Klondike (Discovery) Episode 1 Review

“Two men with nothing in their pockets, but a handful of hope.”

Klondike is a man versus wild versus human nature tale that does very little to distinguish itself from any other man versus wild versus human nature tale out there in its first hour. The dialogue is full of platitudes about seeking fortunes, venturing west and the dangers of the wilds of nature and man. What it does have going for it is stunning scenery and Richard Madden (Game of Thrones), perhaps the only actor aside from the great Sam Shepard, who decided not to ham up the already hackneyed dialogue. It’s not until the second hour of the premiere that the miniseries begins to find its footing.

In the beginning, what we have is the tale of two men fresh out of college, Bill Haskell (Madden), and Byron Epstein (Augustus Prew), who are looking to make their mark in the world– they just don’t know what that means for them just yet. Byron is a gambling, risk-taker, while Bill is serious and levelheaded. Their friendship gives the first hour its stakes and gives us something to invest in. The importance of having something to invest in as they make their trek northwest cannot be overstated. While the actual scenes in the wild look so cold they make you shiver from afar, the dialogue is busy making you shiver for another reason. This is the kind of series where a character can say things like, “You’re either gettin’ or you’re gettin’ got” with a straight face. For this reason, Bill and Byron had to be compelling, otherwise there would be no reason to torture your ears in such a manner.

The series begins with an in media res opener that makes it clear that Bill will get rich before the series ends, but it won’t do him much good. Within in the first thirty minutes, there is an avalanche that almost kills Byron and a boating accident that sends Bill overboard with most of their money. Bill is then saved from a wolf attack (oh, the irony) by Shepard’s Reverend Judge. One disaster after another befalls the two, but they continue forward, meeting Jack London along the way and an ambitious mill-owner named Linda. She gives Bill a prophetic warning once the duo ends up in Dawson City (Deadwood‘s cesspool of a cousin): “Dawson City, where naivety comes to die.”

Her words pan out quickly, as the carefree Byron is dispatched shortly after their meeting (and may even have had something to do with his death). Shot, just as Bill is feeling particularly optimistic. The Klondike doesn’t care about optimism or law. Instead, it offers up greedy men by the dozens, men willing to kill for claims, to bathe women in champagne in front of a crowded room of merrymakers and engage in all manner of bad behavior. Again, it’s nothing unusual for the genre, but at least there is flair in the way the story is executed.

Madden’s transformation from a hopeful youth to a vengeance seeking man is remarkable (but it was also remarkable when he did it on Game of Thrones, so this isn’t exactly new territory for him). The second hour is richer because his performance is deeper, and also because there is some novelty in seeing Bill wander into the woods with the famed Jack London to track down the Native American man he believes killed Byron. Add in Tim Roth as a rich land-grabber and more screentime for Father Judge (Shepard) and hints of an actual narrative begin to emerge. The Reverend’s relationship with Bill carries Bill through his grief and helps them both find a reason to forge ahead with their missions: Bill’s is to not let Byron’s death be in vain and the Father’s is to bring God to Dawson City whether the city wants it or not.

While not an all together satisfying beginning, at least Klondike has the makings of a decent miniseries. The story couldn’t sustain itself for much more than three episode, but the beauty of the setting, a few key performances and the drive to see how Bill ends up back on that snowy hilltop,a freezing, but wealthy man should be enough to bring viewers back for more. If that doesn’t do the trick, then at the very least the juxtaposition between Bill defiantly digging instead of forfeiting his claim while the Reverend climbs to the top of his leaking church roof to nail up a cross in the middle of a rainstorm despite being warned to leave, gives the first episode an ending worthy of the two hour time-investment.

Klondike continues tonight, Tuesday, January 21st at 9/8c on Discovery. What did you think of episode one?

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