It’s a little bit Giant. A little bit Dallas. A little bit… something else. If you like Westerns, or you like American history, or you like character-driven drama, you might love The Son. Perhaps most of all, if you like Pierce Brosnan (and why on Earth wouldn’t you?), you might like The Son.
The Son has a pacing and overall style you’d be pardoned for calling “laconic.” There’s action, but action doesn’t drive the plot, particularly; character does that. Which is not a flaw, per se. If the characters are interesting.
I’m asking myself if the characters are interesting. There are interesting gestures. Eli McCullough (Pierce Brosnan, in a super high-gravitas performance) is a ruthless Texas oil baron who has an interesting backstory involving adoption (young Eli is played by Jacob Lofland) by a Comanche warrior (Zahn McClarnon) who has a backstory of his own involving another son entirely. McCullough has two sons, an oil and cattle empire, and kind of a King Lear thing going on. There are tropes the writers could lean on that don’t get leaned on. (Thank God, Eli is not scandalized or creeped out by his older son Phineas, played by David Wilson Barnes, being gay—he makes a couple of rueful comments about his kid having a tougher lot than some, and shruggingly suggests two “bachelors” living as roommates would not ruffle feathers). Sibling rivalry between Phineas and Pete (Henry Garrett) is real and realized and nuanced, as is Pete’s conflictedness around his relationship to the father he both loves and despises.
But there is a big unavoidable trope-alert baked into the story. It’s the story of a morally gray (OK, charcoal) wealthy white man contending or not contending with his traumatic past while traumatizing everyone he touches in the present. There’s nothing wrong with it. But it’s hard to keep it from feeling like something we’ve seen before. Deviations into the past, when Eli is assimilated into the Comanche camp, are pretty lively and engaging, characterized by interesting language, frank and unselfconscious explorations of race and colonialist tensions, and a generous ration of humor. Forays into the future (85-year-old Jeannie McCullough is played with aplomb by Lois Smith) feel a little halting and like a bit of a narrative cul-de-sac. In the main body of the story, young Jeannie, played by Sydney Lucas, is clearly the pulse of the story in a lot of ways, and her wise, sanguine, sensitive nature comes through beautifully—so it becomes intriguing to consider what happened between the two timeframes explored in the season. But even two really solid performances can’t keep a meandering story from ending in an oxbow here and there.
In the end, I suspect the strong acting (and the remarkable gravitational pull of Brosnan specifically) covers a multitude of scripting sins. And it does, it does cover them, so… good! Watch it for Pierce Brosnan, who’s a convincing mostly-bad guy even as you’re aware that what’s saving him is Brosnan’s own epic good-guy vibe. Watch it for the delightful supporting cast. Watch it for a Western fix. It’s a thoroughly decent exploration of the contest between ethics and burgeoning power, as well as a war of wills between a messed-up, morally “flexible” patriarch and his progeny.
Season Two of The Son premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on AMC.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.