Frontier: A tale of revenge, money and race

By: Andrea Merodeadora

Set in 18th century Canada-before-it-was-Canada, Frontier follows the sprawling fur trade industry from the perspective of the multiple factions looking to make a profit off it. Though the protagonist of the show is an Irish youth by the name of Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron), the hero of the story is another character. The real soul of the narrative is Declan Harp (Jason Momoa), a half-Cree and half-Irish man who grew up in the ranks of the Hudson Bay Company and is now wanted for treason, murder and other uncountable crimes.

Maybe because Momoa isn’t an actor that Hollywood really takes seriously, maybe because the general audience doesn’t care about Indigenous history, or maybe because it’s a Canadian production that’s been sorely under-promoted; Frontier has managed to mostly fly under the mass audiences’ radar. But Momoa, Discovery Canada and Netflix seem to have an honest belief in the quality and relevance of the show, as it was renewed for a third six-episode season two months before the second run premiered. Now, with the second season already out on Netflix and the third in production, it’s time for you to catch up with this excellent historical drama.

Four reasons why you’ll love this show:

Declan Harp: We all love Jason Momoa. He’s sexy, he’s mysterious, he has a charming smile and can put the fear of God into anyone with just one glance. But Hollywood has never seemed to think of him as a leading man, so his roles mostly range from eye-candy to villain. In Frontier, though, he gets to play a fully rounded and very humane character, and a particularly interesting one because we first meet him through the image that white people have painted of him.

Legend says Declan Harp is wild, a savage, a ruthless murderer. Our introduction to him is a scene where he brutally murders a group of British soldiers, then tells the last survivor of the party to “run on home and tell him [he’s] here”. He, we will soon learn, is a high ranking Hudson Bay Company officer by the name of Lord Benton, Harp’s sworn enemy and one of the most despicable (and best executed) villains on television. It’s Benton who built the image of Harp as a rabid murderer, and he stubbornly upholds it through the whole show.

But Declan isn’t a monster. Yes, he’s a killer. He embraces violence, a violence that he learned from white men and that he now inflicts on other white men. But under the near-mythical aura that surrounds him, he’s just a man who has suffered too much and has been nearly consumed by his path of revenge; yet remains fair and kind to his people. Seeing a Native man represented as humane, complex, infinitely layered and, most importantly, as the undisputable hero of the narrative is rare, and damn wonderful.

Historical accuracy: Of course, because Frontier is a Discovery show, one would expect it to be more or less historically accurate, even though the story centers entirely fictional characters. But it still is surprising to the Native people speaking in their respective tongues, to see the arrows and the muskets and the fur coats so carefully designed. What’s even more interesting is that it skirts some of the tropes and misconceptions that period dramas tend to perpetuate about marginalized groups. Yes, the old times were more misogynistic, homophobic and racist than our present; but that doesn’t mean that women, gay people (yes, there are gay people in the show!) and people of color didn’t live and even thrive in spite of it.

Another interesting and refreshing detail is that Frontier doesn’t rely on violence for shock value, as some other period and fantasy dramas do. The first two seasons managed to deal with misogyny, assault and sex trafficking without once showing explicit sexual violence. And, when we see Declan murdering some white people, it’s usually quick and dirty, with the camera panning elsewhere and only showing the aftermath of the violence. There’s blood, and there’s fighting, but the show only lingers on the more gruesome details when it adds to the narrative.

The Native peoples: Despite the overwhelming (and shitty) whiteness behind the cameras, the show has done well by its Indigenous characters. Two out of the three leads are Native, the second one being an Ojibwe woman, Sokanon (played by Metis-Cree actress Jessica Matten). There are a dozen other Indigenous actors in credited roles, plus many more uncredited actors in the scenes with the Ojibwe tribe and the Lake Walker tribe.

None of these characters’ existence, purpose or narrative is tied to a white person. While Declan is, without a doubt, the most well-rounded Native character in the show, the other characters aren’t just cardboard cutouts.

Sokanon, Declan’s sister-in-law, is a stone-faced but kind woman who’s been scarred by similar losses as Harp’s. She’s a warrior, and she fully understands that surviving amidst the ever-expanding white colonization is a costly but necessary fight. Though she’s been following Declan’s lead for years, in the second season she finds a purpose of her own and breaks away from the main group to pursue a mission that she feels is more important than her revenge.

Also by Declan’s side are Samoset (Zahn McClarnon) and Dimanche (William Belleau), two Native men who share his business and fight with him.

Through the show we get glimpses into the Lake Walker Cree tribe and the Ojibwe tribe, and we meet Inuit people too. The Native peoples all speak in their respective tongues, and we get a scene where we see that Harp (fluent Cree and Ojibwe speaker) understands a few Inuktitut words, but he cannot speak the language at all.

