I will be the first to admit a hesitation at starting Barkskins. The National Geographic series, based on the Annie Proulx novel of the same name, focuses on a small group of settlers in “New France” (more or less Quebec) in the 1690s. The limited series, running eight episodes, looked dour, violent, gritty and all of the things I haven’t been looking for in my TV watching lately. It’s not that I want to only watch happy shows, but my personal limit on viewing mouldering corpses has been lowered in recent months.
However! Barkskins proves, fairly early on, to have just enough weirdness to balance out the darkness and keep me in its thrall. Yes, there are mouldering corpses, and yes there are lots of dirty, bearded men fighting and spitting at each other. But while Barkskins is dark, it’s not grueling. The tales it tells are worth investing in, even though the final episode hardly feels like an end.
The first herald of Barkskins’ charming strangeness is David Thewlis’ Claude Trepagny. Keep in mind, once again, that we’re dealing with New France—most of the inhabitants of the town and surrounding areas are played by British actors with French accents. Some are a little outrageous, but it’s another sign that the series has just an edge of camp to it. Trepagny, however, has more than an edge of camp; he embodies it. He lives on the outskirts of a town that barely tolerates him, in a large stone manor house with an enormous amount of land he refers to as his “doma.” More importantly, he has a cane with a tiny skull on the end of it that he wields with abandon, likes to sing as he tramps through the woods, and prays to an old log and a bowl of hair.
Barkskins begins with the eccentric Trepagny taking ownership of two indentured servants, the hardworking Rene Sel (Christian Cooke) and the rat-like Charles Duquet (James Bloor). The men’s paths diverge almost immediately, and while Rene, Charles, and their descendants are at the heart of Proulx’s novel, they are but two small parts of this story. The defining act of NatGeo’s series is the massacre of settlers near the town, supposedly by a local Iroquois tribe. The perpetrators are then hung from a tree in a nearby lake, sparking the beginning of a potential war between the Iroquois and the French. All of this unrest is, it should be said, to the benefit of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a powerful, ruthless fur-trading British corporate empire.
And yet, an agent of Hudson’s Bay Company, Hamish Goames (Aneurin Barnard), is as close as we get to a main protagonist in Barkskins. He and his companion, Yvon (the always excellent Zahn McClarnon), are searching for a missing member of the company, but soon become embroiled in the town’s other many dramas and Hudson’s Bay’s own machinations. Hamish just doesn’t look like a protagonist: he has long, dark hair, wears a black hat at all times, and wraps himself in a black cape atop dark clothing. His skin is pale and his large eyes are the only hint of an expression from him. But in this gothic garb Barnard somehow imbues Hamish with the energy of a 17th century detective who, frankly, deserves his own spinoff alongside the sardonic Yvon.
That’s exactly the wonderful but frustrating thing about Barkskins—there are so many good stories being told here, which overlap only glancingly, that snapping to another scene feels like changing the channel entirely. Marcia Gay Harden is yet another standout as Mathilde, a tough, calculating tavern keeper who ends up becoming the protector and employer of two lost girls. Almost everyone in the series is a schemer in one way or another, and many are motivated by greed like the English trader Cooke (Thomas M. Wright), or young Melissande (Tallulah Haddon) who sets out to marry the richest man in the settlement. Others simply want a new life, like Rene or the gentle Delphine (Lily Sullivan). Then there are those who work hard to hold on to the one they have, including Mari (Kaniehtiio Horn), a native woman who has a complicated relationship with the sky-focused Trepagny, and Mother Sabrine (Leni Parker), who is responsible for the idealistic women arriving in town to start families with the trappers and wood cutters who have settled there.
The gorgeously produced series is nevertheless sufficiently muddy, bare, and claustrophobic in its depiction of frontier life along a wild, untamed landscape. It’s also, rightfully, quite spooky. David Slade directs the first episode, and the atmosphere he sets continues throughout. There’s something Deadwood-ish here, something both raw and theatrical that makes Barkskins’ world so intriguing. It’s also, crucially, wryly funny at times. That tone doesn’t always mesh, but Elwood Reid’s series has my respect for taking big swings.
Though it is rare for me to say in an era with (generally speaking) too much television, there is simply not enough of Barkskins. In its first seven episodes, it opens up so many worthy narrative threads and lays the groundwork for such a deep, sprawling series that there is no way it can wrap things up in its final hour. And it doesn’t. Though there is a satisfying final moment, it acts more as a launch point than a conclusion. Like the land in which it is set, there is so much more worth exploring and uncovering in this wonderfully surprising and often beautifully bizarre tale.
Barkskins premieres Monday, May 25th on National Geographic.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.