The Western genre has always been a war between the entertainingly reprehensible and the dully civilized. In fiction at least, settling the Old West is a task for hard, ruthless folk whose six-gun frontier justice has no place in the safer, softer world they scour the land to bring about. That’s the central conflict facing the McCullough clan at the heart of AMC’s The Son, a disappointingly ordinary multigenerational saga that wears its prosaic philosophical conundrum like a dusty, but store-bought, set of cowboy duds.
The Son’s structure is essentially a mashup of There Will Be Blood and Dances With Wolves, with the series’ narrative sophistication favoring the latter. In 1915, Eli McCullough (Pierce Brosnan, sporting some magnificent salt-and-pepper whiskers and a soft, croaky drawl that serves for his Texas accent) is a respected and feared cattle baron, looking to transform his waning fortunes by becoming an oil baron. With his bookish, middle-aged son Phineas (David Wilson Barnes) attempting to secure the necessary funds, Eli feuds with younger son, Pete (Henry Garrett), about the ethics of both luring investors to what’s been a purely speculative and unsuccessful hunt for oil, and of Eli’s wonted brand of violent problem-solving. Mexican revolutionaries are mounting a campaign to take back Texas (and blow up McCullough’s oil wells), while Eli’s uneasy truce with his Mexican-American landowner neighbor, Garcia (Carlos Bardem), sees old racial enmities rising to the surface as a result.
Interspersed in Eli’s 1915 travails are flashbacks to his 1850s young adulthood, when, after a Comanche raid kills his family, the teenaged Eli (Jacob Lofland) is taken as the Indians’ captive. Meant to illuminate Brosnan’s present-day, often cruel pragmatism, these interludes—where the young Eli gradually gains the respect of stern but wise tribal leader Toshaway (Zahn McClarnon)—exist in narrative isolation. It’s not that the raw-boned, toothy Lofland couldn’t grow into Brosnan’s mellifluously twinkly Eli McCullough. But The Son’s attempt at epic sweep comes off as underpopulated and pinched, the intersection of past and present stated instead of felt. Rather than past and present informing each other, these twin tales remain steadfastly parallel.
Based on Philipp Meyer’s 2013 novel of the same name, The Son shows signs of adaptation strain. (All the more disappointing since Meyer helped to adapt his own work for TV.) Pete’s relationship with his family is presented in awkward, jerking fashion, with his two sons introduced abruptly whenever one of them is required to choose between Pete’s and Eli’s ways. (As Pete’s headstrong young daughter, Jeannie, Sydney Lucas fares better, her watchful face finding the urgency in Jeannie’s choice between her father and grandfather.) And Pete’s marriage to wife Sally (Jess Weixler) is so underdeveloped that, when Sally states in the third episode, “Seems we haven’t talked in awhile,” it points out the fact that they’ve barely spoken on screen at all to that point. Similarly, a past romance between Pete and Garcia’s upright daughter, Maria (Paola Núñez), resurfaces in tepid glances and dull nods of agreement that their respective fathers’ old-school resentments are poisoning their families’ future happiness.
But The Son suffers most in its central father-son conflict, as Pete’s hangdog decency fails at every turn to offer up much in the way of a defense against Eli’s calls for bloody, decisive action. Part of the problem is that Garrett isn’t Brosnan. Endearingly dodgy accent aside, Pierce Brosnan makes the elder McCullough a formidably charismatic figure, while Garrett’s Pete—for all the talk of his extrajudicial exploits alongside his father in the past—remains in a well-meaning funk throughout the six episodes provided to critics. In this world where hand-cranked automobiles exist uneasily beside horses, Eli (born on the same day as the Republic Of Texas, as we’re repeatedly told) represents the past, where survival often meant doing the unthinkable. Pete, often shown reading “progressive” literature (The Jungle makes a conspicuous appearance alongside Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn), while still tethered to his father and his own past misdeeds, looks toward a future of prosperity, morality, and, most of all, safety. But Garrett’s performance and the series’ prose can’t stand up against either Brosnan’s magnetism or the genre’s conventions. When Pete is caught up in the violence his father’s legacy brings about (at a riverbank ambush, in a household siege), Pete’s inner conflict and subsequent guilt only become more tiresome.
The Son could use a better mouthpiece for so-called civilization, as the series does raise provocative questions about just what people are prepared to do to ensure their security. You can set your watch by each episode’s tearful tale of a character’s tragic backstory, but the fact that nearly every person involved—Anglo, Mexican, Indian—has suffered horrific racial violence resonates. The stories of young and old Eli McCullough come across as too programmatic—any torture inflicted on young Eli is sure to be repeated at old Eli’s hand—but The Son does take unflinching stock of the long, unbroken strain of cruelty, selfishness, and rationalization that persists to this day. (The recent Mexican insurgency sees Pete wary of the “law and order” types urging bluntly cruel and racist measures to stop them, in a dispiriting echo of current U.S. policies.)
When Pete objects to his father’s torture of a Mexican informant, Eli’s ready hand with a knife (and the poor unfortunate’s ears) might belie Pete’s protest that torture doesn’t work. But Eli’s time with Comanches taught him lessons that are more complex, with the wonderfully contained McClarnon making the cliché of the wise Indian mentor refreshingly unsentimental. In McClarnon’s hands, Toshaway’s line to the conflicted, half-assimilated Eli carries the series’ thematic weight with succinct clarity. “All the white people I’ve ever met tried to steal our land, and yet I have never met a white man who didn’t look surprised when I killed him,” he says, ending with a contemptuous shrug that says even more. On the other side, the series differentiates Eli’s more complicated racial attitudes with sneering local bartender and resident bigot Niles (James Parks), whose every appearance represents what Pete terms “the local yahoos who go for a rope whenever a Mexican looks at a white woman.”
But The Son fails to integrate its thematic ambitions into its pedestrian narrative more often than not. There’s little narrative urgency or snap, and most episodes end in an anticlimax better suited to an ad break. Action scenes are workmanlike, the direction lacking the immediacy to bring home the horror of the series’ steady flow of bloodshed. The series opens with young Eli’s homestead being overrun by the Comanches, a blow to Eli’s head transforming his perceptions of the ensuing carnage into a series of blurry, distancing snatches. The storytelling is slack throughout, unassisted by the dullness of most of the cast. Only Brosnan (as miscast as he is), McClarnon, and—as the two very different young women in Eli’s past—Kathryn Prescott and Elizabeth Frances suggest much beyond the prosaic lines they’re too often saddled with. The Son is handsomely if stiffly mounted would-be prestige drama without the imagination to rise to the level of its ambitions.