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Knowing the Meaning of 'Barkskins' is Just the Beginning of this Fascinating Drama
May 25, 2020  | By David Hinckley  | 4 comments

If you want a clue to where a new series called Barkskins is going, it helps first to figure out what “barkskins” means.

Barkskins, the series, launching Monday at 9 p.m. ET on Nat Geo, throws out several possible directions in its first two episodes. For the final six, it starts picking one, which will not be revealed here.

Viewers who have read the Annie Proulx novel Barkskins, from which Elwood Reid’s ambitious TV series has been adapted, will have a head start in figuring it out.

For the rest of us, what starts as another look at the lethal world that incoming colonists triggered in 17thcentury North America will gradually expand into a bigger picture.

Not always a flattering or happy one.

But to get viewers to that longer story, Reid and director David Slade first must make us care about the characters and dramas that bubbled to the surface in New France, the part of the “new world” that the French tried to wrestle away from the English around the 1690s.

We meet a large cast that includes the native Iroquois, new arrivals from France, the already powerful British Hudson Bay company, and a few folks who try to carve out a life somewhere in the middle.

To the extent there’s a focal point, it’s Frenchmen René Sel (Christian Cooke) and Charles Duquet (James Bloor).

They arrive in the New World as indentured servants, promised freedom if they work under a master for, in their case, three years.

They are claimed by Claude Trepagny (David Thewlis), a Bible-quoting man who dreams of clearing a small forest first to build a home and eventually a city.

Sel sizes him up, matter of factly, as “a mad squatter.”

Sel and Duquet represent two kinds of indentured servants.

Sel wants to put in his three years and then make his own way. He’ll work within the system. Duquet has no such intention. He takes a different path, one that portends the themes Barkskins will be pursuing.

Meanwhile, we also pick up a half dozen other dramas, one of which involves innkeeper Mathilde Geffard (Marcia Gay Harden) and most of which include the attempts by the French to grab a piece of the fur and lumber trades that the Hudson Bay Company has been setting itself up to monopolize.

It’s not always a gentlemanly competition. We extrapolate this insight from Hudson Bay sending Hamish Goames (Aneurin Barnard) and his Native American associate, Yvon (Zahn McClarnon), to figure out what happened to a previous Hudson Bay agent who disappeared.

Barkskins injects an interesting subplot by showing how much pressure Goames must apply to get Yvon treated as an equal in the simplest matters. In Barkskins, as in real life, Native Americans didn’t (and still don’t, sadly) score a lot of wins.

Barkskins takes a while to weave its seemingly disparate threads together. It uses that time well, letting us get to know the characters’ dreams alongside their trepidation and their understanding of the troubling undercurrents in much of 17th century New World life.

We also get a subplot on French women imported to the New World to be prepped by nuns on how to become good wives to all the newly arrived men who need a systematic way of starting families.

The stories are interesting enough that viewers may not even be thinking about where they will all lead, which makes it reassuring when they do lead somewhere.

Where? Watch and see. But here’s a clue: “Barkskins” was a colloquial name for men who chop down trees to clear land.

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I love this show!!! It’s a show I like to watch several times because I keep catching things I missed the first time.
Jul 14, 2020   |  Reply
Jun 16, 2020   |  Reply
marian lytle
I've watched the entire series in it's entirety 5 times now and still see things I missed. I am obsesssed with this show and am praying for season 2
Jul 7, 2020
Janice Belk
I am watching the limited series “Barkskins”. Finding the stories & characters very realistic & raw. You can almost smell the dirt & trees being cut down. Lumber smell. Like I said “really raw”. It’s like you are there in person. The hanging of the Indians & the stench of decaying bodies. So far, I have enjoyed & appreciated what the writer is showing us during that timeline period. Unruly rude men & sexual lust. I will continue watching to see the finale. One time else, I want to take a shower after seeing the show. Truly historic.
Jun 16, 2020   |  Reply
Stephen Meskin
Couldn't stand the advertisements, too long and repeated. Made good show (Barkskins) unwatchable.
May 27, 2020   |  Reply
David Bianculli
Dear Stephen: Sorry about that. In general it's an unavoidable hazard for all of us writing and reviewing here at TVWW: When we get screener access in advance, the programs are shown without commercials. -DB
Jun 7, 2020
Ya, you really need a DVR for times like that. Or watch online with an ad-blocker. An ad-blocker will skip through commercials in seconds. Some sites will let you stream to your TV with an ad blocker on but most won't.
Jun 5, 2020
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