Review: Pierce Brosnan aims for 'The Son' in tediously somber Old West tale

Go West, young viewer, go West.

Unless, of course, you've ridden this dusty Old West trail before. In which case, AMC's tediously somber The Son (Saturday, 8 ET/PT, ** out of four) doesn’t offer many incentives for a return trip.

To be fair, Philipp Meyer’s adaptation of his own best-selling saga does have one major new twist. Or at least it does in Sunday's two-hour premiere, which bounces between 1850 and the turn of the next century to bring us the sprawling story of a three-generation Texas family.

There was a time in Hollywood when a story like The Son's would have been built around a noble white settler battling Indians and Mexicans to protect his Texas homestead. There was a more recent time when those roles would have been reversed, with nobility conferred on the Native Americans or Mexicans beset by selfish, feckless settlers.

The Son, however, takes a more au courant approach: Everyone is equally rapacious, brutal and awful. Whether that's more in line with the historic truth, it’s certainly more in line with TV’s ongoing affection for hero-free stories.

If The Son has no heroic figure, it does have a central pivot: Eli McCullough, played as an adult by Pierce Brosnan and as a young teen by Jacob Lofland. The first boy born in the new Texas Republic (hence his title as Texas’s First Son), young Eli is captured by Comanches who slaughter the rest of his family but raise him as their own. (It's amazing how quickly he gets over the death of his mother and siblings but hey, some of us are born tougher than others.)

Over the next 10 episodes, as we watch young Eli grow, we also watch the man he’s become. The adult Eli is now the most powerful man in South Texas, the master of a large cattle ranch that he’s determined to turn into an oil empire. He’s got two major problems: the ranch is bleeding money, and he’s at war with a local Mexican-American family (led by Carlos Bardem and Paola Nuñez) and with Mexican rebels who want Texas back.

At Eli’s side is Phineas (David Wilson Barnes), the son he trusts (though Phineas has a secret that could change all that); and Pete (Henry Garrett), the son he despises. Pete is weak and philosophical and squishy, but he has given Eli his favorite grandchild, Jeannie (Fun Home’s Sydney Lucas) — who, if The Son continues on for future seasons, will eventually take over the story.

Unfortunately, that won’t happen soon. Which leaves us with the show’s central problem: Brosnan’s unfocused, unconvincing performance.

Part of the problem is a nowhere-in-Texas accent that seems to wander between between Southampton and New York like an old steamer, with a stop now and then in Boston. But the larger problem is that Brosnan’s adult Eli never seems even remotely connected to the barely civilized child being raised by Comanches. He’s too wry, too sardonic, too, well, British. (A scene where Eli fantasizes of a particularly gruesome form of revenge is so out of character, it provokes unintended laughter.)

But then, outside of Lucas, Nunez and Fargo’s Zahn McClarnon as Toshaway, no one fares very well. The characters get lost in a tale that meanders between violent episodes (beatings, scalpings, and the occasional ear removal among them), interrupted by dialogue that may have read well in the book, but clunks and sputters when spoken aloud.

Well, as a ranch hand says, “We’re born in a certain time and place, and there ain’t nothing we can do about it.” The downside is that shows like The Son are our current lot in life. The upside, however, is that no one is making us watch them.

Go elsewhere.

Pierce Brosnan as Eli McCullough (Photo: Van Redin/AMC)

Pierce Brosnan opens up about losing wife and daughter to ovarian cancer

He may have played an untouchable secret agent, but Pierce Brosnan isn't immune to the very real pain of loss and grief.

The 63-year-old Irish-born actor has spoken candidly about his late wife, Australian actress Cassandra Harris, and their daughter, Charlotte, who both lost their battle with ovarian cancer 22 years apart. 

"I don’t look at the cup as half full, believe me,” the James Bond star told Esquire while promoting his new AMC show, The Son. "The dark, melancholy Irish black dog sits beside me from time to time."

Sydney-born Cassandra was a former Bond girl and had two children from a previous marriage -- Charlotte and Christopher -- when she wed Pierce in 1980. The couple had one son together, Sean.

After Charlotte and Christopher’s father, Dermot Harris, died in 1986, Pierce adopted the children and they took his last name.

"There is an incredible cruelty in it all, losing a person you shared everything with,” the James Bond star previously told People in 1992, fourth months after 43-year-old Cassandra's death.

As Pierce's career took off, the family of five would travel together, but in 1987 that all changed when Cassandra learnt she had an aggressive form of ovarian cancer -- the same disease that had taken her mother.

