“The Son,” aptly, is the story of sons. While one could argue it should’ve then been called “The Sons,” the title of Philipp Meyer, Lee Shipman, and Brian McGreevy’s new AMC series almost feels like an invitation to pick one of the many featured sons, and that’s the one you’ll care about. Even if this is the case, the main protagonist, Eli McCullough — who’s more than likely the titular “Son” — is flawed not only in character, but also in concept. So the many scenes devoted to both the young and old versions of him hamper any enjoyment in the other intriguing characters and makes the first two episodes a bit of a slog.
Primarily focusing on two defining time periods in Eli’s life — set during 1849 and 1915 — the hour-long western incorporates at least three additional sons into the narrative. We meet Young Eli (Jacob Lofland) returning from a successful hunt on his birthday, when his family is provoked and eventually attacked by a Native American tribe. Eli and his brother, Martin, are taken hostage, and we watch as Eli is held in captivity by Comanches.
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Breaking up this story is adult Eli, played by Pierce Brosnan, who’s trying to protect his cattle business while pursuing a new family venture as an oil tycoon. His two sons help him, to varying degrees, with Pete McCullough (Henry Garrett) serving as a law-abiding and largely honorable young man averse to risk (and thus nervous about the family’s oil interests), and Phineas (David Wilson Barnes) working as a lawyer and manager of the McCullough fortune. He’s ready and willing to help his father court the bankers who might invest in their oil-rich land, but he’s got secrets to guard that are bigger than the possibly barren McCullough land.
Complicating matters further is a third family: the Garcias, led by Pedro Garcia (Carlos Bardem) and his oldest daughter, Maria (Paola Nunez). They live on the land separating the McCullough’s Texas property from Mexico, and their Spanish origins create a rift among family members. Caesar, Pedro’s son-in-law, wants to fight for the Mexican army and sees the fiery McCullough family as untrustworthy enemies. But the Garcias just want to lead a peaceful life as cattle farmers, seeking civil discourse as everyone around them prepares for war.
Each timeline has its advantages and disadvantages. The past features much more immediate drama. Intense sequences are vividly captured, and the performances from Lofland and “Fargo’s” Zahn McClarnon are admirably restrained. Their low-key moments help ground a few sequences that could otherwise feel excessively violent. But it’s unclear how much more drama the storytellers can milk from this time period, as the flashbacks first become redundant, then slow.
The present, if yo couldn’t tell from the paragraphs devoted to its plot description, features more characters who tease future drama in the narrative. Moreover, 1915 stars the show’s bonafide lead in Pierce Brosnan. The Irish-born actor and former James Bond doesn’t exactly bring back memories of Coach Taylor (or Wyatt Earp) with his Texas accent, but he’s been a movie star for three decades for good reason. He knows how to command the screen, even if his villainous boss figure doesn’t get the opportunity to maximize the actor’s talents in the first two episodes.
But by showing us the grown version of Eli, “The Son” removes any suspense regarding what happens to him. We know he’ll survive, but worse yet, we quickly understand the character arc: It’s clear how this boy’s traumatic upbringing would produce the harsh man we see in 1915, and the show does little to dissuade the accuracy of these assumptions. There’s no mystery in his past once we see why a happy-go-lucky kid would obviously grow into a hardened adult. It feels like the show wants us to empathize with Older Eli because of his past, but Eli shows too much of his dark side as a kid. He very well may have turned out this way even without losing his family.
Such obvious character development makes the flashbacks feel like a crutch. Once we know what happens to Young Eli, it becomes harder and harder to justify so many trips back to his past, and there are no significant teases to make the wait worthwhile. Secrets of Eli’s past might be lurking around the corner, but it never feels that way. It merely feels like there should be.
That being said, two episodes don’t provide enough evidence to completely write off the beautifully shot series. The supporting acting is quite strong, and I really do want to believe there’s more to both stories than meets the eye. There’s certainly a lot more going on in 1915, so the creators could soon ditch the flashback structure entirely and allow the story to proceed more naturally.
There’s potential here, but “The Son” needs to be a bit quicker on the draw.
“The Son” premiered its first two episodes at SXSW. AMC will air the two-hour premiere April 8 at 9 p.m.