07 September 2020

Barkskins: Dud on Arrival

My reaction after watching.

This review has been a long time coming, and I must apologize to my readers who have been pushing me on this matter and I thank them for their patience. My summer has been a paradox of trying to relax after the arduous completion of my doctoral dissertation, all the while jumping right back into full time work (and then some) in the middle of a pandemic.

And so here we are. New France is the setting of National Geographic’s brand new series Barkskins. Released earlier this year, the story follows a handful of characters trying to get by and scrape a living in and around the fictional town of Wobik somewhere near late-17th-century Québec (or Québec City, as they keep calling it anachronistically). The central plot revolves around political intrigue between French and British characters using murder and deceit—all the while roping in the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois)— to push their own gains.

The series is based off part of the novel by Annie Proulx, an American author whose most recognizable work is Brokeback Mountain. I’ll be honest: I’ve only read the first third of the book, being the only part taking place under the French Regime. From cringy writing to anachronisms aplenty, it was not a pleasant read. Once my curiosity was satisfied over seeing how New France was represented, I was happy to move on to something else. I had many issues both with the background and details of the setting, too numerous to detail here (and I especially don’t feel like spending more time double checking the many other details which raised serious doubts in me). To name only a few annoyances, the author mixes up Champlain with Cartier, constantly talks about Ville-Marie even though Montréal was the official name of the settlement by then, misspells the names of historical character that actually existed, and finally, keeps implementing the jarring and forceful use of French words (often misspelled at that: how many times can someone misspell Tabarnac differently with each use, really?). Her overarching theme also suffers from a lack of understanding of New France’s social and economic structure. Though the novel’s central theme is about deforestation and implied settler colonialism, the novel disregards the strict control of French immigration which, to Indigenous eyes, made the French far less of a threat than their British neighbours: at it’s height, New France never had more than the equivalent of 5% of the Thirteen British Colonies’ population, explaining much of why the French had such strong alliances with various First Nations. Such policy and cultural differences are also the reason why Settler Colonialism is not necessarily the best model to apply in understanding New France[1], but I digress. Also contradicting the novel is the reality that by the end of the French Regime, the French had not yet decimated the forests nearly as badly as Proulx makes them out to be. Not only that, but New France was a colony that was closely managed by the French crown under the principles of Colbertism; the mercantiliste nature of the colony stifled individual free enterprise. Indeed, her entrepreneur character would never have been allowed to jump willy-nilly between borders between competing colonial empires. Jumping around Canada, Maine and China (!), this character tries to create an international lumber market for his mills, even though lumber was tightly protected by the French crown and could only be used under strict conditions. All in all, Proulx's novel rests on an anachronistic and culturally swapped New France where French colonial society as depicted is closer to 19th century capitalistic American society in the middle of Manifest destiny. In the end, the novel ends up giving the uninitiated reader a bizarro version of New France, one that never existed.

In turn, to be blunt, the majority of my issues with the series stems directly from Proulx’s story. To boot, additional plot points just keep adding to the mess. The entire plot of the series crumbles when one spends two seconds to wonder why in the world is the Hudson’s Bay Company operating out of Québec? This is as glaring a mistake as portraying the Kremlin openly operating a naval base on U.S. soil during the Cold War…

As a historian, I often evaluate historical fiction’s merit not so much on whether it is accurate, but rather whether it is at least authentic—the nuance being that before being accurate, it is important to convey to the audience the gist of the period. Considering the medium, one is often forced to bend the “accuracy” to best fit the time constraint of a movie or series, yet hopefully still leaving the audience with a better idea of the period. Hence the importance of “authenticity” over “accuracy”. Yet Barkskins fails at both.

In a nutshell, Barkskins is a myopic Americanized distillation of New France into a crude, uninteresting caricature. This particular historical setting brings nothing to the story that could not have been done elsewhere (one thinks of the mediocre Frontier by Discovery Channel, another waste of a good name as we shall see…). Even beyond the historical inaccuracies, the actual story line is a bore and only manages to pick up in episode 6… out of 8. Also, if you're going to write a historical fiction, you have to make sure your characters are more interesting than the contemporary people that actually existed in the same timeframe. From the first episode, all the characters are insufferable. If this wasn't a series on New France, I would have watched something else long ago. Also, the pursuit of drama for drama's sake is as ridiculous as portraying this colonial period through rose-coloured glasses: the resulting caricature cheapens and distorts the audience's perception of how this past really was. Frankly, I only recommend watching the entire thing if you’re a glutton for punishment.

