Roush Review: Plenty of Bite Among the ‘Barkskins’

National Geographic/Peter H. Stranks

Barkskins opens with a massacre, and it rarely gets cheerier from there. Madness and misery await settlers braving the woods of late-17th-century New France (in present-day Quebec) in this exceedingly grim historical drama, adapted from a portion of the sprawling 2016 Annie Proulx novel. Just saying, if you were expecting Little House on the Prairie, you might need more than a half-pint to calm your nerves.

The eight-part series (airing over four weeks of back-to-back episodes) emphasizes cultural conflict among the warring French, English and native Iroquois rather than the book’s ecological concerns. In so doing, it’s a potent reminder of a society built on the labor of indentured servants — as well as the companionship of young women shipped from Europe to be mated with pioneers seeking to procreate as they stake their claims. While handsomely produced, Barkskins soon becomes a grueling but routine melodrama of corruption, savagery and betrayal.

Only David Thewlis (Fargo) brings much life to the saga as Claude Trepagny, an eccentric landowner who fancies himself the king of his domain in the woods (I guess you could say among the “barkskins”). A visionary who dreams of building a “sky table” atop the trees for his calculating young bride (Tallulah Haddon) recently imported from France, he brags, “I am a man brimming with contradictions, and my mind moves like the blood of Christ.” At least he’s mostly enjoying himself — although he might have factored in the jealous wrath of his mixed-race companion (Kaniehtiio “Tiio” Horn) who bore him a son. Marcia Gay Harden also scores as an innkeeper who dishes out precious local intel with the stew.

Barkskins Nat Geo

(Credit: National Geographic/Peter H. Stranks)

Intrigue escalates when Hamish Goames (Aneurin Barnard), an intense British agent of the mercenary Hudson’s Bay Company, arrives with a Harvard-educated native sidekick, Yvon (Zahn McClarnon), to search for a colleague who went missing after the aforementioned massacre of a neighboring village. The more he stirs things up, the bloodier it gets.

The moral, we’re told, as the climax piles up more bodies than the end of Hamlet: “We are all animals. Animals without mercy.” Point taken.

Barkskins, Series Premiere, Monday, May 25, 9/8c, National Geographic Channel