After last week’s bombastic two part premiere of THE SON, we’re given a refreshingly quieter and much more contemplative episode this week in “Second Empire.” Trading in the blood and gore that included but was not limited to the depiction of an Indian attack, oil well explosion, and vicious torture and murder of a man, episode three opted instead to reflect on the state of its world and meditate on larger questions of legacy and death.
This episode is marked by a much more introspective Eli McCullough and his views on his choices and experiences. I enjoyed a lot about this episode even if it did seem a bit of a fast departure from what we saw in episodes one and two. It may even have been a premature look into Eli’s psyche given it seemed like the show was heading in a direction where the central conflict was to be Eli’s inability to deal with his own crimes and ugliness. But frankly I like this direction much more and am much more intrigued in seeing Eli’s psychotic breaks rather than him repressing everything for episodes on end. The dream sequence of Eli scalping the investor was the first interesting moment of the show and I hope there’s much more of that. It’s actually very funny for a show that up to this point has not suggested it had any interest in black humor, so I’m not sure if the intention actually was to provoke a laugh.
But I hope it was, because Brosnan has shown a facility for comedic timing as far back as Mrs. Doubtfire, and just check out Richard Shepard’s “Matador” if you don’t believe Brosnan can do anything beyond calm and collected. Let’s not forget Brosnan is actually Irish and not English, so there is a brand of comedic violence in his blood and this could be the perfect vehicle to unleash it. “There Will Be Blood” works precisely because despite its very grim subject matter, it’s able to not take itself or Daniel Plainview too seriously. I think the same should be remembered for this show and if it can find some consistent levity it has the chance of being one of the best shows on television.
Alternatively, opening Eli up in this episode also allowed for the first signs of tenderness between the show’s characters. After his disappointing business meeting, we follow Eli to the home of an old flame and get to see more of what he actually thinks. It’s comforting to see Eli in an accessible moment of vulnerability as he’s smoking hash from an Indian peace pipe in bed with a woman he cares about. “I’ve done a lot of bad things in my time,” he says to her, and while that may be one of the most overused sentiments in television these days, it’s delivered with acceptance rather than with heaviness. That scene is followed by a dream where Eli is walking with his adopted Comanche father Toshaway, and their conversation is touching and melancholy. We learn that Eli grew close to Toshaway and that much to Eli’s sorrow, that relationship was cut short. Eli is a lot more thoughtful about his legacy and as hungry for some sort of guidance as anyone. Knowing that he’s self aware makes him an infinitely more compelling character.
On a similar note with the show’s ability to take a more original path, I’m looking forward to Pete McCullough’s arc investing more in this idea of him being weak, or not of the times for what’s needed from him. His conversation with their ranch hand Tom encapsulates the central philosophical question of the show: are we all just products of our own context and limited to that? Tom says to Pete, “We’re born at a certain time and place, and there ain’t nothing we can do about it.” To which Pete replies, “I think we all have a choice.” And while Pete is being honest and honorable about this sentiment, the episode undercuts him and ends with a crying Pete being taken away by his wife, while Tom gets to work cleaning up his mess. I like the idea of Pete being trapped in a world that he’s not meant for, and if the show wants to differentiate its male characters effectively, this would be a highly entertaining way of achieving that.
I liked a lot of what “Second Empire” set up and I hope the coming episodes continue to push in that direction. This was the first episode that suggested to me that this could be a flagship for AMC and that looking at the McCullough dynasty can be an engaging series for many seasons
A couple of notes:
What’s the rule with which language the Mexican characters speak to each other in? Every time they speak English the authenticity of the show goes down, but that’s not to say it can’t and isn’t a motivated choice. When Pedro Garcia’s daughter Maria changes to English mid conversation it’s suggestive that she knows English is the future of the family. It’s not stated outwardly that that is the case, but it could be used as a thematic point that would be a very clever flourish to the show to build upon.
I’m still not sold on the visual style of the show. There’s a sheen and prettiness to the look of the show and its cast that often castrates its believability as a story set at the turn of the century. The show is a casualty of the American tendency to make everyone beautiful and manicured at a time when they decidedly should not be. It’s a minor gripe but it’s the kind of detail that keeps “The Son” from ever entertaining a Hall of Fame status as a show. Just take a look at “Deadwood” and see how the difference affects its credibility. This could be a budgetary constraint so I don’t want to punish them too heavily for this, but it’s an important aspect that can’t be ignored.
Season 1, Episode 3 (S01E03)
The Son airs Saturday at 9PM on AMC
Greg Brecher | Contributor