It’s difficult to categorize “Barkskins” into a specific genre. This National Geographic TV adaptation of Annie Proulx’s novel tends to be a middle-of-the-road historical fiction prestige play on the surface.
The setting, which is set in the colonial area of New France in the final years of the 17th century, is familiar: Candlelit rooms with modest interiors make up the wood-built settlements of Wobik, while earthen pathways serve as the centuries-old equivalents of busy city streets.
The characters in this drama reflect a cross-section of the types of people that traditionally appear in stories about early colonial incursions into the Americas. There’s the company guy, Hamish Games (played by Aneurin Barnard), the observant innkeeper, Mathilde (Marcia Gay Harden), the European eccentric, Claude Trepagny (David Thewlis), an ambitious regional entrepreneur, Elmer.
However, as the eight episodes of this season unfold, there are hints that “Barkskins” is attempting to go beyond the surface-level trappings of similar stories. Melissande (Tallulah Haddon) and Delphine (Lily Sullivan) are two young women searching for family thousands of miles away from their homes in France. Rather than accepting their fate and relegating them to the past, “Barkski” takes a different approach.
The parts of the series that stand out the most are the ones that feel unattached to those conventions. The dynamic between James and his fellow Hudson Bay envoy Yvon (Zahn McClarnon) is introduced as a two-man investigation team, but as the show progresses beyond those buddy cop-adjacent beginnings, it becomes one of the show’s bedrocks.
Thewlis is the perfect mix of remote, distant oddity and his ugly cartoonish “Fargo” antagonist. And a fascinating atmospheric score by Colin Stetson (“Hereditary”), whose bass sax-led compositions are the constant rumblings signaling the approaching storms, is underscoring all of these developments.
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Although the ensemble’s size contributes to many of the show’s strengths, it’s also a factor that makes the show feel thin around the edges at times. As the season progresses and true intentions become clearer, certain players in this tangled web of precarious relationships are given short shrift.
Despite the fact that the show ultimately discusses how the Iroquois are portrayed as aggressors and enemy warriors, “Barkskins” remains firmly embedded in the colonial viewpoint. The Native characters that live within the boundaries of Wobik, in this culture introduced from across the Atlantic, offer the most interiority.
As the season progresses, the missing piece becomes more apparent. Certain presumptive elements of the series emerge in the first half of the season — when a new character appears about the halfway point, it’s both a sign of how much “Barkskins” is attempting to play with viewer assumptions and the deliberate withholding of what turns out to be one of the series’ most convincing threads.