The Son, AMC TV, premiered on April 8, 2017
Recently renewed for a second season, The Son is AMC’s latest fling in a long-running romance with classic and new Westerns. The network previously ran the miniseries Broken Trail in 2006 and five successful seasons of Hell on Wheels (2011–16).
Like Hell on Wheels, The Son presents the frontier in sprawling, epic scale. While the former chronicled the development of the first transcontinental railroad through the eyes of a Civil War veteran, The Son chronicles the development of a completely different type of entity—a state. And that state is a big one. Through the eyes of a wealthy cattle baron, we see Texas in both its wild adolescence and its slightly less wild early adulthood.
The Son seems to draw inspiration from the grand, colorful CinemaScope era that transformed the genre in the late 1950s, in particular borrowing aspects from The Big Country (1958) and How the West Was Won (1962). With CinemaScope, the Hollywood Western reached peak overindulgence, focusing on long, lavish narratives that were equal parts sweeping and tedious. Now it seems present-day television drama is indulging its moment of peak overindulgence, as self-important shows with massive casts toggle between no fewer than five different plots per episode. A sprawling epic like How The West Was Won might lend itself well to current TV trends.
And so we have The Son, a convergence of the Western epic of old and modern cable television. It’s Giant meets Breaking Bad, with the romanticism of the former and the morality of the latter. The selling point here, which Philipp Meyer adapted from his namesake novel, is its dual storylines, which in effect allows the series to simultaneously show both the beginning and end—the rough-and-tumble fourth year of Texas statehood and the apparent demise of the cowboy way in 1915. In 1849 teenager Eli McCullough (Jacob Lofland) is captured and raised by Comanches. In 1915 grandpa Eli McCullough (Pierce Brosnan) seeks to transform his struggling cattle ranch into an oil business. He’s smart enough to see that oil is the future, but not smart enough to see that the old ways—mostly violence—will no longer help him get what he wants. While Irish-born Brosnan’s take on a Texas accent is, uh, interesting, he does well to capture the elder Eli in conflict between progressiveness and stubbornness.
The 1915 story plays out as a war between two powerful neighboring families. Eli vows revenge on old friend Pedro García after learning that Pedro’s son-in-law helped Mexican revolutionaries burn down his oil derrick. Meanwhile, Eli’s two sons (played by Henry Garrett and David Wilson Barnes) often butt heads with him over business. Every character in The Son is not quite good and not quite evil—an unnerving but common TV shorthand that mistakes moral ambiguity for character complexity.
When The Son exhibits the worst sins of epic filmmaking, it can be overbearing and boring. But it’s also an absorbing celebration of excess when everything is clicking. It’s like a delicious slab of Texas-sized steak slapped on your plate —it’s far too much, but you can’t help but try to eat it all.