Hollywood’s least interesting approach to tackling race is to have a white character learn that racism exists. Instead of illustrating how bigotry affects the lives of people of color in small and large ways, the entertainment industry too often defaults to stories like The Help or the upcoming Daniel Craig–starring drama about the L.A. riots that presume that narratives about race are most effective when a white person feels sad about what’s happening to someone else. That line of thinking also drives AMC’s The Son (premiering Saturday, April 8), a Western series that asserts the not-wrong hypothesis that American history is a nonstop race war. Told from a Chicano or black or Native American point of view, the premise would hold unlimited potential. Instead, we’re asked to spend hours with a white cowboy as he, and later his family, learn that racism is bad.
That lesson is embedded within the now-dreary conventions of the “prestige” cable drama, which means that, like Tony Soprano and Walter White, The Son’s protagonist is a killer with a few redemptive qualities (yawn) whose chief obsession in life is whether he’s got the biggest dick in the room and, if not, whether everyone believes that he does. As a teenage boy kidnapped by the Comanches in the 1840s, Eli McCullough (played as a gap-toothed young man by an excellent Jacob Lofland) displays an admirable resolve to survive. Even when he’s hung from his wrists and threatened to be burned alive, he has the earnest gall to ask his captors for water. Decades later, Eli (played by a wildly miscast Pierce Brosnan) — now a prominent but indebted businessman, grandfather of three, and a minor celebrity around South Texas, possibly for his military exploits — seeks to leave his family a life-transforming legacy by becoming an oil baron, through sheer force of will if necessary. And if that means lying to every good old boy in the state with the money to invest in his rigs over the objections of his adult son, Pete (Henry Garrett), so be it.
The Son dives headlong into that other all-too-common pitfall of prestige TV: an excess of story lines, all with sluggish development. In the first six episodes, the McCulloughs contend with extended flashbacks to Eli’s captivity, the old man’s scamming, a murder, an adulterous flirtation, a potential feud with the Mexican-American family next door, a shoot-out, a lynching, and the paterfamilias’s constant sniping at his son. There’s also an irritating, precocious girl (Allison Shrum) — Eli’s favorite grandchild — to remind the adults that everything they’re doing is wrong. And perhaps in a nod to feminism and the fact that women are more than victims of rape and forced marriage, the daughter (Paola Nuñez) of the don next door has something of a personality. (It should feel fiery, but more resembles the flavor crystals of a nacho-flavored Dorito.) Even more demeaning is the scene in which young Eli is humped by his female Native American warden (Elizabeth Frances) hours after he punches her in the face in front of her tribe in a bid to reclaim his masculinity. And they say Hollywood has a problem writing women.
After spending an untold but extensive period of time with the Comanches, Eli should have a nuanced grasp of what was done to the indigenous peoples and why they might delight in winning a few gory battles. Eli is a “son,” too, of the Comanche chief Toshaway (Zahn McClarnon), because this show has never seen an obvious cliche it didn’t want to wrap around itself like a Pendleton blanket. But the years have flattened Eli’s blood-soaked education to a misanthropic nihilism, which is why he isn’t troubled by his conscience when he slices off a Mexican political radical’s ear to get him to talk. Filling in the huge gap between his early months as a captive with possible Stockholm syndrome and his final years as a grizzled patriarch who can see the future better than his son can is a fantastic starting point. But once the gun goes off, The Son gets distracted by its tumbleweeds of tangled plot that gently hop along, paying no mind to the hours that pass by.
We aren’t supposed to root for Eli, necessarily, but we do need to be emotionally invested in the fate of the McCullough clan to stay with The Son. The show doesn’t flinch from scenes of racist aggression committed against Chicanos and Native Americans, but it never fully acknowledges that to care about the well-being of the McCulloughs — at least in the South Texas small town where Eli has laid down roots — is to ignore their role in a history of genocide and systemic oppression. In the fourth episode, father and son take part with a few other white men in a massacre of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Afterward, they take a picture with the corpses at their feet, grinning like fishermen. Pete is sickened when the photograph is disseminated around the town, but we are more. I’m not sure why any writer thinks we need to see more nameless people of color killed so a white man can get incrementally more woke. But I know I’ve stopped caring about that white guy’s feelings about the racism done in his name, especially when the only thing that killing really does is give him a third leg up in the world.