In AMC’s engrossing new western ‘The Son,’ a cowboy is just a cowboy
The further America moves away from its frontier past, the more television wants to revisit it.
Here comes “The Son.”
This sweeping western saga about the rise of a family empire is set among the old cattle ranches and new oil wells of 19th- and 20th-century Texas. There are no robots under these cowboy hats a la “Westworld,” or layers of unspoken subtext like “Deadwood.”
A cowboy is just a cowboy, and an Indian just an Indian in this 10-part period drama, which debuts Saturday on AMC. Deep thinking is not required while traversing the show’s beautiful, rugged landscape, which is admittedly a welcome reprieve given the landslide of streaming, network and cable shows that demand we pay close attention or be left behind.
“The Son” is adapted from Philipp Meyer’s 2013 novel. It stars Pierce Brosnan as ruthless land baron and family patriarch Eli McCullough, who is willing to do whatever it takes to become the most powerful — or at least richest — man in Texas.
Eli was born in 1836, the same year as the Republic of Texas. He was raised on the wild frontier by Comanche Indians who killed his settler family when he was a young teen. By living with the tribe, learning from its formidable leader (Zahn McClarnon) and falling in love with a tough woman ironically named Prairie Flower (Elizabeth Frances), he learns what it takes to survive in the largely uninhabited outback that was Mexico and Texas.
He also learns that the road to power requires that a man use violence. Lots and lots of violence.
The story of how he builds his family dynasty takes place along two timelines. The first starts in 1849, when we see how a young Eli (played convincingly by Jacob Lofland) and Texas were formed. It’s the tale of territorial battles and alliances between native Comanche, recently displaced Mexicans and wave after wave of white settlers.
The second timeline kicks off in 1915, on the eve of the Mexican revolution, and just after oil was discovered in Texas. Eli has built his empire as a rancher, but declares “the era of the cattle baron is over.” He’s determined to dominate this new industry, by any means necessary.
But there’s trouble along the nearby Texas-Mexico border that complicates his plans. Mexicans are breaching white ranchers’ fences. The law is crippled by rival political factions. Threatened Americans are taking matters into their own hands, stirring up racial division. What a mess we were back then!
This is not, however, a drama that relies on obvious parallels to today’s political turmoil. It instead works as an engrossing family drama set against a formative era in our nation’s history.
And even if you’re not partial to longhorn history, cowboy lore or the abundance of television series about powerful men who rule by fear, the story line (created by author Meyer, Lee Shipman and Brian McGreevy) is strong enough to make 21st-century audiences care about 19th-century problems.
The cruel and murderous Eli McCullough is difficult to tolerate, and just when you’re ready to hang up your saddle and look for a Netflix superhero to adore, his son and granddaughter step in to serve as his morality and conscience.
Pete (played by Henry Garrett) runs the ranch, but he’d rather extend an olive branch to old family foes, new threats and neighboring Mexican cattle ranchers than shed more blood (other son Phineas, played by David Wilson Barnes, is a lawyer with more nefarious intentions). But it’s the curious and whip-smart Jeannie (Sydney Lucas) that embodies the innocence Eli lost long ago.
Brosnan is as physically striking as he is imposing – refined graying hair and beard, tailored wool vests, dusty riding boots. But the Irish actor, who played James Bond in the 1990s and early 2000s, should never be trusted to do a Texan accent again. His awkward drawl is one of the most jarring mood-killers in “The Son,” and those twinkly eyes are often more playful than dangerous.
Even though the journey may be a bit bumpy, “The Son” still offers an easy ride into the Old West.
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-14-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)
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