Second Screen: The Son is the Godfather of TV Westerns

Talkhouse's TV columnist is swept up by AMC's expansive Pierce Brosnan-led family saga, which has just started its second season.

Eli McCullough, the Texan patriarch at the center of the AMC Western The Son, is a man of immense ambition, and his drives – which are so relentless that they both enable him to build an empire and lead him to decimate his own soul and the lives of many who come into contact with him – are mirrored by those of the creators behind this exceptional series. Based on the acclaimed novel by Philipp Meyer, The Son is a show of sweeping ambition that attempts nothing less than to be the Godfather of Westerns: a family saga that is also the story of America, an inquiry into the values that founded our country and how those values evolve. Covering a timeframe of more than 100 years, it never feels like it’s straining for significance or epic scale; the big questions and big issues showrunner Kevin Murphy and the other writers wrestle with grow organically out of the structure, which facilitates moments of painfully intimate personal weakness and longing as well as grand depictions of cultures in transition. The greatness of the show lies in the way the filmmakers show how these personal, historical and political forces influence and affect each other and continue to do so long after the period depicted in the narrative ends.

The first season of The Son moves back and forth between two time periods: 1849, when teenage Eli (Jacob Lofland) is taken captive by Comanches who raise him as one of their own; and 1915, when Eli (Pierce Brosnan) has become a successful cattle baron and aspiring oil mogul at war with Mexican rebels and members of his own family. The structure is reminiscent of The Godfather, Part II and works in similar ways, using the two different time periods to comment upon each other and examine how power is acquired through violence and influenced by race and class and how that changes – or doesn’t – across eras. There’s a mystery at the heart of the story – how did the Eli of 1849 become the Eli of 1915? – that continually introduces new mysteries, questions about how and why America was built on blood and whether or not anything can be done to stanch the flow, and whether power by its nature corrupts or just attracts the corrupt and corruptible. The biggest question of all is what motivates the powerful to do what they do even when they know it’s destructive – is it for family, for legacy, for pride, for greed? Or something even more primal and impossible to articulate?

This is just scratching the surface, and in the newly begun season two, The Son looks to be taking the Godfather II approach one step further by introducing a third time period, 1988, when Eli’s daughter Jeanne Anne (played, in a nice touch, by East of Eden’s Lois Smith) is the matriarch of the McCullough ranch. Tracing one powerful American family’s fortunes over the course of 139 years gives The Son an often awe-inspiring breadth, as Meyer and the filmmakers use the McCulloughs to trace the history and evolution of modern capitalism just as Coppola’s gangster epic did, but from slightly different angles and in a different context (rural and Southwestern rather than urban and Northeastern). The commentary never feels imposed or preachy; the characters never feel like symbols. To the contrary, Pierce Brosnan gives the performance of his career as a character who invites and earns comparison with the most distinctive protagonists of the golden age of television; as a man who is sure of himself and his way of looking at the world yet knows his way of life has done irreparable harm, he’s every bit as riveting, flawed and human as Tony Soprano or Walter White.

Pierce Brosnan and Sydney Lucas in The Son

The qualities of Brosnan’s performance are deepened and expanded upon by his presentation in the frame, as director Kevin Dowling continually finds lively and original ways of visually expressing McCullough’s conflicted nature. Like John Ford and Clint Eastwood in their prime, Dowling seems to have an innate ability to generate iconic images; he knows just how to place Brosnan against a landscape, or in a doorway or on a horse, in a manner that gives him stature and mythic resonance. Also like Ford and Eastwood, Dowling knows how to then deconstruct and subvert those mythic proportions, alternating formal compositions with handheld work and close-ups focusing on gestures or glances that subtly reveal flashes of madness, insecurity and regret beneath McCullough’s steady surface. The result is a Western antihero every bit as rich in both psychological complexity and allegorical significance as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers or William Munny in Unforgiven, a conflicted and contradictory hero embodying all that is both appealing and appalling in the American character.

The strength of Eli as a dramatic invention – and the ensemble around him, for Brosnan is supported by a compelling cast of players – gives The Son’s many action sequences an almost unbearable intensity, because not only a family but an entire country’s soul seems to be at stake. Dowling is as deft with action as he is with intimate drama, infusing sequences like a climactic nighttime shootout in the season two opener with a haunting, kinetic sense of eerie terror. Throughout the series Dowling is unerring in his instinct for straddling the line between traditional methods of Western storytelling and more modern techniques; he’s aware of both the classical style embodied by Ford and the visceral dynamism of contemporary action movies but beholden to neither. His unique blend of formalism and GoPro-age immediacy represents a new idiom of Western filmmaking that takes the genre forward while preserving its pleasures in a manner similar to what Sam Peckinpah did in the 1960s, or Eastwood did in the ’70s.

Those Peckinpah and Eastwood movies endure because, like all great Westerns, they’re about three time periods: the time in which they’re set, the time in which they were made, and the time in which you’re watching them. Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, for example, is a Civil War epic that uses conflict to investigate fissures in America during the Vietnam War; but also, Eastwood and screenwriter Philip Kaufman had such a firm grip on something basic and timeless about the culture that if you watch the movie today, it seems to be commenting on the endless cycle of division and hostility in the age of Trump. The Son too speaks to our current age, in its exploration of the psychology of power and how a nation is both shaped by and pays for the personal idiosyncrasies of those who acquire or inherit it. One of the show’s frequent subjects is legacy, and another of its as-yet-unanswered questions is what kind of legacy Eli will leave behind. Time will tell if The Son continues to resonate in eras beyond our own as The Searchers and Josey Wales do and leave a lasting legacy of its own, but for our current moment it’s about as potent a creation myth as one could ask for, a story asking who we are, and how did we get here, and where do we go from here.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently available on DVD, Amazon Prime, and iTunes. He also hosts a podcast series on the American Cinematographer website and serves as a programming consultant at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.