Starring: So many people it would be wrong to name just a few
Mood: If you’ve been bad and deserve to be punished by being chained to your couch in front of a disappointing Western.
Into the West is over NINE HOURS LONG. You can do a lot with that much time. Don’t use it to watch this miniseries.
Seriously. Save your $30 – and that nine hours – for a season of a different Western series. Or two Western movies. Or two months of a new streaming service membership so you can binge multiple Westerns, or even a pile of Western DVDs from the thrift store.
There are some gold nuggets buried within Into the West. If you’re going to persevere, which I still don’t recommend, hold out for the last half. That’s where you’ll find rewards
Into the West is a super ambitious miniseries, with multiple directors including Simon Wincer, who was at the helm of some absolutely f*cking outstanding Westerns like Quigley Down Under, Crossfire Trail, Monte Walsh, Lonesome Dove, and Comanche Moon.
The executive producer is Steven Spielberg, so I was expecting an impressive Western of blockbuster quality. Like that epic pioneering time-suck How the West was Won, but way better.
What I got was a summer blockbuster alright – complete with stunning cinematography, and literally hundreds of hollow characters who are only there to fill the sets.
The narrative follows two family stories through the events that shaped the Old West. One story is that of the Lakota people fighting to preserve their way of life. The other is the Wheelers, a family of wheelwrights from… Wheelerton.
The six episodes cover a LOT of historical ground: the first expedition from the east to reach California, the Mexican-American War, the California gold rush, the Treaty of Fort Laramie, the Civil War, building the Transcontinental Railroad, the Sand Creek Massacre, the murder of Sitting Bull, the first ‘Indian School’, and the Wounded Knee Massacre, plus frontier hardships like smallpox and cholera.
The action is extremely well-shot – that’s the big-budget Spielberg quality right there. But the series wastes so much screentime on inconsequential and made-up relationships. And even with so much time, those characters come out flat.
I owe it to the talented cast of Native American and First Nations actors to mention the highlights of Into the West first – because they ARE the highlights.
All of the big names are here: Wes Studi, Gil Birmingham, Russell Means, Eric Schweig, Steve Reevis, Graham Greene, Tontanzin Carmelo, Irene Bedard, Michael Spears, Chaske Spencer, David Midthunder, Gordon Tootosis… plus around 100 more.
- Teenage Dog Star and Running Fox are the only good things about episode 2, Manifest Destiny, and those characters continue to be strong throughout the series
- Most of the Lakota characters are much more interesting than their white counterparts in the same episodes, with the exception being Skeet Ulrich’s harrowing descent into gold fever madness as Jethro Wheeler
- Many of the young actors delivered the most powerful performances in the miniseries, especially Simon Baker and George Leach, who both played Loved By the Buffalo at different ages, and Nakotah LaRance as the young Voices That Carry
- I legit ugly cried multiple times during the massacres and Indian School scenes in the second half of the series, but I wasn’t crying over the storytelling; it was the combination of highly realistic effects in brutal fight scenes and me just hating that these things happened
- Props for using authentic languages, but boo for many of the Indigenous wardrobe choices
If you want to watch Into the West just to discover more Indigenous actors, by all means. It does that well. If only it had invested more time in developing a few of those characters.
Now we get to my rants.
The worst part about Into the West by far is the narration of the first three episodes by Matthew Settle. He’s so obnoxiously earnest as both a narrator and as lead character Jacob Wheeler that every word out of his mouth sounds totally fake.
Settle’s voice sets the tone, and it’s way too sappy and PG for what should be a gripping historic adventure. The Lakota-narrated scenes are significantly stronger, but you can’t shake the icky, made-for-high-school-history-class vibe.
And to top it off, Settle wraps up every episode with a cheesy, positive thought. It’s like, dude, you literally lost half of the people following you out West, and a preacher cut through your cousin’s maggot-filled broken leg with a hacksaw and she died from the pain before he could even finish the job, but cool, glad you’re still in a good mood.
Another thing that drags the story down is the overabundance of convenient hookups. Basically every single female character gets paired off, and you can tell right away who she’s going to be with.
If she’s a white girl, there’s a good chance she’ll snag a Lakota or Cheyenne man, and all of them are going to make babies within minutes of the marriage. Some reviewers at the time felt all the interracial pairings were an attempt to make the Indigenous stories more ‘digestible’ for white audiences. Eye roll.
And don’t get me started on the whole thing with Naomi Wheeler (Keri Russell) getting sold as a bride, and warding off the advances of Chief Prairie Fire (Jay Tavare) by reciting f*cking nursery rhymes that the Cheyenne warriors think are ‘evil magic’ because only one old woman in the entire village speaks English. And then in the next scene, she’s saying baby rhymes all sexy to her husband who she now loves. It’s so offensive, I just can’t.
One final issue I need to raise with Into the West is that because it’s only six parts but spans many decades, the surviving characters are played by multiple different actors – sometimes within the same episode. It gets really f*cking hard to keep up with who people were in previous episodes.
Although most of the big-name actors who make appearances are gone in a flash (um, was that Sean Astin?), a few give memorable performances:
- Josh Brolin as explorer Jedediah Smith
- Keith Carradine as seemingly well-meaning military captain Richard Pratt, who turned out to be the guy who started the first residential school that forced Indigenous kids to give up their language and culture (on top of the countless abuses, neglect, and murders that of course aren’t shown here)
- Rachael Leigh Cook as Clara Wheeler
- Wes Studi as Black Kettle
- Raoul Max Trujillo as Red Cloud
- Gil Birmingham and Russell Means as the older versions of Dog Star and Running Fox
- Irene Bedard as Margaret Light Shines
And like I said, the last three episodes of Into the West are actually much better than the first half. I admit that I got kind of into it, even though they were shallow representations of major events that have already been done exceptionally well in movies like Geronimo: an American Legend.
If, like me, you heard about this miniseries online, saw a crapload of big names in the cast and thought wow, this must be amazing – I am sorry. We were deceived. But hey, hopefully you read this review before you gave up every evening for a week.
And since this miniseries is SO FULL of Indigenous characters, I had to spend a little extra to uphold my commitment to buy from Indigenous-owned companies each time I write reviews that benefit from Indigenous stories. Guess who went back for a second helping of Manitobah Mukluks.