“We’re going to have a discussion about respect. Or more precisely, your lack of respect for me.”
Hot on the heels of Taboo, a grisly historical drama about trade disputes between despicable men comes Frontier, a grisly historical drama about trade disputes between despicable men. When it comes to trade disputes, it turns out that 2017 is TV’s golden age. (George Lucas is probably kicking himself he didn’t release Star Wars: Episode I now.)
While Taboo’s land ownership struggle has Tom Hardy in its camp, Frontier’s fur business revolves around an equally striking figure: Jason Momoa. He plays Declan Harp, a part-Irish, part-native American outlaw with a ferocious reputation that stretches beyond Disputed Territory fought over by the Hudson’s Bay Company and its many rivals. Within minutes, he’s justified that reputation by chopping off a man’s testicles. It’s enough to raise the alarm back in London, where Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong) of the HBC is determined to keep their monopoly of the 18th century fur trade in tact, as European settlers and others all try to muscle in on the lucrative territory.
What follows is a battle for power and money that doesn’t skimp on the politics – it’s immediately clear that Frontier wants to be more than just a hack-and-slash romp, serving up brains to go with its bloody braun. In the first hour, we’re whisked all over the world, from the UK capital to Declan’s back yard, and away again to Montreal, where rich entrepreneur Samuel Grant (an enjoyably slippery Shawn Doyle) is waiting on the sidelines. Everyone wants him on their team, from Harp and his renegade group, represented by middle-man Rivard (a charmingly gruff Paul Fauteux), to Canada’s Brown brothers – Malcolm (Michael Patric), Cedric (Stephen Lord) and Douglas (Allan Hawco).
In the middle of it all are young Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron) and Clenna Dolan (Breanne Hill), who find themselves stowaways on Benton’s ship. With Michael’s Irish lineage, Benton spies an opportunity: send Michael in to infiltrate Harp’s ring, under threat of his beloved Clenna being killed (or worse).
If that sounds like a lot of names and places, you’d be right, and that’s before we meet Grace (Zoe Boyle), who runs the local inn, and Captan Chesterfield (Evan Jonigkeit), Benton’s number two, who is hungry for both power and women. The result is a weak pilot that feels jumpy at first, as it hops about to introduce all of its players, but there’s a deceptively taut screenplay at work, which gradually tightens its ensemble in the ensuing episodes – usually by simply bumping people off.
That discipline doesn’t always extend to the dialogue, as key monologues and dramatic exchanges sometimes sit at the ripe end of the TV larder. But the mostly strong cast sink their teeth into the show’s diverse and ambitious scale: Christian McKay (who impressed as Orson Welles in Me and Orson Welles years ago) has a whale of a time as the amusing Father Coffin, a sly, sleazy priest who tricks his way into being Micheal’s guide, while Jessica Matten is excellent as the fierce native Sokanon, Harp’s second-in-command and trusted advisor. The latter, and the Crees she helps to build ties with, is key to what makes Frontier impress over its six hours, as the show’s creators Brad Peyton, Rob Blackie, and Peter Blackie strive for nuance on all sides of history – colonialism is at the core of the show, but those doing the colonising are far from the heroes.
Alun Armstrong makes sure of that, delivering the kind of villainous performance that just stops short of hammy, but still revels in his character’s barbaric sadism – particularly in one torture scene, which sees him proclaiming himself the saviour of the natives, bringing light to the proverbial heart of darkness. Opposite him, Momoa reminds us just why his Khal Drogo has stuck in the memory after six seasons of Game of Thrones. The name “Declan Harp” is said at least 10 times in the opening episode, building up the guy’s legend with all the subtlety of Brian Blessed playing himself in a seaside panto. But Momoa easily lives up to that billing, towering on screen with rugged ruthlessness. And, when it comes to the tail end of the season, he’s also good enough to undercut that physicality with a surprising vulnerability, as we learn the inevitably tragic backstory of his family.
Themes of revenge and fragmented nationalities come to the fore, the latter unfortunately echoed by Frontier’s initial chaotic jumble of people – and the busy nature of its culture-clashing theme tune. But while first impressions leave Discovery Canada’s show seeming like a pale imitation of the more atmospheric Taboo or the more convincing Vikings, the final chapters see Frontier’s male-run world increasingly driven by women, who become more than just a set of breasts. Merlin’s Katie McGrath makes an impression as the wife of a Canadian businessman, increasingly controlling deals herself, while Boyle’s Grace is a frequent highlight. More likeable than Liboiron’s Michael, she knows about Harp’s prior connection to Benton, isn’t afraid to cheat her way to power with Chesterfield, and often steals scenes with a glance. The introduction of Imogen (Diana Bentley), Benton’s spy in her tavern, and Mary (Breanna Hill), who has fun discrediting a Christian officer, leaves the women, led by Sokanon, with the potential to become the real stars of the show in Season 2. Short, stuffed with promising characters to explore and never short of the red stuff, the result is a grisly historical drama that eventually manages to live up to its ambition. And if that ambition is to tell a story about 18th century trade disputes, well, so be it. Co-produced with Netflix, this may be the first scripted show from the Discovery Channel, but it’s a debut that demands respect.
Frontier Season 1 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Photo: Duncan de Young