The Native characters are angry warriors (Machk, played by Raoul Max Trujillo), wise and generous leaders (Kamenna, played by Tantoo Cardinal), charming and compelling craftsmen (Wahush, played by Nathaniel Arcand) or a multitude other roles; each new character a reminder that Indigenous peoples cannot be caged within a single stereotype. The glimpses into the Native peoples’ politics, economy and philosophy are all carefully handled, and show that research and care has been put into making their portrayal feel as authentic and respectful as possible.

The women: There is no lack of resourceful women in this show. There’s, of course, Sokanon, the most classically badass female character in Frontier, but she’s not the only one.

In Fort James there’s Grace Emberly (Zoe Boyle), a tavern owner who knows just how to work the strings of the town, to make a buck and keep herself and her tavern girls safe and fed as the men around her wage their wars. With her are Mary (Breanne Hill) and Imogen (Diana Bentley), tavern employees who are just as resourceful and resilient as their boss. Though willing to spy, lie and fight to ensure their survival, these women don’t fuck people over unless they need to, and their inherent kindness makes them likable even when they’re less than good people.

There are a couple other women, and they’re all more or less likable. The only exception to this is Elizabeth Carreuthers (Katie McGrath), though it’s hard to say if she’s unlikable because she’s the only rich aristocrat amongst a cast of working women, or if it’s due to McGrath’s absolutely uninspired acting. But she does serve to show that rich women can be as entitled and exploitative as the rich men of the story, so that’s something.

Four things that will probably piss you off:

Clumsy pacing: History often doesn’t make sense, and what makes Frontier seem so accurate and true is also what makes it a bit all over the place. There are too many things happening, too many people plotting to get money or power or revenge at the same time. It’s good, because it gives us a layered look into the complexity of colonial-times politics, of the fur trade’s economy and of Native people’s issues. But it also means that plots will start in one episode and not be mentioned again until the end of the season, or that the action might suddenly stop altogether to favor the commercial dealings between characters who are never as interesting as Declan Harp. Luckily, the show isn’t long, and the six-episodes-long seasons fly by fast enough that you never really get a chance to be bored by the least interestings details of the plot.

The unnecessary white lead: Like we said in the beginning, Michael Smyth is the protagonist and Declan Harp is the hero. And, mind you, Michael is a pretty likable protagonist. He’s honest, he’s funny, he’s quick on his feet, he’s not a bigot (high achievement for a white man in a period drama). But it’s obvious from the very beginning that his role, his narrative function, is to serve as a proxy to make white audiences comfortable. Though he is endearing, and his relationship with Declan and Sokanon is quite touching, the knowledge that the story would work just as well without him will be a constant, annoying buzzing in the back of your mind.

The lack of black people: There are no black people throughout the entire first season. None. Not in the ships, not among the Natives, not working in Fort James. There’s a whole six hours of television without a single black person, and it’s jarring to say the least.

The second season improves upon it, adding a black woman (Josephette, played by Karen LeBlanc) and a black man (Charleston, played by Demetrius Grosse) but, though they appear in five out of the six episodes, their roles are rather minor. They both have a couple lines per episode and make it alive to the end of the season, and it looks like Josephette’s screen time will increase in the next season, but it’s definitely not enough. Colonial-times Canada might have had less black people than the United States did, but there were definitely more than two black folks in the entire Hudson Bay.

The handling of sex work: Frontier deals with the sex trafficking of Indigenous girls, and it’s a damn important thing to talk about. It’s not the first time Momoa’s work has tackled the issue of sexual violence against Native women, and Frontier particularly aims at the very origin of this epidemic. But it also makes the (rather common) mistake of equating sex trafficking to sex work, which only adds to a cultural misconception built around depriving voluntary sex workers of their agency and rights.

While there is no denying the dangers and damages of sex work in the 18th century, the fact is that people have been charging and paying for sex for millennia, and sex work is no less or more respectable than any other way a woman might find to make a living in a patriarchal society. A more layered and respectful portrayal of 18th century sex work (though located in London, not Montreal) is Hulu’s “Harlots”, which you should absolutely watch after you’re done catching up with Frontier.

White critics have accused Frontier of trying to be Game Of Thrones or being too similar to Taboo, but those are narrow (and racist) views. Frontier is its own show, starring an actual biracial man as its biracial hero; telling stories because they are original, moving and relevant and not just because of shock value, and refusing to use sexual violence for cheap thrills.

It might be a flawed show, but the parts it gets right are damn good. And the most compelling argument to watch it is — honestly — its sheer uniqueness. It’s the first show led by Native North-Americans since the excellent and awfully underrated Strange Empire was cancelled in 2014, and one of the only two English-speaking shows starring Indigenous people in mainstream television right now (the other being the brilliant Australian sci-fi drama Cleverman). No other show is telling the stories that Frontier is telling, and even though the show misses the mark sometimes, it still is telling them well.

Editor: Ammaarah Mookadam

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