Into the West

As the history of westward expansion no longer commands primetime territory in popular culture’s imaginings of America, a second Western has come to cable. And unlike HBO’s Deadwood, which plunges viewers into the day-to-day struggle for survival in a single town, TNT’s Into the West aspires to a panorama of the entire 19th century, when both Americans and European immigrants exploited the vast land acquisitions that began with the Louisiana Purchase of 1804.

To humanize this ambition, creators Darryl Frank, Justin Falvey, and William Mastrosimone spread the saga over six two-hour films, each done by a separate director, and zoom in on two multigenerational families, those of Virginian wheelwright Jacob Wheeler (Matthew Settle), and Lakota leader Loved by the Buffalo (Simon Baker). Although the integration of a Native American perspective, complete with Lakota speakers and subtitles, follows the example of Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, Into the West takes a courageous step further by linking the two families through intermarriage in the 1820s. This acknowledgement of the prevalence of intermarriage creates a new perspective on the Old West.

At the same time, the focus on only two families leads the series into the curse of the mini-series: the need for plotting mired in farfetched coincidence to guarantee they play leading roles at every historical turn. The desire for coverage tips plotting towards the conventional markers of American historical self-image — the individualistic trappers, mountain men, and family-based wagon trains that forged the way west — so familiar from Hollywood movies and TV. In Episode Two, the crises are entirely predictable: the Wheelers’ wagon train runs into a fatal cattle stampede, fatal river crossing, fatal cholera outbreak, and fatal runaway wagon. This episode follows the dramatic strategy of A.B. Guthrie’s The Way West (and Andrew V. McLaglen’s movie of the same name), by teasing out viewers’ excessive sympathy for individual characters and then emphasizing the attrition the wagon trail exacted by clinically dispatching them with minimal fanfare or regret. The series sustains a tension between the aspiration to fill in traditional gaps and the pedestrian recollection of past fictions, leaving it more interesting as an intellectual exercise than as a drama.

That intellectual exercise has value, though perhaps not 12 hours worth, for it pushes into popular view three strands of the historic occupation of the west. First, it is honest about the role of women, both Caucasian and Native American. Several women join the two Wheeler brothers as they head for St. Louis and the California trail, as representatives of the thousands of single women, often working as servants, who swelled the wagon trains west. The series, not surprisingly for a piece appearing under the Spielberg/DreamWorks imprimatur, can’t quite bring itself to abjure the traditional morality that transgressive women must be punished: one drowns, another dies in agony during an amputation, and the third, Naomi (Keri Russell), is captured by the Cheyenne. But two also marry, across class lines, on the trail west from St. Louis, and Naomi quickly accepts her new life with the Cheyenne. Thunderheart Woman (Tonantzin Carmelo), who eventually marries Jacob Wheeler, survives hostile capture, sexual slavery, and widowhood to raise three children in California.

Second, this marriage to Wheeler avoids the ’50s-style pussyfooting of Dances with Wolves in which the Costner character falls in love with a Lakota woman, only to discover that she was in fact a captive American (thus avoiding any crossing of racial lines). This miniseries openly recounts the intertwining of Native Americans and whites over several generations.

While the events that link the family of Loved by the Buffalo and the Wheelers, at least in the first two episodes, are somewhat strained, they do emphasize the close commercial, social, and physical relationships between Native American residents and white migrants in the first half of the 19th century, some essential for the migrants’ survival. Thunderheart Woman, sister of the Lakota protagonists, first marries a white trapper, then Jacob Wheeler, and, finally, when she thinks he has died, a third, Californian husband. Naomi not only accepts marriage to a Cheyenne warrior, but also falls in love and has children with him. How the series represents the fates of the children of these cross-racial and cross-cultural marriages is an intriguing question for the next few weeks.

Finally, the initial episodes also convey Native Americans’ self-aware, distinctive cultures, as they were perplexed and divided about flood of migrants. But this attention doesn’t tip into the ahistorical, ’60s-inflected misreadings of warrior tribal cultures as a prototype of “peace and love, man,” that has marred some of the reworkings of the Western genre over the last 30 years. The Cheyenne have a reason — the extirpation of bearers of cholera — for massacring the wagon train, but they still massacre. While they contemplate the incursions of trappers and soldiers, the Lakota also face conflict with other tribes: it is a rival tribe that massacres Thunderheart Woman’s first husband and sells her into sexual slavery.

In the same way, although the migrants are more romanticized than the characters in Deadwood, for instance, the series still manages to show, as do Eastwood’s Unforgiven and McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, that the occupation of the west did not represent the clash of two cultures. Instead, it marked the face-off between one group, the Native Americans, who were attempting to preserve a culture, and another group, the dispossessed, the displaced, and the dreamers of the eastern United States (and Europe) who were attempting to create a new society where they would be respected, rather than reviled or condemned. The west of Into the West is messier and less “politically correct” than many of its critics have been able to work out, as these critics don’t seem able to step beyond the bare fact of equal screen time for Native American characters.

This messiness is one of the most appealing aspects of the series, even if it’s the accidental byproduct of filmmaking courageous enough to attempt to tell a new story but neither visionary nor skillful enough to disrupt genre conventions. As with Deadwood, this messiness doesn’t simply represent warts-and-all grittiness, a code of authenticity as easily manipulated to mythic ends as the heroic everyman of the ’50s and ’60s. Instead, both series recall the picaresque literature that emerged in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries’ wars of religion, which satirizes the conventions of epic heroism and offers no consolation beyond the burden of ongoing existence. That literature emerged in response to brutal dislocations at every level of society, and its reemergence in the guise of genre fiction on primetime cable suggests that popular culture is perhaps ready to represent the anomie of the later Bush years. It also suggests that, as the premiere domestic purveyors of America to Americans, the networks may truly be entering a permanent twilight.

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