Starring: Jason Momoa, Zoe Boyle, Alun Armstrong, Landon Liboiron, Evan Jonigkeit, Michael Patric, Jessica Matten, Shawn Doyle
Mood: If you want a highly fictionalized Canadian history lesson starring a smouldering pelt-wearing Jason Momoa.
It took me nearly two years to watch the first season of Frontier.
A friend recommended it to me probably in 2018, and I immediately liked the novelty of it. I mean, how often does Canadian history get turned into a big-budget Netflix movie starring Jason Momoa? How often do you even see Canadian history ANYWHERE in film?
Plus every Canadian knows of the Hudson’s Bay Company, always looming at the end of mall corridors with its distinctive department store aroma of makeup, perfume, and overpriced household items. I knew the HBC was really old, but honestly knew almost nothing else about its part in shaping our country. Canadian history lessons in the ‘90s consisted of social studies class, which was four years learning about why Québec wants to separate from the rest of Canada. Or at least, that’s all I got from it.
Anyway, it was more than a year after I heard about Frontier that I finally saw the first episode. I re-watched the same one three times over the next couple years, thinking it was supposed to be a good show but never getting into it enough to continue. Yet I kept returning, unable to accept that this concept, helmed by Jason Momoa, could be anything less than awesome.
Now that I’ve finally watched the roughly 270 minutes that make up Frontier season one… I somehow know even less about the Hudson’s Bay Company and Canadian history than I did before.
Despite the rich production and abundance of action, this show is painfully hard to follow, historically questionable, and wholly implausible. But if you like period dramas enriched with a huge serving of graphic violence, this might be the show for you.
Frontier is about the original Western frontier, North America in the late 1700s or early 1800s. None of the people or events are real, but the Hudson’s Bay Company is quickly and accurately established as the villain with a huge monopoly on the fur trade.
Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong) sails to the New World to help the HBC attempt to crush efforts to break up its empire. The main problem is Declan Harp (Jason Momoa), a half-Cree, half-Irish trapper who is out for revenge. Harp was orphaned and raised by Benton and worked for the HBC, but for some reason I didn’t grasp the HBC, led by Benton, killed Harp’s wife and son.
Meanwhile, a young street rat named Michael (Landon Liboiron) and his sweetie attempt to stow away on Benton’s HBC ship, but the young woman is arrested and only Michael makes it. He worms his way into Harp’s company, hoping to rescue the girl.
The characters quickly start piling up on both sides, including Captain Chesterfield, who wants to overthrow Benton but is definitely not a good guy, Grace Emberly, a bartender who knows everything about everyone and has her own agenda, and lots of Indigenous characters with massive potential who only get one episode.
The final episode is quite exciting, but almost everything leading up to it is like an assembly line of historical characters being wheeled into a scene to quickly explain who they are, whose side they’re on, and all of their intentions in the story. You spend most of the time waiting for Harp to come back into the scenes so you can care again.
Frontier’s first season does a great job with thrilling action and unflinching violence including grievous injuries, brutal killings, and horrific torture. It definitely gets an A+ the way its action is performed and filmed.
But this season has a serious problem with character development. There are SO MANY back stories and allegiances and plots-within-plots that you can feel the show’s foundation cracking more and more with each passing minute under the weight of all those ideas without enough time to do any of them justice.
Other than Declan Harp and Lord Benton, it’s hard to get into or even believe most of the other characters. On top of being way too obvious, the dialogue is also frequently too modern and the acting is often melodramatic, like Hell on Wheels or Black Sails.
And I’m all about strong roles for women in Westerns, but it’s just not believable that every single one of the women in this story would have spoken, dressed, and acted the way they do. That’s not to say it’s all bad acting. The plot itself just feels forced, like an overcompensation for the fact that we’re watching a show about Canada.
Everything is sexified to the max, which was a popular tactic at the time when all these shows were trying to be the next Game of Thrones. Frontier isn’t the only show to do it, it just doesn’t do it well. You need some substance to bolster all that glossiness.
Momoa is always fun to watch, and I don’t regret getting to see him trekking through wintery Canadian wilds, draped in pelts like a rugged mountain man. But I have no plans to watch season two of Frontier. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, high-budget modern Western TV show that gives you all the grit and grime and violence along with heightened drama and easily digested storylines, you’d do better with Hell on Wheels.