Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron) and Declan Harp (Jason Momoa) in Frontier.
Photo: Duncan de Young/Netflix
Khaleesi’s Sun and Stars from Game of Thrones barely gets to shine in Frontier, a series that previously aired on Discovery Channel Canada, and begins streaming Friday on Netflix. As Declan Harp, a part-Irish, part-Native American renegade attempting to loosen the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company stranglehold on the North American fur trade circa the late 1700s, Jason Momoa, a.k.a. Khal Drogo, is theoretically the show’s the lead. But while his character is the focal point around which the narrative revolves, the actor is really part of a larger ensemble. In the first two episodes that Netflix made available for review, we don’t see him as much as his top-level billing implies we might. Even when we do, it’s hard to decide whether to root for him and his desire to disrupt an English monopoly, or despise him since, only a few minutes into the first episode, he brutally murders an English soldier. It’s also hard to make this decision because it’s so difficult to stay awake while watching Frontier.
With its focus on the fur trade and the warring factions attempting to benefit from it, Frontier displays faint shades of The Revenant, which also tromped into the gritty wilderness of fur trading, albeit a few decades later. But more than anything, this series seems interested in emulating some of the scope and nasty power grabbiness of Game of Thrones. Even its opening title sequence, with its bombastic theme and camera pans across various maps, is evocative of that HBO series.
The main rivalry in Frontier lies between Lord Benton (workhorse English actor Alun Armstrong), who oversees Hudson’s Bay and seeks to intimidate anyone who threatens his industry domination, and Declan, who is just as ruthless but also smart enough to foster good relations with the natives in the North American territories that are being pillaged. Other parties also enter the conflict zone, including the arrogant American businessman Samuel Grant (Shawn Doyle), some Scottish rogues interested in undermining Grant, and a young Irish thief named Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron of Hemlock Grove), who gets entangled with Declan while acting as a secret informant to Benton.
As previously implied, Frontiers has its moments of high tension and violence. Truly, this thing can shift gears from sleepy to stabby in a matter of milliseconds. But most of the time the action is dominated by conversations between underdeveloped characters that reveal how various alliances are formed, then adjusted based on changing circumstance. There is little motivation to keep track of it all, partly because creators Rob and Peter Blackie, who co-wrote two of the season’s six episodes, and Brad Peyton (San Andreas), who directed the first two, hopscotch so often from place to place and moment to moment that it becomes challenging to settle into or invest in any aspect of the story. Even though the series boasts a strong cast — Christian McKay (Me and Orson Welles) and Zoe Boyle (Sons of Anarchy, Downton Abbey) also play key roles — every interaction is akin to watching talented actors dutifully rubbing sticks together, waiting for a spark that never comes.
Regarding Momoa, who will soon become better known as Aquaman than Drogo, he’s … fine? With his hulking presence and eyes so hazel they practically glow, he’s certainly an imposing and charismatic figure. As he did on Game of Thrones, he also slowly starts to show flashes of vulnerability that, presumably, will take greater shape in subsequent episodes. But whatever power he may possess gets buried in Frontier, as will your ability to care about the knife twists and loyalty shifts that play out unimaginatively across the screen.