Though Frontier began promisingly enough, creating a complicated and compelling world out of the English fur-trading industry in the New World during the late 18th century, it loses its way a bit at the end, creating several plot threads that it would take a web of charts and graphs to fully comprehend. A simpler story, focused more on its strongest features, would have played better, especially in just a six-episode run. There’s just a lot of plot to follow.
The worst part is the excessively dry and relentlessly dull Samuel Grant storyline. The Montreal-based Grant is the Hudson’s Bay Company’s direct rival, and it seems like he sucks the energy out of the screen every time he occupies it, which is far too often. Grant gets into monotonous monotoned drawing room dealings with a host of characters, from the woman he has widowed (by having an associate shoot her hubby in the head), Mrs. Carruthers (who runs successful trade businesses Grant covets — played by Katie McGrath), to the smartest Brown brother (Alan Hawco — we know he’s the smartest because he wears glasses, otherwise he would be almost impossible to distinguish from his other siblings; the Browns run a failing trade business Grant covets), to, eventually, Governor Benton. You following much of this? No? Well, thankfully, it is on Netflix, so you can go back and re-watch these scenes several times to piece it together. Not that you’d want to, really. It seems like Shawn Doyle, the poor unfortunate soul charged with portraying Grant, was instructed to act as aloof and disinterested in all proceedings as humanly possible. He comes across less as a manipulative business parasite and more as an emotionless robot who has overdosed on Melatonin. It’s impossible to discern what he wants because he betrays everybody fairly quickly, and it’s impossible to care because Grant clearly doesn’t, either.
To the surprise of Michael Smyth (Landon Liboirin), his beloved Irish countrywoman Clenna Dolan (Lyla Porter-Fellows), who had been imprisoned in London for a petty attempted theft charge, has been brought across the ocean to Governor Benton (Alun Armstrong)’s Fort James colony. Governor Benton has brought her to town in order to draw Michael out of hiding, with the expectation that Michael will eventually (indirectly) lead him to his true prize, the fugitive Declan Harp (Jason Momoa), Benton’s chief disciple prior to Captain Chesterfield (Evan Jonigkeit). Harp, half-Irish and half-Native American, abandoned Benton at the first opportunity, and Benton made him pay by killing his wife (pregnant with child) and young son, a few years ago. Since then, Harp has vowed vengeance. Benton continues to hold a grudge on Harp for leaving him, in addition for being understandably irked that Harp keeps picking off his men like flies.
Michael Smyth of course takes the bait and rekindles his romance with Clenna. After consummating their relationship, Michael inevitably wants to bring Clenna out into the forest, to live with him and Harp as outlaws. Michael Smyth naively lets Benton’s men follow him, when he meets and tries to rescue Clenna outside Benton’s base. Michael takes Clenna to ale house owner and clever wheeler-dealer Grace Emberly (Zoe Boyle)’s back room, where Benton’s men finally pounce. They capture Declan Harp, but he is able to hold them off long enough for Michael, Clenna and Sokanon (Jessica Matten), Harp’s right-hand woman, to escape.
Michael and Sokanon grow closer while in hiding, and we’re treated to one of those subtly erotic battle-wound cleaning scenes that requires our heroine to remove her shirt. Harp, meanwhile, is brutally tortured by Benton in a subterranean prison area. Before leaving him to bleed out, Benton confides that Harp’s wife was pregnant when she died, which comes as news to Harp. Michael dumbly gets himself captured and joins Harp, before being sprung by Sokanon and Clenna.
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Grace Emberly has hitched her fortunes to the wrong political wagon. She had been grooming Captain Chesterfield to overtake Governor Benton, and trying to insinuate herself in as a silent partner, where they could divvy up a lucrative trade bounty and curtail Benton’s needless (and foolish) blood lust. Chesterfield finally, stupidly proposes they wed, for business convenience and to sate his own desires. He is a cruel, self-serving sadist, and Emberly’s thirst for her own power must have blinded her to it. She tacitly determines to betray him, and sets the brother of Cedric Brown (whom Emberly witnessed die at Chesterfield’s hand) loose upon him in a calculated political move. Though the wronged Brown brother, Malcolm (Michael Patric), has the jump on Chesterfield, he doesn’t kill him straight off, instead wanting a fist fight. Which is dumb, because Chesterfield, as Benton’s most direct apprentice is a relentless psychotic-in-training. He beats the Brown brother nearly to death. Meanwhile, Michael, Sokanon and Clenna try to track Harp — Clenna slows them down, first by whining and fighting and then by breaking her leg in a fall. She is put up in Grace Emberly’s ale house for safe keeping. Grace Emberly and her two bartenders have proven to be formidable allies for our heroes.
Declan Harp recruits Samuel Grant to abet him in offing Benton, once and for all, by drawing him into the forest with a small amount of body guards. Grant then betrays Harp in a misguided effort to earn Benton’s trust. Harp and Michael attack their small group, but when Michael is put into a compromising position, Harp protects Michael at the cost of his own freedom, and is taken captive once again.
Clenna is a temperamental device of the plot, alternately seeking domesticity with Michael and abandoning him on a dime, almost without discussion, at the whims of the storytelling. Michael is obviously a better fit with Harp’s Native American compatriot and former sister-in-law, Sokanon (who has to get topless for him to finally get the hint), but you can really hear the gears turning as the story contrives to make their get-together happen. She finally lets Michael go after Michael stupidly tries to get her to leave lodging in Grace’s back room with a still-healing broken leg. To be fair, it’s hard to conceive of why Michael (who has been living with Harp and Sokanon in the forest for at least several weeks if not longer, and thus is supposed to have picked up some practical intelligence by now) would deem it at all pragmatic to move someone that wounded with you through the wilderness, when you’re on a dangerous mission to rescue a man from death by hanging. I haven’t even mentioned the red herring subplot of a devoutly religious man, Captain Johnson (Charles Aitken) arriving ashore with his own men, unannounced, let into the season, to stage a remote coup on behalf of Benton’s British bosses, since he (and they) astutely deduct that Benton has conducted some less-than-savory practices on his own in the New World. The Captain Johnson subplot becomes a big sticking point for about an episode and a half, then Johnson is dispatched by Michael Smyth. That’s really all you need to know about him. It’s characters like Johnson and Grant, ultimately plot mechanisms like Clenna (she is also an emotional motivator for Michael, so her presence is more necessary, but could have been handled more interestingly), who overwhelm the story a bit with bloated over-plotting late into this first season.
Benton, driven mad with the prospect of vengeance, shoots Father Coffin (Christian McKay) when he tries to protect Harp. Coffin has given Harp enough time to free himself of the rope constricting his hands (he has also supplied the means with which to cut that rope), and Harp escapes, still bruised and nearly broken. He passes out on a mountain, and we… cut to black, with a host of questions. The show is a bit plodding, and its best character, clearly Aquaman, still seems to get less screen time than its worst, Grant. That said, I joined the changing interplay between a lot of the leads (aside from, you know, Clenna and Grant), and the production design and camera work is first-rate. Momoa in particular is great in Frontier; he has a presence about him, a movie star swagger, that I’m sure he’ll prove in his DC spin-off movies. I’m looking forward to season deux, and hoping that some folks have died to simplify the storytelling. The actual body count for our wounded leads is unclear, since the final episode, “The Gallows,” is designed to be a cliff-hanger.
Season 1, Episodes 4-6 (S01E04-06)
Frontier streams on Netflix
Alex Kirschenbaum | Contributor