There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding

TNT’s Into the West is a grim slog through American history.

Into the West, the Steven Spielberg-produced Western miniseries on TNT that premieres tonight at 8 p.m. ET, is a 12-hour epic divided into six two-hour parts, which will air every Friday at 8 p.m. ET through July 22 (with a blessed break for Independence Day weekend), with each episode repeated in full on Saturday and Sunday nights at 8. Got that? In other words, if you turn on TNT on pretty much any weekend evening this summer, you will be watching Into the West. Watching the full 12 hours of Into the West, in fact, takes longer than it would to actually board a plane in New York City, fly “into the West” yourself, and turn around and come back.

The series’ massive, intricate story line is best summarized in a few lines from the voice-over narration of one covered-wagon crossing: “Folks got married. People died. Babies were born. It was the wheel of life.” Wheel imagery is big in Into the West, which focuses on the interconnected destiny of two families: the Wheelers, a white family from Virginia, so named because they have been wheelwrights by trade for generations; and a Lakota family from the Great Plains.

The clans intersect when Jacob Wheeler (Matthew Settle) marries Thunder Heart Woman (Tonantzin Carmelo), thereby introducing innovations like rifles and forged metal into the formerly unsullied world of the Lakota. (Warning: This show contains at least two separate close-ups of Indians stoically gazing forward as a single tear rolls down their cheeks, Iron Eyes Cody-style. Was litter a big problem in the Old West?) Next thing you know, 65 years of American history just zip by, what with the digitized buffalo hurtling over cliffs and the pioneer women in bonnets bravely aiming rifles at marauding traders and whatnot. You’ll hardly even notice that 12 hours of your life have passed—12 hours that you will never get back, no matter how you beg the Lord on your deathbed.

It’s sweet, really, that Spielberg and company think the American attention span in the early 21st century is up for this kind of workout. Maybe some hardy souls—American history aficionados, Matthew Settle groupies, shut-ins—will make it through the full 12 hours. But just in case, here are a few takeaways from the first three installments (the only ones available for review):

  • Felicity’s Keri Russell, as a pioneer bride kidnapped by the Cheyenne, looks as cute in side braids and fringe as something you’d buy at a trading post gift shop. But she appears only in the second two-hour segment, airing next week, so if you want to get your Felicity on, tune in then.

  • If, like me, you’ve always enjoyed spotting Will Patton, a slight, blond character actor who tends to play buttoned-up milquetoasts with creepy inner lives, watch him play wildly against type in tonight’s episode as a rough-and-ready frontiersman swaddled in beaver pelts. In fact, a lot of cult actors make brief appearances in Into the West: Gary Busey, Keith Carradine, Judge Reinhold, Beau Bridges, Lance Henriksen, Balthazar Getty. But don’t plan on getting to know anyone too well; life spans are short on the frontier, and cameos even shorter.

  • Near the end of episode three, there’s a moment that’s unpredictable, smart, and quite moving. It involves a negotiation between the Lakota and some American soldiers that goes awry when a drunken translator deliberately misrepresents the Indians’ side to the whites, leading to a needless outbreak of violence. This is the kind of translation-themed plot twist that could have made the recent film The Interpreter worth watching, and didn’t.

Into the West is nothing if not earnestly accurate in its recreation of the period. According to the press notes, William Mastrosimone, the writer of several episodes who also shaped the overall story line, “spent weeks”—weeks, people!—”researching the details of Native American and settler cultures and history.” As Tim Goodman notes  in the San Francisco Chronicle, if you really want to learn about indigenous American cultures or the conquest of the West, you might be better off spending the next six weeks of your own life cracking a book instead.