Has there ever been a more relevant premise for a period piece than The Son? Set in southern Texas at the very beginning of the 20th Century, AMC’s latest prestige pretender follows the McCullough family as they try to live, thrive, and survive on a town not far from the Mexican border, all while fending off attacks from justifiably upset Mexican seditionists. What potential! In an era where America’s relationship with its neighbor to the south is—to put it mildly—publically strained, there’s a lot to mine from that particular flavor of racial tension.
Except The Son is a new drama from AMC, so it’s not enough that the show has stumbled upon an incredibly relevant metaphor. It needs to be the next water cooler show, the next “limited commercial interruption” mega-star that will carry the channel once Vince Gilligan realizes he could literally do anything, anywhere because of the whole “created Breaking Bad thing.” I couldn’t tell you for sure what AMC wants to do with The Son because I don’t work there.
But just look at the way its characters are constantly scrambling in reaction to outside forces, often resorting to less-than-ethical problem solving, all with an inspired bit of stunt casting—tell me this show wasn’t grown in a lab to be a “Peak TV” golden boy. To that end, The Son feels soulless, with a script that is quite literally predictable, both in terms of dialogue and plot development—because of course a grizzled, stubborn character would respond to “you won’t regret this” with “I already do.” It’s so rare to watch a show released at this level that seems to lack any real creative spark—doubly impressive when you consider the acclaim its source material has earned over the years.
Also, there’s a preposterous subplot where a white teen, captured by Native Americans, fights back against a young woman who is forcing him to do manual labour. Immediately, she decides that she’s in love with him and goes to his tipi immediately after to have sex with him. Because this is prestige TV.
At first blush, it seems as if the show will follow the Dallas route, with an emphasis on the burgeoning oil business in Texas, seen through the eyes of self-made man Eli McCullough (Pierce Brosnan) and his family. Then it introduces a friendly rivalry with the Garcia’s, a Mexican-American family across the way. Maria Garcia (Paola Nunez) is pretty clearly in love with Eli’s son Pete (Henry Garrett), but Pete is married with three kids. The Garcias might have ties to the Mexican seditionists, but the McCullough’s might also be controlling the local government in the town. The McCullough’s are having money troubles, because they want to build oil rigs but they’re not 100 per cent positive there’s even any oil on the ranch. All the while, pretty much every man in the family is experiencing some kind of PSTD—Eli’s manifests in full-on Arrow-style flashbacks to his time as a Comanche slave. So many delicious subplots, I wonder if this might lead to post-show discussion think pieces!
That’s about everything you need to understand from the pilot, which is both overstuffed and eye-numbingly dull. I’m sympathetic to a point; I know table setting is no easy feat, but if any channel knows how to run a pilot by this point, it’s gotta be the house that Peak TV built, right? That’s not to say things don’t improve, because they do! Eventually, the show becomes “all right,” and Episode Six ends with a solid hook for the rest of the season. But the show makes a weak first impression, constantly keeping its protagonists on their heels. We don’t really get a feel for the McCullough’s nor the Garcia’s as characters—aside from some extremely generic anti-hero broad strokes from Eli—because they’re constantly reacting to outside sources, almost from the word “go.” It’s always worth spending a little time with the main characters before you introduce the main conflict. Change only matters when the audience has an idea of the starting point; we need to see the character in a basic state so we understand what the change means to them.
Aside from Eli’s flashbacks, which admittedly do follow this structure, and some clunky exposition that indicates, “this is the starting point for this television show,” the first two episodes of The Son almost feel as if they were aired out of order. The main conflict has already started, and we’ve barely gotten to know these people. Not to say they’re worth knowing, since anything worth seeing is squirrelled away in the Eli flashbacks, but I wish I could give these characters the benefit of the doubt. For all I know, they entered this world as pre-molded primetime TV anti-heroes, and since I am unlikely to continue watching The Son past my review duties, that is how they will remain.
I think that, more than anything, is why this show kept reminding me of Westworld. It’s not just that The Son is ostensibly a Western, it’s that everything in this show feels like one of the prefab adventures seen in Westworld’s eponymous theme park. The young Eli isn’t exactly going through a white saviour narrative—he kinda sucks at everything, in my opinion—but he’s slowly becoming the most important character in a narrative featuring an entire Comanche tribe—almost like he’s a park guest experiencing a story designed to make him the main character. It doesn’t feel natural; it feels more like an obligation. And then you have the McCullough’s, fifty-odd years later, where the whole family is going through the motions of conflict, almost as if they’re waiting for somebody more interesting to show up.
That’s weird, right? The flashback story and the main story feel like they have opposite problems: the 1849 story is following the least interesting character in a tribe full of compelling stories, whereas you can hear the script for the 1915 story push to make every character as morally ambiguous and “compelling” as possible. The Son has an interesting set of plots; it just can’t quite get the story to work.
The show does begin to find its footing once it firmly settles on a thesis: white men suck. As it continues to portray the majority of its Caucasian characters as murderous monsters, often while letting marginalized groups voice their grievances, The Son feels like a real television program. It seems like the show will eventually be about the arrogance of white people bringing ruin to marginalized communities. And now we’re all the way back around to modern cultural relevance!
I say “eventually” because, although the show begins to narrow down its characters as it focuses in on racial inequality, it’s still not all that interesting nor is it incisive. It’s perfectly fine to have a whole TV show about how horrible white Americans were (are) to Native Americans and Mexicans, because it seems like that’s still a lesson people need to learn. But the racism seems almost cartoonishly evil, which has the adverse side effect of absolving the bigots who exist in the middle ground between murderer/rapist and “I would’ve voted for Obama a third time”—shame, because those folks are the people who need to hear this lesson the most. The stinger for Episode Six does give me some hope, but that was the last episode provided by AMC.
I don’t know if any of this will come to fruition because I don’t think I’ll be watching The Son—unless the canary in the coal mine that is pop culture Twitter comes back with a positive report on the entire first season. The show has its shining lights, but the moment-to-moment experience of watching The Son is little more than watching family arguments interspersed with guerilla warfare interspersed with a scrawny white kid getting his ass kicked by several different Native Americans. Much like the mediocre and forgettable Low Winter Sun, it’s a fairly transparent attempt at recreating past AMC successes. There are worse ways to pass the time between cradle and grave, but there are better shows you could be watching—some of them on this channel!