What to Watch Verdict
Tense action and a strong performance can't bypass some of the tropes on display.
🦋Justin Theroux is incredibly charming as Allie Fox.
🦋Good use of tension building.
🦋An intriguing mystery.
🦋Allie is hard to root for after the end of Episode 2.
🦋On the nose symbolism.
🦋Teens making bad choices.
This post contains detailed spoilers for The Mosquito Coast.
Antiheroes are prestige TV staple that includes titans like Tony Soprano, Walter White, Vic Mackey, and Don Draper. Flawed characters don’t have to do bad things to be memorable but for a time, television was starting to become too overrun with this archetype, and flexible morality was the norm. Thankfully, the antihero dominance subsided, and conflicted protagonists took other avenues when dealing with life’s challenges. In his role as police chief Kevin Garvey, Justin Theroux’s elevated himself to suffering leading man territory in Damon Lindelof’s ambitious 2014 HBO series The Leftovers. Kevin had blood on his hands but he never fell into the antihero trope in the sci-fi drama that explored society after two percent of the world’s population had mysteriously disappeared. Theroux makes his return to TV in the Apple TV+ series, The Mosquito Coast as the embittered Allie Fox and the consequences of his radical idealism put him in the antihero camp.
As with Walter White, Allie is a talented figure who has not experienced the success to match his skills. He is a frustrated inventor who is working as a handyman fixing plumbing rather than solving energy issues in developing countries. In the opening sequence, he shows his son an invention that turns fire into ice, and no this isn’t a promotional tie-in to the final Game of Thrones season. He explains to teenager Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) that there is no waste and this makes it ideal for a world bursting with broken machines. From the off, there is tension between the world Allie envisions and the environment they live in. Getting into disagreements with his boss and challenging a police officer are two early examples of how he bristles against authority. By the time the Fox family has fled their soon-to-be repossessed home, it is clear there is something bigger going on than a man who is suspicious of technology and people in power.
Rounding out the family of four is wife Margot (Melissa George) and daughter Dina (Logan Polish), the latter showing an early sign of dissent when Dina runs away from her family rather than go on the run. Just as TV has an antihero tradition, the role of a teenage girl in a drama is fraught and often features the young woman making choices that aggrieve the audience (see 24 and Homeland for the two most cited examples). Dina is no different and choosing to flee to Margot’s estranged parents puts the rest of the Fox family in jeopardy. She has already bristled against her dad’s strict rules regarding cell phones and her desire to be like every other American teenager is hardly surprising — but no doubt she will be viewed disfavorably for this action.
It doesn’t help that Dina's parents withhold all information regarding the circumstances that have turned them into fugitives, and this narrative device also keeps the audience in the dark. In the first two episodes, this mystery element is fine but could quickly become frustrating. Being told to pack her entire life into one bag doesn’t sound particularly appealing and her reluctance is relatable. However, it does lead to Allie’s arrest when he deviates from the original plan to track her down. Dina watches as her father is tasered, and put in the back of a squad car. When put to the test, Dina chooses her family in the most extreme way and the first episode ends with her crashing into the cruiser to rescue her dad — shout out to the grisly pen sticking out of the cop’s face after impact.
Dina’s initial impulsive actions led to this moment, but I don’t think you can blame a teenager for bolting that scenario. They don’t have long to evade authorities and Allie’s quick thinking leads them to a homeless encampment. Here, while he shows Dina how to fashion a shim out of a Coca Cola can to remove the cuffs, it gives him the chance to monologue about the state of the United States and the "broken consumers" it throws away. In the previous episode, he takes Charlie to a landfill to hunt for gold in discarded computer parts and this is an extension of his previous diatribe. No matter what Allie has done to be wanted by authorities at least he knows the value of people, but there is something about his radically idealistic speech that rings hollow. A few scenes later, Dina rings her boyfriend but ends up talking to NSA Agent Estelle Jones (Kimberly Elise) instead. "Why is he making you live the way you do?” Jones asks in a bid to sew seeds of doubt that are already rattling in Dina’s mind. However, she goes on the defensive, parroting her father’s opinions about America’s ills that ring even more self-righteous. “Honey, listen” is how the agent replies, and despite how resistant Dina has been, she is also a sponge to his idealism.
The sentiment Allie espouses is valiant but his views are undermined when he demonstrates how little regard he has for others when his own family is at risk. Leaving America is imperative (not that we know why yet) and Allie is convinced his old contacts will help once they make it over the border into Mexico. Taking a stop to his boss’s office to pick up vital supplies, his arrogance leads to the tragedy that ends the episode. Instead of robbing the safe and leaving zero clues about the identity of the thief, he essentially signs his name on the note he leaves behind. From there the NSA ascertain where he is headed and who he is has asked for help, and it quickly spins out of control. He asks Hector (Alejandro Cardenas) a friend from work for help getting across the border, and is given the name of someone who might be able to provide assistance. During a queasy interrogation scene masquerading as friendly, Jones threatens Hector with ICE and he immediately spills the name he gave to Allie.
“I used to be that guy,” Juan (Tommy Martinez) tells the Fox patriarch when rebuffing his request for assistance, but Allie does not take no for an answer. When emotional blackmail doesn’t work, he offers up the chance to remove the ankle tags required while the courts assess their asylum case. To take off Juan and Chuy’s (Scotty Tovar) ankle monitors his son knocks up a Faraday cage using an old car and copious amounts of tin foil. It is a neat trick, but no amount of charm can make up for the pressure Allie exerts in his position of power.
Theroux is skilled at portraying Allie’s charisma, which makes what happens next even more frustrating. The point, of course, is to show Allie as the kind of asshole he has been railing against. He is the arrogant American who thinks he can steamroll his way to safety, however, he cannot smile his way out of every situation. Encountering a racist militia near the border goes south quickly and a gunfight ensues. The Fox family escapes without a scratch but Juan is killed and the majority of their water is bullet-ridden. Allie's hubris has cost the life of someone who fought hard to make it to safety in the United States and a chink has shown in his idealistic armor. It is hard to feel anything but anger at Allie in this situation and his antihero mantle does not offer up any reassurance.
“We’re not your family dad, we’re your audience,” Dina spat at her father earlier in “First of the Gang to Die” and now they are stuck in an even more perilous situation with Allie in charge. Chuy’s fate is now bound to theirs and there is no going back. The episode opened with a shot of a butterfly on the Coke can that Allie used to break free of the handcuffs, and the image of a butterfly closes out the second installment. Landing on what appears to be a horse carcass, the symbolism is a little on the nose. The cinematography in these opening episodes is stunning but lingering shots like this one followed by a fly on the eye of the recently deceased Juan are unnecessary. This adaptation of Paul Theroux’s novel has already taken a wildly different turn, but Allie’s overzealous belief in his pioneering skills has already proved fatal. Much like the lead character, the opening two episodes of The Mosquito Coast are difficult to completely embrace but strong performance and impressive world-building make this one to stick with for now.
Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.