The Son is an AMC drama that’s instantly identifiable as an AMC drama. If there were a blind TV-show taste test, a quick bite of The Son would make you go, “Oh yeah, this one’s on AMC.”
Like many of the network’s series, past and present, it’s got a strong current of testosterone running through it and a special interest in exploring the motivations of a man with an eroded connection to his conscience. Like the late Hell on Wheels, it’s a Western, one that regularly toggles between two key periods in the life of its protagonist, Eli McCullough: 1849, when Eli (portrayed as a teen by Justified’s Jacob Lofland) is taken captive by Comanches, and 1915, when Eli, as played by Pierce Brosnan, has become an old, powerful, and unscrupulous South Texas rancher who’s determined to mine his land for lucrative oil.
The Son — co-created by Philipp Meyer, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize–nominated novel that inspired this series, Brian McGreevy, and Lee Shipman, both of whom worked on the Netflix adaptation of McGreevy’s novel Hemlock Grove — is a handsomely shot, well-acted, and respectable piece of work. But it also isn’t surprising or deeply insightful enough about its characters to truly stand out in the current over-capacity venue that is television in 2017. That’s the most AMC thing about it, really: Like many of the network’s recent dramas, it’s decent but, most likely, not outstanding enough to generate a ton of buzz or attention. After watching a handful of episodes ahead of The Son’s two-hour premiere on Saturday, my reaction ranged from tepid to warm; I could easily watch more of it without complaint, but if I never had time to return to it, I’d be okay with that, too. Have we reached the point where TV reviews can be written as emoticons? Because if we have, my review of The Son would probably be ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Actually, that’s not entirely fair. As noted earlier, the acting in The Son is uniformly strong, starting with Brosnan, who returns to a starring role in an ongoing series for the first time since Remington Steele. Trading his James Bond suaveness for a more drawly sort of swagger, Brosnan makes a commanding, slightly world-weary megalomaniac. Nothing he does here is subtle — even when he takes a sip of ice-cold lemonade, he does it with the utmost conviction — but he stops short of outright chomping on the scenery. As his younger, softer-hearted son Pete, Henry Garrett is an effectively conflicted foil for him. Frustrated by his father’s overbearing reign over a ranch that Pete’s supposed to be running but also determined to be a more decent man, his behavior, at least in the early going, is the least predictable of anyone’s on the show.
That’s helpful because much of The Son feels either too predictable or too overt about its intentions. The bouncing between 1849 and 1915, for example, clearly illustrates how Eli’s childhood defined him, but also underlines the similarities between the white settler/Comanche rivalry and the conflicts that arise decades later between the McCulloughs and their Mexican-American neighbors, the Garcias. Just as the Native Americans wanted to protect their land from white settlers like young Eli and his family, the older Eli is increasingly paranoid about Mexicans attempting to encroach on his ranch. History repeats itself. We know this. It’s unclear whether The Son has anything truly fresh or meaningful to add to that observation.
The Son deserves some credit for depicting the Comanches, led by Toshaway (Zahn McClarnon of Fargo), with some nuance, honestly displaying their brutality but without characterizing them as completely mindless savages. That said, certain moments in those flashbacks feel more scripted than organically earned, particularly the romance that develops rather abruptly between Eli and Prairie Flower (Elizabeth Frances), a young Native American woman who regularly beats and bosses the kid around, then suddenly is getting all up in his teepee.
Actually, the most interesting character in The Son isn’t a son at all: She’s the granddaughter, Jeannie McCullough, the daughter of Pete who is less interested in practicing her piano than poking her nose around the ranch and asking questions that suggest she has a deeper understanding of how the business and family operate than she lets on. Sydney Lucas, who starred in the musical Fun Home, imbues Jeannie with intelligence and an impatience with withholding adults that make me wish the whole series was told specifically from her perspective.
According to the press materials AMC provided about The Son, that may be part of the long-term plan. “Over many seasons, the show will dramatize her evolution from an 11-year-old tomboy, mentored by her beloved grandfather, to the ruthless CEO of an oil empire,” says the network’s bio of her character
The Son obviously hasn’t gotten to that part of the story yet. The question is whether any viewers will have the time or fortitude to stick with it until it does. I don’t know the answer. All I can say is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.