After last week’s river front battle between the McCulloughs and the Mexican revolutionaries, we’re again given another big shoot out to focus on in “No Prisoners.” With five episodes in the bag, “THE SON” is still a show that is unsure of itself and what to do with its characters. Firstly, I enjoyed this episode, and in fact have enjoyed most of the show because I love westerns. But it certainly is not living up to the prestige level AMC was hoping for it, and that comes down to not knowing how to take advantage of all its individually interesting ingredients. It’s frustrating in so far that it has all the pieces but continually makes the wrong choices with them. The effect of this has been a muddled tone and thin characters that only get by because of the genre and our familiarity with the world. It’s easy to avoid questions for all the McCulloughs’ motivations and purposes when we spend most of the time watching them defend themselves in battle.
Last week’s riverfront defense was treated with little regard for the opposition and why they have it out for the McCulloughs. There’s some references to how people on the McCullough side are racist and backwards, but the presumption so far has been that the McCulloughs themselves are morally beyond reproach. The show begins with them being attacked and drawn into a war they never wanted. So I didn’t pay too much attention to the posse members taking grotesque photos over their kills at the end of last week’s skirmish, and saw it more as a way to differentiate the McCulloughs from the commoners.
But that is precisely what motivates all the action in this episode, opening up a host of questions on the morality of the McCulloughs and what ethical role they have to their community. It’s a fine plot device to have the photo of the dead Mexicans be the thing that spurns on the revolutionaries. But it’s problematic because it makes them righteous in their quest for vengeance on our characters. The photos of the dead Mexicans have been turned into postcards, and now their tragedy has the added insult of having been commercialized. So we have this strange set up where the villains of the show are correct in their actions, but they’re unfairly blaming it on our heroes who we’re supposed to still root for. It would be one thing to say this show is revealing the complexity of class and racial struggles, but I’m afraid with what we’ve been given that would be handing too much credit to “The Son.”
If the McCulloughs are the unfortunate victims of their own power and setting, that they’re simply in a place where they have to defend themselves, then this is a classic western story that suggests violence is a necessary and useful tool for the righteous. Eli basically echoes this sentiment to his family over and over, telling Jeanie that “those who don’t live by the sword, die a whole lot quicker,” or complaining to Pete that he “always wants to change human nature.” We know this is Eli’s view of the world, and we get to see why through his childhood. But the show is only interesting if that’s his view, and not the view of the show. It would seem right now that the series is taking on his perception as fact, leaving anyone who disagrees to do little else than conform or seem weak and naïve.
That’s why Pete has been such a problematic character. On paper he’s correct, but in the world of the show he’s constantly putting himself and his family in danger through his desire for diplomacy. That’s made clearer this week when we finally get to see more of Sally and her reality. She wants to leave and move to a city where presumably wealthy people don’t have to worry about constant invasion and the threat of murder. That, on top of being married to a man who doesn’t really love her, should be plenty for an interesting storyline and character. And yet up to this point she’s been relegated to the role of an annoying wife and doting mother. Hopefully we’ll see more of her complexity now in the aftermath of their home being attacked. She has a lot to be angry about and it’s unclear why Pete doesn’t leave, but assuming they all stay together now with the discovery of the oil, it should be interesting to see whether she takes on Pete or his father’s view of the world.
A couple of stray notes and questions:
– What’s happening with the McCullough business? When the show started the suggestion was that Eli needed to get investors and make a deal, something that was delayed because of the sabotage of his well. Certainly getting into a war isn’t helpful to the McCulloughs, but we haven’t seen any focus on the business and what the McCulloughs want from it since the first few episodes.
– The last scene is Eli noticing that Jeannie’s horse has oil seepage on its hooves, and while it’s clear this is going to set up the rest of the plot for the remaining episodes, it’s completely mishandled in the moment, despite Eli telling Jeannie (and the audience) that “this is real important.” The moment should have been much more savored, with a dejected Eli realizing that despite all this misery and the possible death of his grandson, they’re about to embark on a new chapter as a family. It’s strange to have this happen mid season as well when it could easily have been the set up for season two. So that season one is all about the border wars, while season two focuses on the business and family turmoil once peace has been achieved.
– Jonas is clearly headed for trouble the moment Sally says: “You’re the light of my life.” It would have been more effective to explore their relationship in the premiere and let it develop throughout the season rather than jamming it all into one cabin scene, right before he gets shot. This is a good example of what gets lost through the dual timelines and the focus on Eli’s childhood.
-Charlie looks way too old to be a young naïve teenager.
Season 1, Episode 5 (S01E05)
The Son airs Saturday at 9PM on AMC
Greg Brecher | Contributor