As unlikely as it may have seemed a decade or two ago, AMC network is among the top producers of new dramatic content for Television. The Walking Dead tops many charts in terms of successful TV series. Similarly, Breaking Bad and Mad Men received highest critical acclaim as well as commercial success and cultural influence (even those who don’t watch these series probably recognize the “memes” based upon them). Other notable series, at least for me, include The Killing (an American adaptation of the Danish series), Halt and Catch Fire, Hell on Wheels, and (now) The Son.
The story is set in West Texas in 1915 amid the turbulence along the Mexican border. Patriarch Eli McCullough (Pierce Brosnan) is attempting to shepherd his family into the modern age by converting his vast ranch into an oil-producing property. The show flashes back to 1850 and Eli’s teenage years, when he was captured and mentored by a Comanche tribe. The show is based on a 2013 novel of the same name by Philipp Meyer.
The novel was meant to be an exploration of the foundational mythology of Texas; from its taming of the frontier to its vast wealth derived from oil. As such, is this story meant to be strictly historical or subtly fantastical? Likewise the TV show is a nice-looking period piece but inevitably is stylized for dramatic effect. As far as I can tell, there is no historical basis for the characters and their particular story. However, the themes of border, cross-border migration, racism, violence, and the corrupting influence of wealth are all clearly meant to be a reflection of the problems we have today on the southern border. A little less clear is what the show is trying to tell us about those issues. That’s a good thing. It can get tedious being told what to think.
Part of that style is the mixing of eras. In 1850, we are treated to a reprise of the Dances with Wolves story. There is even a nearly identical scene were the Indian elder (Zahn McClarnon) asks the “White” character how many whites are coming – and I think he might just give the same answer. Somehow, though, the Indian tribe in The Son seems a little bit more modern (although Dances with Wolves took places some 15 years later). The Comanche speak Spanish while McClarnon’s character also speaks English. Despite their lack of understanding of the full impact of the impending American settlement of Texas, they do seem fairly well acquainted with the ways of the European-Americans. Similarly, in 1915, we have the ranchers riding horses wearing gunbelts and holsters. However, Eli (for example) carries a 1911 as his sidearm and a Winchester 1907 semi-automatic rifle on his horse. His 1915 contemporaries will also hop into cars or trucks as easily as on horseback.
That style is obviously one of the key features of this show. It’s also no accident that the language of the times matches some of the political banter of our own, particularly regarding the language of Reconquista and its resurgence today. There are also multiple wars on the horizon; the Civil War in young Eli’s time and U.S. incursion into Mexico to capture Pancho Villa in old Eli’s. Similarly, the First World War is ongoing and waiting for America’s participation. Like Hell on Wheels, the violence, the detailed use of firearms, and the Western genre trappings are all appealing to a certain audience. Finally, The Son is a vehicle for Brosnan, who does does dominate the small screen. I also am very impressed with McClarnon’s character. I liked him in Longmire and here he impresses me further still. Some might point out that he’s playing a very similar role in both shows, but his ethnic suitability for certain roles isn’t his fault.
Like a few other shows I’ve watched (The Shooter and Punisher come immediately to mind), The Son does seem to be targeting the gun culture specifically. Eli’s son Pete demonstrates expert handling of his Winchester 1984 (the classic 30-30 lever gun that is still popular today). Other characters still use Civil War technology and are shown loading their cap-and-ball revolvers as danger approaches. The show features a range of historical, but also historically-remarkable, guns. As discussed, certain characters have, essentially, cutting edge technology for 1915; Eli’s pistol and rifle as an example. We even have an employee of Eli, a black man who is also a war veteran, produce a Lewis machine gun for several heavier engagements. That gun, another 1911 design, didn’t start to see deployment to the Second World War until 1914. It seems a little gratuitous to feature it in the hands of some “cowboys” in 1915, but it is not entirely possible. Particular if Eli was both well-connected and a collector of modern guns, he might well have got his mitts on a early production version.
Ironically, Brosnan has been outspoken with some of his anti-gun pronouncements. This doesn’t fit well with this show’s audience and, perhaps, the same could be said for most of his roles from James Bond to Matador (a favorite of mine). To add to the irony, he had a run-in with the law regarding an attempt to carry a 10-inch hunting knife onto an airplane in Burlington, Vermont. He said it wasn’t 10-inches and was, anyway, a part of the “art supplies” he carried – he used it to sharpen his pencils. It doesn’t sound like he got into any real trouble over the incident, so I’d be surprised if it has changed him much regarding the unintended consequences of banning “tools.”
Some days, I’d like to reserve my custom to those who aren’t actively opposing things I believe in. Doing so would narrow my entertainment options in the extreme. In this case, when Season 2 of The Son comes to DVD, I think will simply continue watch and enjoy.