To knock off just a few of my issues with the series, here is a short list (except for a few glaring mistakes, I will put asides the props and costumes because I am not a material culture specialist. I would love to hear my colleagues’ opinions on this matter, though.):

  • The female characters smack of so many clichés, the series disregard the actual history of women in New France and denies their actual agency which was relatively important for the period.
  • Frenglish (“Le Grand Inn”)
  • Music: in a scene, a fiddler is seen playing the Maple Sugar reel. Slight problem: though most people associate this tune with French-Canadians, it was composed in the 1950s by Ward Allan of Ontario!
  • The actors speak in “outrageous French accents” straight out of Monty Python, yet often so undecipherable that I had to watch with the subtitles on. And when they were not speaking with so thick an accent, I had trouble understanding at first who was French and who was British.
  • The writing is awful, with lines like: "I keep my distance from Empire […] I serve the King" or "Let us finish our tea like good British subjects".
  • Women walking around with their heads uncovered as usual, contrary to period fashion and etiquette.
  • Beards. So many anachronistic beards. This series is so beardy, ZZ Top is guarding the gate and facial hair makes its way into the terrible dialogue with lines like “"My beard can sense another man's intentions, it has barbules that poke out into the minds of others.” (No, I’m not making this up).
  • Nitpick: terrible cgi birds.
  • The script really goes out of its way to portray every single character as terrible. Even children get stabby. Can we get over the “gritty realism” trend already where characters are nothing more than bland avatars of angst simply for drama’s sake? (aka everybody is insufferable and pissy... and the Wendat are literally pissy in episode 2!)
  • Though some of the actors had genuine chemistry, the writing did not allow them to properly play off of each other because God forbid they might have fun together for a second.
  • In the middle of the expansion of the French Atlantic Empire, Trépagny has nothing better to offer the Filles du Roi to demonstrate his social standing than a bag of sugar cubes and a couple of cinnamon sticks. Come on man, you can do better.
  • The presence of the Troupes de la Marine is either too early, or the Filles du Roi are too late.
  • I made the mistake of getting excited when Oscar co-winner Rémy Girard appeared on screen as the first and only actual French-Canadian actor who so far as I could tell was not an extra. My excitement was over when it turned out he plays “Intendant de Fer”. De Fer? Apparently no one could be bothered spending 15 seconds on Wikipedia for such basic information as the name of the Intendant that year instead of making one up.
  • Manifest Destiny vibes keep being injected into the story with lines like "mothering this new land," etc. 
  • The Indigenous people are merely props. We barely know any by name, no effort is put into explaining each nation's respective grievances, wants, and situations beyond quick, vague, and inaccurate lines. In fact, they have less agency than in Proulx’s novel. Mari’s character, for example, is merely defined by the men she's with and her need of Trépagny (Come on girl, move out. You're better than this.). Meanwhile the Haudenosaunee are constantly being labelled as merely useful tools of the British, disregarding the actual influence and agency of the Five-Nations. Speaking of misrepresented relations, in episode 7, Captain Bouchard strangely talks about sending the army against the Wendat.... Who not only are very close French allies, but refugees at Québec... Otherwise, by the time there’s a bit of added character building with the Indigenous characters in the last two episodes, it all feels too little too late in what should be a much richer, more complex political world of Indigenous-Colonialist relations all the while giving individuals proper voices.
  • Stupid tropes about people being dirty in the past (ex: "Leave the dirt: it's what's going to make you heal".)
  • Nuns in the woods to confront the Haudenosaunee. Whatever.
Things I loved:
  • David Thewlis. Good God, David Thewlis: sure, his character would never have been a seigneur in real life because of his way-too-openness-to-talk-about-his-Protestantism-in-the-middle-of-a-staunchly-regulated-catholic-society (and not only a Protestant, but a Cathar to boot, 200 years after Cathars stopped being a thing…), but he is fascinating to watch. Thewlis plays his Trépagny like a character having gone mad from working on the set of The Island of Dr. Moreau (inside joke for your cinephiles. I swear Thewlis really is channeling is best exasperating Marlon Brando).
  • Some welcome faces like actor Rykko Bellemare of Hochelaga: Terre des âmes (though I wonder if they dubbed over his lines to make him sound more “menacing” or if somehow the sound alignment was off on his lines for some reason…)
  • I loved the recreation of Place Royale's water front on the actual location (even though the water line should have been much closer to the buildings). However, most locals will snicker at the odd direction the characters are going following the streets, teleporting from one end of a street and onto the other. Forgive me for enjoying myself being petty and pointing this out.
  • The Huron-Wendat long houses are gorgeous.
  • The cinematography is amazing. The Forest feels a whole lot more like a character in the series than in Proulx's writing.
  • I will begrudgingly admit that the two final scenes in the last 4 minutes of the episode, though ending on a cliff-hanger (good God, enough...), are amazingly gorgeous.

