The past has always been fruitful ground for storytelling, especially thanks to creators who dig into underexplored niches of history, finding unexpectedly human and complex stories to tell about characters who might not be famous legends. Whether real or fictional, shows like the new Nat Geo series Barkskins are at their strongest when they look beyond the sorts of stories we’ve heard before — featuring characters we don’t often see spotlighted in period dramas.
After all, period dramas are haunted by one undeniable trend: Heroes in stories not based on the works of Jane Austen are, more often than not, white men. Part of the issue, of course, is that real-life historical stories about underrepresented groups are often dwarfed by those of white men, as the names of the latter are far more often remembered by history. But when period dramas push to acknowledge unique perspectives, it can often lead to far more interesting storytelling, especially with a TV show like Barkskins, with a relatively large ensemble and a vested interest in going deeper into their characters.
Created by Elwood Reid and based on the epic Annie Proulx novel, the first season of the Nat Geo drama focuses on the colonization of North America by the French in 1693, as indentured servants are brought from Europe to help civilize the untamed country. Like most modern-era period dramas, there’s an emphasis on the dirt, blood, and death which were ever-present parts of frontier life, and the majority of the characters do happen to be white guys. But while Charles Duquet (James Bloor) and Rene Sel (Christian Cooke), two young men who have come to New France in search of new opportunities, are the initial protagonists of Proulx’s novel and the ostensible leads of the series, Barkskins, judged by the metric of representation, actually proves to be pretty impressive.
In the early episodes, there are only a few characters of color — but standouts Yvon (Zahn McClarnon) and Mari (Kaniehtiio (Tiio) Horn) are given dimension beyond their Native heritage. As an educated, poetry-reading company man, McClarnon (arguably one of the very best things about the second season of Westworld) gets the opportunity to shine on multiple levels. Meanwhile, thanks to Horn, Mari might be the most intriguing character of the series, living a seemingly unconventional life as the unmarried companion of Claude (David Thewlis), and arguably the toughest person living in this wild spot of land. Chaske Spencer as Sachem also makes an impression.
She’s only one of the show’s range of female characters, who all have come to the territory with their own ambitions. Marcia Gay Harden, as innkeeper Mathilde, brings with her that Academy Award-winning spark to ensure that she’s far more than a wife constantly at battle with her husband, sparring with the men of the settlement to accumulate as much power as she can.
Then there are the new young women who have just arrived in New France thanks to sponsorship by the King, with the purpose of finding husbands and having families to affirm the settlement of this new land: Melissande (Tallulah Haddon) and Delphine (Lily Sullivan), each with their own secrets and strategies, are guided by resident nun Mother Sabrine (Leni Parker) as they consider their matrimonial options, because as she says: “You have the upper hands. Choose wisely.”
A mute little girl whose identity is one of the core mysteries of the show is a touch pulled straight out of the first season of Deadwood, but there are far worse places to borrow from, and the bond that Mathilde establishes with her has a great deal of promise for future episodes. In general, while the women’s stories are sometimes limited as they might be to questions of marriage and home, the fresh edge characters like Mari and Mathilde bring to the show goes a long way to elevate things beyond just another tale about dudes with beards versus the wilderness.
While there could always be more done to highlight underrepresented groups, Barkskins has managed to push beyond the expected with plenty of promise for what’s to come.
Barkskins airs Mondays on National Geographic, with episodes also streaming on Hulu.