Inside Pierce Brosnan's Heartbreaking Loss of His Wife and Daughter to Cancer: 'I Was in a Helpless State'

Pierce Brosnan is all too familiar with the pain of personal loss and grief.

While promoting his new AMC show The Son, the 63-year-old actor recently opened up about the heartbreak of his past — twin tragedies that struck 22 years apart: Brosnan lost his first wife, Cassandra, and their daughter, Charlotte to ovarian cancer.

“There is an incredible cruelty in it all, losing a person you shared everything with,” he previously told PEOPLE in 1992, four months after Cassandra’s death. “This is the first time in my life I’ve ever experienced bereavement, and it’s overwhelming.”

Brosnan met the Australian-born Cassandra, whom he called Cassie, in the late ’70s and they married in December 1980. The actress had two kids from a previous marriage, Charlotte and Christopher, and the couple had their only son, Sean in 1983. After Charlotte and Christopher’s father, Dermot Harris, died in 1986, Brosnan adopted the children and they took his last name.

The family of five often traveled together as Brosnan’s career took off and his wife would encourage him to take on bigger and broader roles, but that changed in 1987 when they returned to London from India to find out Cassandra, who was in her late 30s, had an aggressive form of ovarian cancer — the disease that had taken her mother.

“From day 1, we really had a fight on our hands,” said Brosnan. “This wasn’t a shadow or a small tumor — this had invaded Cassie’s being.” But his wife, he added, “took her destiny in her own hands with incredible courage and grace.” She wisely questioned every prescribed treatment and decided which ones to take, which to reject. “You must,” Brosnan said. “As frightened as you are, you have to second-guess. I was the quiet party, but I was always there for her.”

Cassandra, who starred in the 1981 James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, went through four years of treatment, including eight surgeries and a year and a half of chemo. Two years into her battle, the couple moved to Malibu and Cassandra dedicated her time between surgeries and chemo to decorate the house and make it a home for their three children. The house, Brosnan said, “gave Cassie so much joy.”

The couple continued to fight the disease until December of 1991, when Brosnan said they realized it was the end.

“I was in a helpless state of … confusion and anger,” Brosnan said about a moment when they lay in bed together near the end. “She was comforting me. She said, ‘Please, darling, don’t worry. It’s just a life winding down.’ What can you do? Up until then there was always something, some new treatment. But then the options got fewer and fewer. At the end, Cassie didn’t want to be resuscitated [by] any machines.”

Cassandra died on Dec. 28, 1991 at the age of 43, with Brosnan and Christopher by her side. Charlotte, who was 20 and in London studying acting, was on the phone. Hours after her death, Brosnan went home to tell a then-8-year-old Sean about his mom.

Though it was the hardest time in Brosnan’s life, the actor continued to be there for his children and did everything he could to give them a joyful life — all while still feeling Cassandra’s effect on him. “She has made me the man I am, the actor I am, the father I am,” the actor said at the time. “She’s forever embedded in every fiber of my being. She’s there with me every day. I was so blessed to have met someone like that.”

In 2013, almost 22 years after Cassandra’s death, Brosnan was struck by tragedy again when their daughter Charlotte died of the same disease at the age of 41. The late actress had just gotten married to her longtime love Alex just weeks before her death. The couple had two children, Isabella, who was 14 at the time and Lucas, who was 8.

“Charlotte fought her cancer with grace and humanity, courage and dignity. Our hearts are heavy with the loss of our beautiful dear girl,” Brosnan told PEOPLE at the time.

Charlotte’s death was another hard blow to Brosnan, who relied on Christopher and Sean and his new family — current wife Keely Shaye Smith and sons Dylan and Paris — to help him cope with his grief.

The family leaned on one another once again as they grieved the loss of their unofficial “custodian of laughter,” as Charlotte was nicknamed. Charlotte was “a bubbly, almost kind of goofy, gorgeous girl,” Brosnan’s longtime friend Nancy Ellison told PEOPLE after her death. “Pierce wrote to me after she died that the most intense memory that he had was of always being able to make Charlotte laugh. He wanted to be able to make her laugh again.”

Charlotte’s children were roughly the same age that she and Christopher were when they lost her mother, Cassandra — and family friends said she had already made a huge impact on her children, much like Cassandra had on her children.

“To their mummy, Bella and Lucas were absolutely the pinnacle,” said her close friend Clare Beckwith. “They have always got that for the rest of their life, that their mum just worshipped them. People would ask her why she didn’t move into acting, and she would always say, ‘No, this is my family.’ She wanted to give her family as much love as she could. She was totally devoted to them.”

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