All this said, my biggest issue with the series begins with the very first image following the title card in the very first episode: on the fictional Wobik’s waterfront, the camera pans to a large, dead tree covered with the corpses of Haudenosaunee warriors, both hanging and impaled. Explained away as being a “warning”, this gruesome display flies in the face of the historical record and of the political, cultural, and military context of the period. And just to be sure, I even felt obliged to consult a colleague specializing in 17th century Franco-Indigenous relations to confirm my own knowledge on the matter: indeed, no such overt desecration of bodies in front of a settlement ever took place by French authorities. True, executed French criminals could be exhibited on a noose, and the French were indeed at war with the Five-Nations throughout much of the 17th century. But such a display of barbarity on the scale illustrated in this episode is total nonsense. First of all, such a provocative act would have been incredibly counterproductive to the ongoing diplomatic negotiations for peace by scandalizing the Five-Nations and also insulting Haudenosaunee allies. Secondly, in a highly codified society, the French by the late 17th century were sticklers for the proper conduct of war, tired of the last few centuries of mercenary warfare and open violence which often lead to escalation. Indeed, by this place in time, the driving ideals of late 17th century French and European martial theory centered instead on controlling and limiting any and all types of violence to a regulated army that would “efficiently” wage war with as little casualties and collateral victims as possible. Desecrating enemy bodies was consequently obviously frowned upon. This said, violence against Indigenous people by individual colonists unsupervised by authorities was certainly a reality. As well, terrorism as a tactic in “la Petite guerre” was certainly in use, though most often reproducing Indigenous warfare tactics. Finally, state sanctioned violence in the 18th century would indeed escalate against the Fox and Natchez. However, such an extreme and overt display of desecration as seen in Barkskins at this time and context would have never been condoned nor instructed by French officials, especially in a time where the French understood full well that the Five-Nations could eliminate them if they chose to. And yet, this gruesome fictional example is clearly shown as being sanctioned by the local officials of the town, giving the impression to the audience that the French acted in such a manner.

In the current political and cultural reckoning sweeping the Western World over colonialism, French-Canadian society is also grappling with its colonial past, with the added complication of having being both the colonizer under the French Regime and the colonized under the British Regime. Accurately weighing and comparing the legacy of Franco-Indigenous relations—including determining exactly what violence was actually committed and in what context—is therefore important to understand those same relations today, especially as violence against Indigenous communities is still being committed as we speak and that denialism of this fact is rampant. However, fictional violence and misrepresentations of these early interactions with Indigenous peoples (manufactured by National Geographic no less) only ends up muddying the waters as we are having a hard enough time as it is parsing through how French Colonialism was different from British and Spanish colonialism, and how learning from this can help society deal with colonial wounds.

