AMC has been trying to fill its “brooding silent man show” quota ever since Mad Men vacated the position two years ago. First came the dirty cop drama Low Winter Sun, which despite stellar execution, gave us one of the most unlikable anti-heroes in television and never resonated with audiences. Now, gunning for the mantle is turn of the century oil baron drama, THE SON, which follows the McCullough family as they transition from wealthy cattle farmers to oilmen in 1915’s Texas. Pierce Brosnan leads the cast as family patriarch Eli McCullough, whose parents and siblings were murdered by Comanches when he was a boy, hardening him into the physical embodiment of all the harsh lessons Texas has to offer. It’s no “There Will Be Blood,” but damned if THE SON doesn’t try it’s hardest to bring the grit and grime of early American industry to the screen. Unfortunately, what it aspires to feels predictable and formulaic, and there lacks a freshness that I think will ultimately cause ambivalent viewing from audiences. That’s less an indictment on the show and more a comment on the nature of dramatic television today.
Ten years ago “The Son” would have been poised for critical and popular acclaim. On paper it’s a formula for a successful show: an esteemed and highly successful film actor headlining a cast of little known but talented faces, takes on a prestige, period piece set in one of America’s most interesting and formative times. But, we live in the post “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones,” “Breaking Bad” era of television. For something to transcend, it needs to subvert expectations and give the people something different. And while it’s still too early to say assuredly of the show as a whole, the premier doesn’t suggest that transcendence, and I wonder if people will want a second season of the McCulloughs if it maintains this steady strategy.
Aside from Pierce Brosnan entering his Eli McCullough against Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood in the battle for least believable accent, he actually does a formidable job with the character. Brosnan has been consistently underrated over the years so I’m glad he has the opportunity to star again. He looks great riding a horse with a rifle in his hand and that’s going to be a lot of this show. But emotionally there’s not a ton to do with the material given that he’s a character who keeps things in. And in a lesson learned from “Low Winter Sun,” this show very much wants us to know he’s ultimately a good man. I doubt the show will ever allow Brosnan be completely despicable as he’s the only recognizable actor on the show. Half of the episodes are Eli’s flashbacks to the murder of his family, meant to constantly humanize him and remind us that he honorably sacrifices his own virtue for his family and its legacy.
I don’t fault the show for taking this track and making Eli the entry point into the McCullough saga, but I think about what a missed opportunity it is to not see the show from his granddaughter’s point of view. If the show is about the McCulloughs and not just Eli, as has been suggested in interviews by the show runners, seeing it through her eyes would open up a range of new possibilities that could really shake up what the show can be. The plight of the solitary leader navigating his own brutal moral code is something we’ve seen dating back to Tony Soprano. But we haven’t seen what it might be to have to live by that code as a young woman and the way those lessons are imprinted upon her growing up in that environment.
It’ll be interesting to see how the show navigates the relationship between Eli and his sons. Without a matriarch present, the scenario seems ripe for a Shakespearean family breakdown. Right now the onus is on Pete McCullough, the younger and more naïve of the two brothers, who by the end of episode two learns a valuable lesson about mercy. His need to murder would seem to validate old Eli’s views on the world, and so if it does, what does that tell us about him? I like the questions that arise from this conflict, but I’m not necessarily sure I’m that interested in them anymore given everything that has come before. I wonder whether the family will actually find itself in situations where there’s no going back from, or whether it’ll be more similar to a “Peaky Blinders” type situation where the core cast never really shifts despite all that’s occurring around them.
In spite of how structurally traditional the show seems to be though, it is refreshing to see Mexican and Native American characters be treated as important and fleshed out figures. I like that we get to see the communities these other characters live in and that they’re not limited to just servicing the McCulloughs. The same can’t be said for its female characters however, who do little else besides complain and come to the men with their needs. Let’s hope that as the show continues this is rectified in a way that feels natural and exciting. I’m sure many people still find strong quiet man a compelling character, but it has become very tired and with the amount of good television out there, why not risk something different? We saw how successful “Halt and Catch Fire” was after re-tooling around its female characters. And while I don’t think every show should just focus more on its females as a simple solution, I do think that there’s a lot of opportunity in the world of “The Son” to give us something we might not expect, and it certainly should make use of all the talent it has available to it..
Season 1, Episode 1-2 (S01E01-02)
The Son airs Saturday at 9PM on AMC
Greg Brecher | Contributor