Purge has improved the economy by creating a new crop of businesses focused on protecting you from the Purge but done little else to improve the U.S.

However, nobody can stop long enough, quell their anxiety long enough, or reach out to anyone different to see it.

Purge Evolution: The Purge: Election Year
I know what this mask says in this scene from THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR but I’d urge you not to take it at face value. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The Role of the Media

One of the stranger elements of the Purge universe has always been that the free press seems to still exist. Additionally, they seem to cover Purge night pretty extensively. Under the hot glow of the press’s focus, surely this “tradition” would wilt?

THE FIRST PURGE speaks to this as well. By seemingly press access, the New Founding Fathers of America present as maintaining the status quo.

However, what actually appears to be happening is that the press relies on the government to provide footage. They, thus, spare their reporters from direct harm and still cover Purge Night. In reality what they receive is significantly skewed to tell the story the NFFA wants to tell. This is why the killing of Dr. Updale (Marissa Tomei) is scrubbed while the entire country saw Skeletor kill a twenty-something trying to open up an ATM.

This is why residents gathering in a church goes uncovered until the church becomes a killbox. It is easy to allow for a free press when you control the information they base their reporting on. Extrapolating from that, it is not hard to see how the press has “missed” how Purge created improvements are shams. The media seems free but they are basing their reports on sanitized data, skewed metrics. Like the rest of the population, they can barely question the information given how scared, distracted, on the hustle, and isolated from others they are.

That is why Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) is such a threat. By speaking her negative Purge story directly to the press, she “breaks” the scrubbed system.

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What About Religion?

I do not subscribe to the idea that the United States began as an explicitly Christian nation. Nor do I think it would be better if it became one. That said, I recognize that faith is of great spiritual and/or cultural importance to many people in this country. It should not have a role in our government, but it remains important to the structure of many lives. Thus its absence from a franchise that explores the other distinctive US institutions feels strange.

In the communist nations, the Party typically drove religion out of public life. The State, in essence, was the people’s god and faith was, therefore, a danger to rule. Hence why the US inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance in the 50s. Godless Communists could only be overcome by God-fearing Capitalists.

However, FIRST PURGE seems to indicate that, as this is about America, we did things with our own flair.

First, we see the NFFA incorporate religious doctrine and language into their propaganda. Given that NFFA seems to be a right-wing extremist party, this makes sense. In order to be a viable third party, they broke right and explicitly religious even harder than their GOP counterparts.

The second hint is the raiding of the church on Staten Island. This undermines the church as a sanctuary. With doubt introduced, it would be easier to encourage people to move to whatever the NFFA closely aligned with. Basically, there exists a state-sanctioned faith and to worship it is to accept the NFFA as the correct and proper group to be in charge. Talk of the NFFA is thus talk of faith, in essence.

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The Next Steps

First, I have to be clear here. I would not be at all surprised if we see more PURGE films. In a perfect world, we would not. Still, as the films increase their power to be a cracked mirror of our world and retained their money-making potential, it would be foolish to bet against it. Commerce is kind, after all. Just another thing our world share with the Purge world, I suppose.

However, I am focusing on this television series as it will take this step and not look back. For now, at least, that does seem to be the plan.

So, taking that at face value, TV makes sense because they have run out of ground in film. They have built and established the world, showing us how it began and, we hope, how it ended with the ascension of Roan to the office of President. They have shown us the NFFA gamed the system to seize and hold power and undermined the institutions in the United States we think protect us. Finally, as indicated in the first two sections above, they closed the narrative loop by returning to the beginning.

James DeMonaco has more to say though. Moreover, there does seem to be further ground worth exploring. So to TV we go!

Purge Evolution: The Purge: Anarchy
God looks different than I expected in THE PURGE: ANARCHY. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The Advantages of Television

Often when you do research it is helpful to start with a larger question and a big sample size. Then, with every subsequent step, you can drill do further and further, gaining specificity with each newly designed study.

Television represents that next study for the PURGE series.

With the movies having given us a proverbial bird’s eye view, the series allows us to really live in the Purge. Ideally — and my initial impression — was that it was going to focus on the activities of a Purger on a Purge Night. This would be a unique opportunity not yet accorded to us.

The closest we had gotten until now was Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) in ANARCHY but that was tempered by our knowledge that he was grief-stricken and avenging, not simply doing crime for crime’s sake. It would most likely make the limited series the darkest installment in the PURGE sequence yet but think of the insight.

Alas, I have since read the plan is otherwise.

Nonetheless, my initial point still stands. Television allows for a longer, deeper dive. We’ve done the surveys, this is now the case study. Now that we understand the systems, we are in a position to really explore how it might affect one person living through the PURGE era.

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Where to Next?

I think the PURGE franchise really can go in a variety of directions after this limited series. One I already mentioned, exploring the mindset and motivations of a Purger, meet them, spend ten episodes with them, come to, perhaps, understand them as more than horror movie boogeymen. I know the era of the morally conflicted criminal — see Breaking Bad, Sopranos, etc — has come to end, but I think this idea can still work.

I also love the idea of exploring a world where the Purge has been rescinded. How does the populace react? What about the ways it boosted the economy? If violence increases or the economy crashes, will morality remain or will people demand a return to the bloodletting?

Despite all signs and expectations creator DeMonaco and his co-conspirators have built a surprisingly rich and relevant world from a low-cost home invasion horror film. He can go nearly anywhere from here. Who could’ve predicted that five years and a month ago?

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