“Great goddamn way to start a birthday party.”
Cattle rancher Eli McCullough (Pierce Brosnan, “GoldenEye”) means “great” sarcastically, of course, as “The Son” teeters between this meaning and the literal meaning of “great” in its series premiere.
Based off the novel by Philipp Meyer, the show chronicles the life of Texan Eli McCullough at two points in his life: 1915, as a rancher and oil magnate determined to confirm his legacy and 1849, as a young boy (Jacob Lofland, “Mud”) left orphaned and imprisoned by Comanche raiders.
In the 1915 era, Eli is the patriarch of a large household. We are given a taste of the McCullough family’s complexities and tensions, but they are never explored enough. The key characters in this timeframe — Eli, his son Pete (Henry Garrett, “Zero Dark Thirty”) and Pete’s daughter Jeannie (Sydney Lucas, “The Skeleton Twins”) — take a back seat to the progression of plot. Granddaughter Jeannie is rebellious and feisty, eager to resist the expectations to be a lady and adhere to gender norms, but her moments are overshadowed by her father’s and grandfather’s quests on the frontier. By the end of the second episode, her defiance reads as petulant and whiny instead of indignant and progressive. It’s a shame, because her presence as a young, female character is much needed to balance the machismo of the cowboys.
With such a broad scope, there are opportunities for characterization and depth that seem lost in the pursuit of drama and conflict. Pete’s older brother Phineas (David Wilson Barnes, “Capote”) proves himself to be more resourceful and knowledgeable, if not as masculine and physical as Pete. Phineas also makes multiple passes at Pete’s wife, who graciously accepts them. While perhaps not central to the narrative, they seem like missed opportunities to flesh out Pete’s flaws. The show’s leading man struggles to find his footing, too, as the patriarch of the McCullough family. By all appearances, Brosnan is the head honcho, but he struggles to fill the boots of a man weathered by the harsh conditions of the Texas landscape. He seems too clean and civilized for a man that has experienced what young Eli has.
Young Eli, however, redeems some of the show’s misgivings through emotional depth that old Eli lacks. In a harrowing scene, Eli watches his Native American captors stab his older brother with a spear repeatedly as Eli is held down by a member of the tribe. Point of view shots on the ground immerse the viewer in Eli’s pain and frustration. Suffering characterizes his experiences with the Comanche, who beat and disrespect him, except for Toshaway (Zahn McClarnon, “Fargo”). Their bond is compelling, yet sorely ignored.
While Young Eli’s narrative is more intriguing than Old Eli’s, both are unified by strong visuals. The fires that ravage Eli’s childhood home and only oil rig are dramatic, consuming and accompanied by ambient music that suggests tragedy and discord. Expressive shots of the Texas landscape convey the hostility and grittiness of the people that dwell there. The physical appearance of characters is appropriate, too. They look sweaty and dishevelled when at work or in the wild, manicured and primped when at social events.
Overall, the show struggles to braid its narratives together. There is a disparity between the screentime in each era. 1915 gets more attention while brief scenes in 1849 reveal Eli’s background, which is necessary to understand him in the 1915 era. Young Eli isn’t featured enough to make Old Eli a sympathetic character. In addition, actions that take place in the 1915 era feature multiple characters at a choppy pace, so it’s hard to get a sense of anyone’s true self. This strategy may work better on the page. While television does afford some advantages, it can’t hide the deficiencies inherent in the structure of the show. Give the rest of the season a try, but don’t hold your hopes too high.