The Son is a study of a monster, a young man twisted by the harsh realities of survival in the Wild West into a vicious patriarch ruling a kingdom built on cattle and oil. The one consolation throughout the first season was that while Eli McCullough might have been a brutal man, his brutality was a thing of the past. Now with the second season, even that certainty is gone.
The first season of The Son was split between two time periods. In 1849 young Eli McCullough (Jacob Lofland) is struggling to find his place as an outsider in the Comanche tribe that took him in after his family were massacred. By 1915 Eli (Pierce Brosnan) is a Texas rancher running his operation with a heavy hand, even as his children jockey for position – and try to work out a new way for the family to move forward.
In the earlier period Eli is known to his tribe as “Pathetic White Boy”, which gives you a pretty good idea of the respect they held him in. It’s a violent time where the various tribes were at war both with each other and the white man, and Eli – who saw his brother murdered in front of him, and who betrays white characters on more than one occasion – repeatedly learns that the only one he can trust is himself.
The older Eli (now known as “The Colonel”) owns a ranch he’s convinced holds vast oil wealth. It’s a conviction that has put the property on shaky financial ground, and while his eldest son Phineas (David Wilson Barnes) is struggling to find investors, Eli’s younger son Pete (Henry Garrett) is trying to be the family’s conscience. Not that Eli thinks they need one: he’s at the forefront of stirring up racial hatred as tensions rise with nearby Mexico.
The second season introduces a third strand. Part of the story moves forward to 1988, where Eli’s granddaughter Jeanne Anne McCullough (Lois Smith) keeps the McCullough name alive, running a multinational oil concern from the family ranch where her paranoia keeps her increasingly isolated. She does have one contact she trusts: Ulises Gonzales (Alex Hernandez), a Mexican immigrant working for her illegally. His skill with her horses gets him close to her where he can learn more about her family’s past – but to what end?
Much of the drama still takes place in the two earlier time periods, and it’d be easy to dismiss this third timeline (which comes from the Pulitzer-prize nominated novel by Philipp Meyer the series is based on) as a way simply to look back and reflect on what Eli accomplished in his life. But there’s a deeper meaning to it, one that gives the earlier time periods a weight they didn’t have the first time around.
What became clear over the course of the first season was that the bloody and brutal lessons Eli learnt trying to survive in the untamed West remained all too relevant in the (relatively) civilised early 20th century. The world that was born out of that violence remained a violent place, and even if that violence took different forms Eli remained a man perfectly suited to his times. It wasn’t even that his past had made him hard; rather it had shown him the violence that was required to shape his destiny, and taught him how to face it without flinching.
Initially The Son was a harsh tale of survival, a brutal man’s attempt to carve out an empire from a land whose bloody nature he knew first hand. But there was always a distance there to soften the blow. In the second season, that distance is gone; Eli’s violent empire isn’t just some long gone struggle disconnected from us today. His crimes made his family rich, and they’re still profiting from his actions.
Most westerns tend to fudge this aspect of how the West was won. Hard men made hard choices, time passed, and everything back then is just stories in history books. The Son tells a different story. Men committed murder and worse, they made themselves rich from it, and their children are still enjoying that wealth today. The question that hangs over its second season is, if all that violence and brutality is still echoing through society today, is there any possible way to make things right?
Season two of The Son premieres on Sunday, 28 April at SBS On Demand. Catch up on season one now:
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