In the first episode of Frontier, “A Kingdom Unto Itself,” the stage is set for Netflix’s latest short-form period epic, a Jason Momoa vehicle designed to explore the universe of ruthless fur traders amidst the disputed territories during the mid-1700’s.
Sadistic British psycho Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong, a seasoned character actor with one of those faces you’ll recognize immediately without being able to place — a baddie in Braveheart, Patriot Games and many others), leader of the Hudson’s Bay Company, was a former mentor to our nominal show lead, the half-Irish/half-Native American trapper Declan Harp (Momoa), who is now the leader of an outlaw gang of Native Americans.
Young Irish thief Michael Smyth (Landon Liboirin) becomes a stowaway on Lord Benton’s ship into the New World. After Smyth displays some unexpected heroism when he is brought to Lord Benton, Benton commissions him with an integral task, sort of an old-timey undercover cop scenario. Captain Chesterfield (Evan Jonigkeit) is Lord Benton’s right hand man. Benton tasks Michael with double-crossing his (half-) Irish countryman Harp.
Father James Coffin (Christian McKay) is a drunk with a side hustle as a guide (and thief), and trades information for alcohol with comely bar owner Grace Emberly (Zoe Boyle). Grace Emberly plays informant to Lord Benton in the New World when it suits her.
Declan Harp convinces Jean-Marc Rivard (Paul Fauteux) to talk with fur trade investor Samuel Grant (Shawn Doyle), where Rivard convinces him to coordinate a meeting with Harp.
Captain Chesterfield, guiding the priest and Michael towards Harp, gets knocked out. Harp and his team abduct Michael and the priest. Suddenly, would-be double-crosser Michael Smyth turns triple-crosser when the priest’s life is threatened, offering information on Benton to Harp in exchange for his new friend’s life. Very covert.
In episode two, “Little Brother War,” Scottish fur traders abduct a Native American, Kitchi, part of the Lake Walker tribe, and hold him hostage.
Cedric Brown, the Scott, has abducted Kitchi (grandson of the Lake Walker chief), in an effort to appeal to investor Samuel Grant (based in Montreal). Brown and his brothers’ Low River Company is in debt, it is a desperate move by Cedric to incentivize the Lake Walkers to trade with the Low River Company. Cedric is the black sheep of the Brown brothers, an imbecilic drunk. Kitchi was poached without his brothers’ consent or knowledge. Cedric drunkenly brings the brother to Grace Emberly, who saves his life (he is dealing with an infected bullet wound) — but Lord Benton’s informant hooker, Imogen (Diana Bentley), sees this interaction. It’s tough to gauge which side she’s really on, as her loyalty to the brutal Lord Benton was simply the result of a transaction. Captain Chesterfield kills Cedric Brown and takes over the Kitchi abduction situation. Grace is pushing Chesterfield to forge an alliance with her, behind Lord Benton’s back. The plan would eventually lead to Chesterfield’s becoming Governor, after Lord Benton is properly discredited.
Meanwhile, Declan Harp and his team, in their own effort to secure trade with the Lake Walkers, are looking for Kitchi. Grace, a good friend to Declan, tells him that Kitchi is being held in the Governor’s House, at the edge of town. It turns out that Benton killed Declan’s wife. They strategize on staging an attack on the house to rescue the boy. Michael Smyth’s proposal: he’ll walk in the front door, give Lord Benton an update on Declan, stay the night, and then, when all of Lord Benton’s team is sleeping, he’ll abet Harp and his team, giving them access to Kitchi for a rescue. A bad-ass battle ensues, staged with muskets on the side of the English and knives and tomahawks on the side of Harp’s team. Samoset, a key cog in Harp’s company, is hurt. Harp goes through great pains to rescue him, showing serious empathy that Lord Benton would never be caught dead displaying.
The fun thing about Michael Smyth is that he is a tough cookie to crack — he does give Lord Benton (mostly) truthful information, but he ultimately helps Declan save Kitchi, even going so far as to pick loose the locks on Kitchi’s chains.
By the third episode,”Mushkegowuk Esquewu,” Kitchi is killed by a group of Scots, part of the Low River Company, and Michael Smyth is abducted. Harp and his buddies strike back, rescue Michael, and keep one Scot alive (albeit with one fewer working ear on his head) to take them to Malcolm Brown, leader of the Low River Company. Surprisingly though, Harp’s strategy (which Michael discerns) is to make peace with the Browns. He needs all the independent companies working together. He needs to quell any impending conflict between the Low River Company and the Lake Walker tribe before it starts.
Lord Benton confronts Grace Emberly about her harboring Kitchi; he suspects her of informing on Kitchi’s whereabouts to Declan Harp. Lord Benton has effectively replaced Threadwell as acting Governor, the corrupt drunk he murdered.
Meanwhile, Harp discovers that the Scots who abducted Michael and killed a half dozen of the Lake Walker tribe’s camp were apparently doing so of their own volition, as castoffs from the Low River Company. In Montreal, Samuel Grant ruthlessly moves in on the independent companies conducting their business against the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Poor Father Coffin tries to tea-total, but back at Grace Emberly’s bar, Imogen corrupts Coffin. Chesterfield then confronts Grace about Benton’s intuition that Kitchi was harbored at Grace’s bar — she is able to allay his fears.. for now. Harp sends Michael with comely tracker Sokanon (Jessica Matten) to follow the outcast ex-Low River Company Scot, MacLaughlan (Graham Abbey), whom Sokanon has released in order to find out who coerced the Scot to kill Kitchi. Sokanon and Michael grow closer — Sokanon reveals that her sister was once Harp’s wife, but that the sister and their son were both murdered by Benton’s men. We discover that Chesterfield is MacLaughlan’s covert employer. Chesterfield slaughters MacLaughlan after paying him — and retrieves his cash. Elsewhere, Imogen discovers that Grace and Chesterfield are in cahoots, smuggling furs from the HBC — but she does not tell Lord Benton. She likes Grace, primarily for the way her new boss stood up to her old one. She got the priest drunk again so that he would stop harassing Grace’s patrons.
It does take a while to really get going, and it is rife with convoluted plotting that rewards multiple viewings, but Frontier is not in the business of expediency. It is in the business of world-building. And that world is immersive and full of entertaining treachery, three episodes in. Jason Mamoa is a mesmerizing lead, a full-fledged Dwayne Johnson-level bad-ass. I’d like to see a bit more of him throughout the rest of his series, but I appreciate that his power is leveraged by keeping him somewhat mysterious, and by building his myth through the ways other people perceive him.
Season 1, Episodes 1-3 (S01E01-03)
Frontier streams on Netflix
Alex Kirschenbaum | Contributor