'The Son': TV Review | SXSW 2017
Star Pierce Brosnan is the least interesting thing about AMC's adaptation of Philipp Meyer's acclaimed novel, premiering at SXSW before airing in April.
AMC may be the network that Mad Men and Breaking Bad turned into an Emmy powerhouse, but for a certain audience, the Western miniseries Broken Trail is the original that put the channel on the map.
So for every Preacher or Better Call Saul that AMC does for younger viewers and critical acclaim, there's always been room for a Hell on Wheels, or even a Turn, somewhat staid and aesthetically conservative history lessons brought to life with just enough revisionism to appeal to audiences that still watch TV on Saturday night.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Philipp Meyer, AMC's new drama The Son starts off with a stretch of episodes that feel all-too-familiar and vaguely mummified before exploring more morally complex material in the second half of its 10-episode run. Pierce Brosnan's return to the small screen is the biggest selling point for the drama, sneaking at SXSW on Sunday, March 12, and premiering on-air on April 8. But the erstwhile Remington Steele (or James Bond, if you prefer) is the least interesting piece of the less interesting of the story's halves.
The Son is structured as two parallel narratives (Meyer's book had three, but the author and fellow series co-creators Brian McGreevy, and Lee Shipman trimmed the more modern of the segments).
In 1849, nebulously teenaged Eli McCullough (Jacob Lofland) watches Comanches kill his family in front of him and finds himself a slave to Toshaway (Zahn McClarnon, great but worthy of so much more after his run on Fargo), a warrior with some authority in the band. Initially horrified by their savage ways, Eli finds himself becoming more at home with his captors, including the lovely Prairie Flower (Elizabeth Frances) and the insecure, threatening Charges the Enemy (Tatanka Means). With first mockery and then affection, he soon comes to be called Pathetic White Boy (which was also my nickname in middle school in Mississippi).
Flash forward to 1915 and Pathetic White Boy, who shares a birthday with the state of Texas, has grown into a powerful and notoriously vicious landowner whose new Comanche nickname would probably be Growls With a Beard (Brosnan). On the surface, Eli's ranch looks robust, but difficulties finding oil have created an unspoken struggle shared with Eli's sons Pete (Henry Garrett) — proposed native name "Pouts With Sanctimony" — and Phineas (David Wilson Barnes), who could be called "Harbors a Predictable Secret." Pete is married to Sally (Jess Weixler), who the Comanche would call "Too Young For This Role," and they have kids Charles (Shane Graham's "Pathetic White Boy II"), Jeannie (Sydney Lucas' "Texas Scout Finch") and mostly forgotten Jonas (Caleb Burgess).
It's the eve of what historians call the Bandit War and the McCulloughs, who secured their estate at the expense of countless Mexican and Native American lives, could be on the brink of conflict with their neighbor Pedro Garcia (Carlos Bardem) and his extended family — including daughter Maria (Paola Nuñez), who once had a thing with Pete.
The straightforward plot of The Son is pretty rudimentary history-as-Shakespearean-tragedy stuff, the kind of material that good writing can elevate but perfunctory direction can render forgettable. Tom Harper, who previously directed Lifetime's decently boiled down War & Peace, gets hung up on a Gone With The Wind meets Cormac McCarthy epic sweep that he doesn't have the budget for. Vast stretches of Texas frontier are unremarkably pretty, but seem prioritized over character development such that Pete and Pedro's kids become a little interchangeable and I'm pretty sure that most of the Comanche characters don't get names until the fifth or sixth episodes. My understanding and sympathies are with anybody who tunes out The Son early because they tire of postcard vistas, graphic and vaguely stereotypical Comanche savagery and a wide cast of performers who never got on a common page regarding what a 1915 Texas accent was supposed to sound like.
It's no exaggeration to say that I had to replay Eli's grandstanding birthday speech at least three times because whatever it was that Brosnan was trying to do, accent-wise, was so strange and instantly inconsistent. Brosnan was a late addition to the cast, replacing Sam Neill, so one could posit that he was thrust into production without prep. His accent smooths out into vaguely British later, something that has no real connection to what Lofland, the better of the two Elis, is doing. Garrett's accent is also erratic, but it's his character's one-note petulance that makes him so unappealing.
The Eli-Pete relationship has to be the heart of the story. The themes of children escaping the legacy of their parents and the sad repetition and echoes of history require that. Instead, any scene between Brosnan and Garrett doubles down on boredom. Brosnan is much better in scenes with relative newcomer Lucas, delivering welcome plucky attitude, and Garrett is a tiny bit better in scenes with Nuñez (though in a symbolically appropriate stroke of editing, most of the Garcia scenes feel like they've been usurped by the gringo family).
Everything about Brosnan's performance is too genteel and perfectly coifed — it's a great beard though — with the actor rarely offering the requisite insight into how Young Eli's experiences with the Comanche shaped him. There's so much talk about all of the horrible things that Eli and his family did, but there's less evidence of those experiences in what Brosnan is doing.
In the foreground, everything in the violence-begets-violence arc of both stories is genre standard. The Young Eli story is straight out of the Dances with Wolves "What if the white folks are the REAL savages?" playbook, right down to what is probably the last scene with Natives looking sadly at rotting buffalo corpses and reflecting on how wasteful settlers are that I ever need to see. The Older Eli stuff is probably more Godfather than anything else, one greedy, inhuman decision after another leading to retaliations in kind.
It's on the fringes that The Son is sometimes smart, nuanced and relevant. It isn't just the border issues, always vital in our world of impending walls. It's a history of Texas that's also a history of marginalization and unexpectedly intersecting power relationships. Different native tribes marginalize each other. Mexicans and Anglos marginalize the native tribes. Anglos marginalize the Mexicans. Wealthy whites marginalize poor whites. Everybody marginalizes women. The dynamics that I found most involving weren't the broad conflicts in which people were graphically scalped or riddled with bullets, though there are plenty of those. I paid more attention to conversations in which the main purpose was prioritizing prejudices, figuring out whose labels were most damaging, who had the most historical cause to resent or hate the other. My favorite scene in the entire series was a chat between James Parks' Niles Gilbert and J. Quinton Johnson's Neptune, both subordinates to Eli, but one from a poor Confederate family, the other African-American, basically seeking out ways in which their prejudices might align.
Or you can look at the entire series as a Trump allegory about a wealthy man who, unsatisfied with his reach, eyes greater and greater power by building a consortium of disenfranchised blue-collar citizens and instigating their hatred for a scapegoated group with threats like, "They're determined to destroy our way of life and their weapon of choice is terror."
As I started The Son, I found myself less-than-engaged with the things that were supposed to be its calling cards, including the story and Pierce Brosnan. As I worked my way through 10 episodes, I found ideas to latch onto and a number of supporting performances to appreciate, a bit like Eli's inevitable growing respect for his Comanche captors. Some viewers may eschew that kind of Stockholm Syndrome affection and just seek early escape to one of the dozens of other scripted shows premiering in what looks to be an epic April of television.
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Henry Garrett, Zahn McClarnon, Paola Núñez, Sydney Lucas, James Parks, J. Quinton Johnson, David Wilson Barnes, Jess Weixler
Creators: Philipp Meyer, Lee Shipman, Brian McGreevy
From The Novel By: Philipp Meyer
Airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC. Two-hour premiere on April 8.