The theme music for “Frontier” encapsulates the whole show. It starts a little outsize, with an electric guitar riff over the orchestral strings that we’ve come to associate with adventure shows. But then the drumbeat changes subtly, and a chant-like singing is mixed into the music. The new element is Cree powwow drumming and singing — a warlike song, if not a war song. Against the brash guitar and “epic” strings, it’s at first buried, and then dissonant, before coming together to create a distinct, beautiful sound.
“Frontier,” a Canadian Netflix original debuting stateside this weekend, is a historical epic that capitalizes on the best features of prestige television. It’s sprawling, diverse, and detailed, with an eye towards complicating simple assumptions about its subjects. Because we’re in the midst of a glut of shows touting prestige markers, “Frontier” at first seems to be just another show parading its blood, guts, and whorehouses as indicators of just how cool it is. (In my metaphor, that’s the trying-too-hard guitar riff.) It reveals itself to be an ambitious, considered history.
Especially for the average American viewer, the struggle to control the resources around Hudson Bay in the 1700s is unknown or forgotten history. A map of the region will be handy. So necessary, in fact, that à la “Game of Thrones,” the opening credits unfurl a map of the region, and depict toy soldiers from every interested party meeting in a wary circle before gravely aiming muskets at each other. Each is wearing the uniform and waving the banner of their “team” — there’s a flag for the Hudson Bay Company, an English private interest, as well as a banner for the Cree people, also called the Lake Walkers. This is a history of competing peoples and fractured narratives, and “Frontier” puts that aspect of the show front-and-center. Unfortunately, the show is not always up to the task. The first episode is a real jumble of place names and accents — demonstrating the scope of the series, but also a weakness in the writers’ ability to build narrative out of apparent chaos.
This changes with alacrity when star Jason Momoa gets a chance to take center stage. The imposing actor is nothing if not compulsively watchable; it says volumes that despite his character Khal Drogo being killed off in the first season, Momoa is still one of the most memorable figures from “Game of Thrones.” As half-Cree, half-Irish Declan Harp, he embodies the split identity of the Canadian wilderness — and its future, in a way. It suits Momoa’s unique physicality that he doesn’t quite fit in with any of the other groups, but still can portray a character of some quiet grace.
Around him, the show’s chaos locks into place, revealing the show’s world to be a shaded explanation for why this atypical man pursues the goals he does. Declan is a rogue warrior with political ideas — ones aligned against the Hudson Bay Company’s longstanding dominion over the region, as embodied by the villainous Captain Benton (Alun Armstrong). It’s revealed in bits and pieces that Benton killed Declan’s wife and son — an act of oppression that sparks in Declan a desire for not just revenge but even, perhaps, revolution.
It is a plot that is reminiscent of nothing more than “Braveheart.” This might make “Frontier” a little predictable — but it’s a highly entertaining and satisfying journey, too, if you’re in the mood for it. The story is vast and at times either slow or confusing. But it always reads as considered and thoughtful — an adventure epic full of characters, not caricatures.
The story of “Frontier” is one of how history gets written, on the canvas of frigid wilderness, in the traces of different theories of civilization. These clashes between deerskin tunics, tartan sashes, and tailored suits mark the beginnings of globalization in the region, where brandy and beaver pelts stand in for currency and status. It is a little too slow to be gripping, but as far as variations on the prestige drama model go, its utilizing those tropes in all the right ways. “Frontier” privileges complication and nuance over titillation and pulp — and capitalizes on what television specifically can do in terms of telling a multi-pronged, multi-location story. Strangely, it seems to be what “Taboo” on FX was attempting to be. Both are about mixed-race heroes in period clothing, at the collision of cultures and philosophies and business interests. But “Frontier,” in its consideration for the Cree language and culture, is the only one of the two that has sparks of brilliance.