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AMC is getting back into the Western game. The network found success with Hell On Wheels for five seasons, until it came to an end in July 2016. Now, Westerns are back with new series The Son, and it shows promise to become a major critical hit for the network. While it's not the wildest Western ever to hit the airwaves, the cast handles the material to practical perfection, and the plot should be compelling enough to sustain the series.
The Son follows the story of Eli McCullough through two timelines: as a teenage boy (Jacob Lofland) in the largely unsettled south of Texas in 1849, and as a successful rancher (Pierce Brosnan) in the same region many years later in 1915. The action kicks off when young Eli and his family are beset by a group of Comanche warriors, led by war chief Toshaway (Zahn McClarnon). His future changes course when he's taken by the Comanches and he must learn to adapt to survive.
The story switches back and forth between 1849 and 1915, when Eli is getting ready to celebrate his birthday, which also happens to coincide with the birth of Texas. Eli has become a ruthless rancher who wants to make a break into the oil biz and will stop at nothing to keep what he believes to be Mexicans crossing into his land and stealing his cattle. Eli's methods of running business clash with his son Pete (Henry Garrett), who is ostensibly in charge of the ranch. Unfortunately for Pete, his daughter Jeannie (Sydney Lucas) idolizes her ruthless grandfather. War threatens to break out between the McCulloughs and the neighboring Garcias, led by patriarch Pedro (Carlos Bardem) and navigated by his daughter Maria (Paola Nunez).
The show is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, written by acclaimed author Philipp Meyer, who is on board the AMC series as co-creator, executive producer, and writer. Kevin Murphy of Defiance is on board as showrunner. If the first several episodes of Season 1 are anything to go by, I'd say that their combination of expertise is exactly what this story needs to work on the small screen.
The Son is visually gorgeous as it builds the world of South Texas, both circa 1849 and 1915. Pierce Brosnan's beard deserves some of the credit, of course. Still, the entire series, from its hand-crank cars to its horses, sets a visual tone that is absolutely necessary to sell to dual narratives.
If you're anything like me, the first few scenes in 1849 will remind you of some of Laura Ingalls' adventures from the Little House on the Prairie books. It doesn't take long for the show to go in some directions that were definitely never explored in Little House, and a few of the early scenes are almost a little bit too grotesque to encourage sticking around the series. Thanks to a few filming tricks that show the ugliness through the eyes of a barely-conscious teenager, however, a Comanche raid doesn't feel like violence for the sake of violence, and it conveys the terror of the situation without showing every little thing that happens to a couple of the settlers. The focus could remain on the performances and emotional impact.
The Son could have gone off the rails right away if it portrayed any one of the three groups - the Native Americans, the Mexicans, or the white settlers - as the absolute aggressors of the story. Luckily, the two timelines give enough dimension to the closest person that we have to an antagonist - Eli - that he's not a monster. He's a terribly damaged person who does terribly damaging things, and so he's not just a villain.
Pierce Brosnan deserves a lot of the credit for making Eli work as a character, and not just because of the beard. There's not a hint of his Irish accent in Eli, and he has such a presence on screen that Eli's dominance in the script makes sense on the screen. If a lesser actor played Eli, we might not have been able to believe how his sons, employees, and even enemies react to and respect him.
Henry Garrett doesn't make too much of an impression as Pete, but that actually feels deliberate as he is torn between the rules of civilization and the laws according to Eli McCullough. Young Sydney Lucas is a highlight as Jeannie McCullough, who comes across as an intelligent girl who sees more than the adults want her to and forms her own opinions. She's a talented actress who can more than hold her own opposite the more seasoned performers in the cast.
For me, Zahn McClarnon as Toshaway is the biggest pleasant surprise of The Son. He almost singlehandedly saves the Comanche storyline from veering into stereotype in the early episodes, and he brings out the best performances in young Jacob Lofland, who is otherwise mostly underwhelming as the teenage Eli.
All of this said, The Son isn't the most remarkable series ever to hit the small screen. It feels like a show that would be great for binge-watching but might be difficult to remember is on every week. It's a well-done Western with a solid cast and a compelling premise, but it lacks a sense of wildness that some viewers may expect out of a Western. All things considered, The Son is worth the watch, and you may lose yourself in the West in the best way as long as you keep tuning in each week.