When I first read Philipp Meyer’s Western epic The Son back in 2013, I didn’t know it would one day become an AMC drama series, but it felt ripe for adaptation. The novel spanned generations and centuries, alternately focusing on three members of the same Texas family, and three very different eras of Texas history: Eli McCullough, who as an adolescent in the frontier days was abducted by Comanche and held captive for years; Eli’s son Peter, chafing under the cruel actions of his father (known as “the Colonel” in his later years) during the so-called “Bandit War” of 1915; and Peter’s granddaughter Jeannie, looking back over her long and complicated life as an old woman in 2012. It had action, it had broad historical sweep with interesting things to say about the creation myths of both Texas and America, it had multiple perspectives, and Meyer’s spare text seemed to lend itself well to becoming a screenplay.
But what was lively on the page lies flat on the screen. AMC’s version of The Son (it debuts Saturday night at 9; I’ve seen the first two episodes) is a glum, lifelessly condensed take on the material that in the early going doesn’t even rise to the passable standard of Hell on Wheels.
Executive produced by Kevin Murphy (Defiance), The Son goes without the Jeannie story entirely — she appears in a girlish version who is now Peter’s daughter, played by Sydney Lucas — because the creative team felt there wasn’t enough room to cover three timelines in every episode. (Later seasons might shift from a Young Eli/Old Eli structure to Old Eli/Adult Jeannie, they’ve said.) But it was the contemporary, female perspective from the Jeannie portions of the book, as much as Meyer’s writing, that rendered the earlier periods something more than cliched accounts of, respectively, Texas right after it was granted statehood, and Texas during the first big oil boom. Postpone her story for a later date and replace Meyer’s lean prose with generic writing and direction, and what was once a reinvention of cliches is now just the cliches themselves.
The majority of the early episodes are spent with Peter and the elderly Eli, which was the weakest section of the book but has the most star power with Pierce Brosnan as the Colonel. But Brosnan — a late addition after Sam Neill dropped out — seems so consumed with wrestling some kind of Texas accent to the ground (a battle he does not win) that there’s no shading or depth beneath the Colonel’s cold and harsh exterior. Other than a marvelous beard, it’s a forgettable turn from a man who’s turned into a really interesting character actor in his own later years. Peter, meanwhile, is a weaker character by design, which requires more inner steel and charisma than Henry Garrett offers in the role. Jacob Lofland finds a bit more wiggle room as the teenage Eli, but as his captor Toshaway, Zahn McClarnon seems wasted after his complex, stereotype-defying work in Fargo season two.
Though the modern era of AMC is generally credited to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, it really started with the miniseries Broken Trail, a Western with a familiar story that was nonetheless so well told that it became a big enough hit to inspire what had been a second-rate classic movie channel to explore other original projects. I liked Broken Trail a lot, am a sucker for a good Western in general, and tore through Meyer’s book within days of picking it up. I was hopeful for the show, but there’s no spark to it; just a lot of whispered threats, scenes of torture, and story points that have been done to death, usually much better, elsewhere.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org