On one hand, a large part of the series’ promotional pitch was that producers had consulted Indigenous scholars, but on the other, this doesn’t mean squat. The producers had also consulted a bare minimum of New France specialists and yet, I can confirm after digging around, they barely took their suggestions into account. Saying you consulted with specialists is not the same as demonstrating that you actually listened to them. Once again: true, though Barkskins is problematic in and of itself merely on the basis of historical accuracy alone, the series could have been waved away as mere entertainment produced in a gauche manner. However, its attachment to what the general public still assumes is the good name of National Geographic is alarming in a post-truth world. If the medium is the message, people latch onto the name of National Geographic and immediately think what they are watching is accurate and truthful. The average audience member may not remember that in 2015, 21st Century Fox obtained a 73% share of the National Geographic Society’s assets and in turn, shifted its philosophy[2]. Suffice to say, since this shift, the society’s good name is being used to sell doubtful narratives[3]. One only needs to think of National Geographic’s 2015 two-part miniseries Saints & Strangers, a dramatic telling of the first arrival of the Pilgrims. However, once again, the producers had stressed that they had approached Indigenous consultants, and yet again this did not prevent them from taking numerous liberties called out precisely by many of these very same consultants[4]. Barkskins is not only merely repeating this mistake, but compounding errors and historical misrepresentation by portraying New France not from the historical record, but from the mind of a novelist with no grasp of the subject matter at hand. We are already seeing the negative effect Barkskins is having on the popular perception of New France’s complex history just by reading audience reactions on Twitter.

Barkskins is definitely having an effect on how
people perceive New France.

Maybe I am an alarmist: after all, the popular reception of the series so far seems to have been lukewarm anyways. However, I do believe that Barkskins ends up being another cautionary tale about how cinema and television in the 21st century can no longer half-ass their historical settings as audiences are becoming more sophisticated and more demanding of historical drama, but are also still trusting of certain brand names. Just as scientific literacy is gaining importance in popular media, so should this be with historical literacy[5].



[1] See the recent special issue of the William and Mary Quarterly on Settler Colonialism, Vol. 76, No. 3 (July 2019).

[2] Kendrick Frazier, “Whither National Geographic? SI Letter Protests Its Natural Healing Remedies Books,” Skeptical Enquirer, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan./Feb. 2020). https://skepticalinquirer.org/2020/01/whither-national-geographic-si-letter-protests-its-natural-healing-remedies-books/

[3] Joe Nickell, “National Geographic’s Name Used to Sell the Supernatural,” Skeptical Enquirer, Vol. 44, No. 3 (May/June 2020), p.57-58.

[4] Alys Landry, "How ‘Saints & Strangers’ Got It Wrong: A Wampanoag Primer," Indian Country Today, (Nov. 25, 2015). https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/how-saints-strangers-got-it-wrong-a-wampanoag-primer-C7LQCZUvGU2TUqTdZHNFQg

[5] David R. Powell, “The Expanding Universe of Science Fiction, Science Fact, and Science Communication,” Skeptical Enquirer, Vol. 44, No. 3 (May/June 2020), p. 42-45

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for your erudite dissection of this monstrosity. First, I have read most of Annie Proulx’ writings. She made it a practice to live for a time in each of the locales she has written about in her several novels. But in this instance, she learned nothing and conveyed little in her novel. Second, you have hit all of the salient deficiencies in the series. I couldn’t help but laugh at Trépagny perched on his sky room. Ludicrous. Merci pour votre attention aux détails.

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  2. Bravo pour cette critique du contenant et du contenu. Trop souvent les gens apprennent l'histoire dans les films historiques alors que le générique de ces films contient la formule "toute ressemblance avec des personnages vivants ou morts est fortuite"!

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  3. I echo what the other two commenters have said: you do a great job pointing out the deficiencies and provide a fair and balanced critique of the show. I find the relationships between literature, history, and making it available for popular consumption really interesting - especially because, as you note, it gets so much wrong. But we still take something away from these stories, and we conflate story with history and call ourselves educated. I don't have a solution, just interested in watching the trends. How many folks will now believe all they've seen?
    Also, as an aside, it took me most of the season to realize that the guy's name was Trépagny and not Trepanier. And thank you also for pointing out that you couldn't tell who was French or British because I couldn't either! (And then I couldn't figure out why they were so fairly peaceable with each other...)

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