Netflix presents ‘Frontier’: The fur trade really is murder

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Reviewed by Alicia Glass

A quick recap of time and location: when we are seems to be approximately the late 1700’s, and where seems to jump around, but focus mostly on Fort James in Canada. The Fort is the main route for the massive fur trade going on ‘round these parts, and that trade is the focus of our story. In this time period especially, the fur trade is the biggest moneymaker of the Hudson’s Bay Company, an English conglomerate that basically holds a monopoly on the fur trade, at least at the moment. This is where our story begins, with anyone and everyone trying to break the HBC’s hold on the fur trade here in Canada.

Known outlaw Declan Harp, the half-Irish half-Indian rogue that is so growlingly played by Jason Momoa, is right in the middle of all this mummery. When he was orphaned young, the current ruler of Fort James, Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong), took him in and trained him to be a soldier. Apparently at some point Declan decided to go feeling his oats and got himself a little native wife and child, which didn’t sit well with Lord Benton. That’s hook one for Declan Harp. Hook two involves his knowledge and interaction with several of the other fur traders vying for business about and around the Fort, such as the Brown brothers, the Carruthers widow, and the HBC to contend with. Periphery friendship with Grace Emberly (Zoe Boyle), who runs the tavern in the Fort, keeps him abreast of gossip, and reminds of old romance time spent with her. And then finally the one major thing Declan has going, that no-one else can match and thus makes him a very desirable target, is Harp’s good relationship with the Cree Indians, who are the literal bones of the entire fur trade operation.

Captain Chesterfield (Evan Jonigkeit) is the main knee-breaker under Lord Benton at the Fort, and while he seems to like the idea Grace Emberly comes up with, to oust Benton and make Chesterfield governor, he occasionally erupts into unexpected violence that carries often disastrous consequences. But that’s nothing compared to Lord Benton himself, who dresses like a gentleman but has the heart and tongue of a viper. He calmly orders, and occasionally carries out himself, beatings and good old fashioned executions, too. Lord Benton, more than just about anything, wants Declan Harp found and brought back to him, alive. Basically so Benton can do the torturing honors himself, which, yes, he does, when Harp is finally brought in.

Elsewhere, the fur traders are all clashing with each-other, jockeying for position and hunting Declan Harp. The Brown brothers especially seem inclined towards utter stupidity, and nearly every move they make, from kidnapping to alliances, is just another screwup that ends in yet more death. The Carruthers widow, Elizabeth (Katie McGrath), shows up and tries to do some wheeling and dealing of her own after the death of her husband, but sadly her character seems rather unlikely for the time and atmosphere the show is trying to emulate. Grace Emberly as the plotting tavern-owner is a much more believable role. Irish thief Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron), through a series of misadventures in London, gets himself and his little girlfriend Clenna Dolan (Lyla Porter-Follows) arrested and deported, all the way to Lord Benton at the Fort. Benton decides to try and send Smyth out as a hunting dog to flush the pheasant Harp, banking on their supposed Irish blood connection. Harp himself is out with the Lake Walker Nation, the Cree Indians who actually keep the fur trade going, trying to keep the peace between the supposed savages and their far-more-savage European counterparts, this giant snarling half-breed irony surrounded by enemies, allies, and far too many unsafe loved ones.

So how does the show stack up? Frontier Season One is pretty darned short, coming in at only six episodes. However, the show was renewed for a Season Two before the actual premiere on Netflix, so that’s something. Filmed actually in Canada to lend as much realism as possible, the show boasts a very fine cast, lovingly sewn absolutely gorgeous fur coats and costumes, and a story that very rarely slows down from its rather breathless pace. Not overly complicated but certainly not condescending either, the story is easy to comprehend and quick to become sheer fun (with the possible exception of the end of the torture scene). It’s always great to see Jason Momoa run around and throw sharp weapons and growl at people, which he seems to do no matter role he’s in, so that’s cool.

Make your own foray into the fur trade with Frontier, on Netflix now!

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