Arts, Television, Review

Bland Storytelling Skins Return of Fur Trade Drama ‘Frontier’

Back for a third season, Frontier conjures up conflict and treachery against a historically accurate background, but lacks enough good storytelling to fully deliver.

A Canadian historical fiction drama about the 1700s fur trade, the hero of Frontier, Declan Harp (Jason Momoa), is a half-Irish, half-Cree former employee of the Hudson Bay Company (HBC), a British company specializing in fur trade that has a monopoly in Canada’s Hudson Bay area—a monopoly that Harp challenges after enduring injustice at the hands of Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong), one of the company’s ruthless officers.

Season 3 starts by rebuilding relationships that suffered from different betrayals and tragedies in the previous season. Harp is looking for Grace Emberly (Zoe Boyle), his partner, who was captured by and is trying to escape from Lord Benton. Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron), who Harp leaves in charge of the Black Wolf Company—the company led by natives who want to take part in the fur trade on their own terms—has to negotiate with business partners, feeling pressure from the Crown for illicit trading.

The business partners themselves have a ton of bad blood, as Samuel Grant (Shawn Doyle), the leader of one company, had killed Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath), the leader of another, to take her deal with Smyth, and now faces the grief of Elizabeth’s husband. The members of the Black Wolf Company try to get over the death of their friend, which Sokanon—a native woman and Harp’s sister-in-law—blames on Smyth and his eagerness to trade.

Frontier triumphs in the representation it offers. While accounts of the British fur trade usually focus on the conflicts between the British and the French—a white man’s battle for resources on a foreign land—Frontier gives focus to the indigenous people, who were also very involved in the fur trade. The effects of the fur trade—both good and bad—are represented in the show. The hero of the show is even half-Cree, and his mission is very much to help his people claim some control over their land and resources from the English. The indigenous people also speak to each other in their own tongue, further showcasing the show’s dedication to proper representation and diversity. The series features many strong female characters who all contribute to the plot in different ways. Frontier gives normally ignored or stereotyped groups a multi-faceted, accurate role, and does history justice.

What Frontier lacks, however, is good storytelling.

Frontier’s plot suffers from having too many good subplots. Even though the setting comes with a plethora of opportunities for treachery and drama, the sheer number of characters and betrayals leads to disconnected storytelling. The show cuts to and from way too many separate storylines that leave the audience with very little impression of what is happening and deprives the audience of the opportunity to become involved with the story. Characters who get a lot of screen time in the beginning of one episode may disappear by the end of another, and with the various plotlines to keep up with, many important characters simply fail to make the impression that they could have had the creators not been quite as ambitious.

The acting quality is very inconsistent from character to character. Lord Benton and Declan Harp are portrayed convincingly, while other performances are remarkably bland. Chaulk (Kathryn Wilder), for example, is supposed to be a woman dressed as a man, but is so unrecognizable that when someone sees through her disguise, the audience is surprised that she was actually supposed to pass as a man all along—a fluke that is partially due to poor costume design. On occasion, the inconsistencies in the acting make the show feel more like a cheesy historical reenactment from a documentary than an actual drama. This choppiness interferes with the immersion and makes it hard to take the plot seriously.

Despite its drama status, Frontier lacks melodrama. Its staunch dedication to historical accuracy declaws any dramatic moments and constant switching of plotlines for a big picture effect kills the intensity of the show. The viewer’s struggles to become invested in characters—a critical factor that keeps audiences interested in the show—are made even more difficult with the hit-or-miss acting. The show feels oddly wedged between a true drama and a reenactment, lacking a strong central plotline with continuity and focus. Ironically, Frontier is almost too much like real history—disorderly and inconvenient.

Featured Image by Netflix

November 27, 2018