One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
Even the most casual western fans know that the genre has lost quite a bit of its lustre over recent decades, at least when it comes to stories that revisit much of the same material covering the 19th Century – frontiers, Indians, cowboys, railroads, and all the usual greatest hits. More recently, the modern western has been at the forefront of cinema and well-realized through relevant epics like last year’s Hell or High Water. In the same way that film starring Jeff Bridges managed to closely inspect the fallout of race relations in West Texas, AMC’s The Son attempts to do the same during the period in between the mid-19th Century and the early 20th, mantled by a frontier on the cusp of the industrial age.
Based on the 2013 New York Times bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel by Philipp Meyer, The Son tells a variety of stories, but they all revolve around real-life Eli McCullough, played by Pierce Brosnan. We see his early life as a young man abducted by the Comanche after they violently murdered his family, as well as his twilight years as a would-be oil baron, slowly transforming his family cattle ranch into a business that’s with the times. As he puts it himself, you don’t get to be a man of Eli’s age without accommodating to change, and that’s just one of many themes that are at play in what’s a thematically promising first season.
Meyer himself spent years researching the McCulloughs and the historical context for the time, and that’s probably why he was also relied upon for helping transition his vision to the small screen. South Texas is packed with gratuitous violence, frontier jargon, and cultural nuance, but you won’t necessarily find any heroes or villains here. The Son does well to present all of its characters with sympathetic circumstances, even though most of them do little to redeem themselves, Eli included. The Comanche, Mexicans, and Americans are all vying for this piece of land, all claiming to be the race that deserves it. The Son doesn’t shy away from the ambiguity of that tension and how it unfurls the relationships in its wake.
Brosnan himself serves the role, well, but it’s a shame Sam Neill initially passed. Much of Brosnan’s performance here feels like a close study of Jeff Bridges, rather than a unique take, but there’s enough compelling writing to make up for where the cast falls short. Eli’s sons are the only other characters given much depth early on, and Henry Garrett and David Wilson Barnes do a fine job as Pete and Phineas, respectively. The show isn’t subtle about the duality in its lead, Eli, and how his sons are virtual representations of his own conflicting values. The only problem is that’s about all they seem available for—a backboard for one interesting character to ricochet his diatribes.
Which is strange to say because The Son is by no means a slow-paced show or at any point boring. At its core, The Son wishes to explain how America became America, and it was on a path of unrelenting violence that terrorized all sides. One of the engaging hooks of this series won’t be “who comes out on top,” but rather who was the hero and who was the villain after all is said and done, if there was one? A rich history of westerns dutifully committed to easy answers in this regard are poised to be upended by more honest examinations of American history, and it’s an exciting prospect. Though it’s also a challenging one, considering how the effects of land disagreements between Native Americans and oil companies (and the U.S. government) are clashing in force to this day over the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines generating physical rifts between communities. And legacies.
It can be difficult to separate all of that baggage from The Son, which for now feels like an honest attempt at capturing this corner of history without cutting its own corners. That’s a tall order for a drama, even on AMC, and for that reason, The Son has to be graded more or less on a curve managed by its own expectations. It’s not a program that can be easily enjoyed through casual viewing and appreciation for the genre, but rather, it begs itself to be taken seriously, much in the same way its own book sparked stressful conversations through its tale of a family dynasty in the making. For that reason, The Son might not be for everyone.
The Son's main proposition is that the frontier was an amoral and violent setting that carved out what we know as America today. It mostly accomplishes this, but also manages to slip a bit from the weight of its own expectations.