This The Son review contains no spoilers.
The Son Season 2 picks up a few years after the events of the first. Pete McCullough (Henry Garrett) has been on a Mexican chain gang after helping María García (Paola Núñez) cross the border after a land grab left her the sole survivor of her family, the McCullough family taking possession of everything they owned. The first time glimpse we get of Eli McCullough (Pierce Brosnan), all we see are his boots, sturdy, strong and stylish. His gait opens the season as he comes to pick up his son and bring him home. Hopefully to walk in these boots.
Like a lot of Westerns, there is sibling rivalry on the McCullough ranch, especially as it moves from cows to oil, occasionally in Biblical proportions. Eli is paving the road to succession from the trail he carved out of the wild. The elder brother Phineas McCullough (David Wilson Barnes) has been a dutiful son, respecting Eli and all his commandments. Pete not as much, he is a bucking Bronco and his father appreciates a wild ride.
The brother is on a wild ride himself. Gay in a world of masculinity before toxins were discovered, he is a macho macho man sparring with his lover between the sheets, over ledger sheets and in the boxing ring. Eli doesn’t have a problem with men getting too close with their friends but does recognize the unfair hand his eldest son has been dealt. That doesn’t stop him from making the heir apparent mind his luggage or picking Peter to carry on the family industry. Something Phineas has been working towards since birth.
The brothers’ relationship is interesting. They get along very well, confide in each other and commiserate over their father’s ways. But they are jockeying for takeover position, even though Pete swears he has no interest. The less he wants it the more it proves to the old man he’s perfect for the job. A telling moment comes in an action towards the midpoint of the season when Pete decides to flout the law and break an injunction. His father has never been so proud. Yet, there is a tender scene when Pete first comes home from the chain gang and Eli shaves months of beard off while ensuring his son’s loyalty and we wonder whether he would have slit his son’s throat if the conversation went another way.
Succession also rears its head in the 1851 timeline in Coahuila, Mexico, as Toshaway (Zahn McClarnon) is forced to obey the rules of the chief of another tribe. His son Fat Wolf was exiled along with the mother and rose to be chief. As Young Eli is being positioned to tribal leadership, he bonds with the son of his chief and comes to understand true leadership.
The series shows the injustice the white man heaped on Native Americans by example. The Son isn’t preachy, but explores social themes in action. Fat Wolf was imprisoned by the white man after his family was killed by the white man. Just as Eli is raised by the Comanches after they kill his family. But Fat Wolf is treated worse than a slave. Held in an army fort, he suffered sexual abuse as one of his tasks. Phineas McCullough is exiled to Austin for his sexual preference.
The Son also explores the racial issues of the border. While I’m not sure how much of a black law enforcement presence there was in Texas in the early 20th century, the McCulloughs are very progressive in calling on them. This brings up whether or not the family isn’t quite “white” enough for the region. But this is being said by a man who claims to be protecting the rights of the very same Mexican family he delighted in slaughtering.
Eli McCullough is a well-layered character. Brosnan moves from the warmth of a daddy’s pride to savage he learned to be to survive and thrive. Sometimes he does this in the same scene, occasionally with a look between sentences. He can be shaving the ratty mangled beard of an ex-convict son, enjoying the ease of their relationship. He can reminisce about old Texas and then, in a slice of time as short as a straight razor’s edge, he can burn with a frightening inner anger. As shocking as the emotional glint is, it is surprising to see it turn tender again moments later. This is character driven action driving character, and truly artistic storytelling. It stays small, plays large.
Brosnan is a very generous actor. He is very accommodating to the younger actors and lets them steal the gravity of scenes. All the actors play their roles with an underplayed restraint. He has no scenes with Jacob Lofland, who plays young Eli, but his presence makes scenes he’s not even in stronger. Young Eli has the better arc. I look forward to the flashbacks.
The special effects are quite nasty and yet so realistic. When Pete is putting cream on the scars from the shackles of the chain gang, the wound looks painful. There’s nothing particularly special about it, it’s not oozing pus or gangrened, it just looks like exactly what it is: metal clashing against flesh for too long. Last season, we saw Eli scalp a businessman in a particularly satisfying fantasy sequence. The hairline peeled off the scalp in a particularly gruesome way we can trust as accurate because of such fine detail as this.
I’ll say it plainly: If you like Westerns you have to watch The Son. It has the feel of the classic western, and while it may not have spaghetti, it does have touches of The Wild Bunch. If you don’t like the genre, you can still enjoy the series. AMC is respectful of the genre and the productions are seamless. The Son is a sprawling series, telling the story over generations. It depicts the ruthlessness of the oil industry and family legacies. Well-written and superbly acted, it is quality television.
The Son Season 2 will debut on Saturday, April 27 at 9 p.m. ET.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.