Of all the many works of film and television to attempt to adapt a novel, The Mosquito Coast remains one of the most strange. Supposedly based on the far more nuanced 1981 novel of the same name by Paul Theroux, who is also the uncle of the show’s star Justin Theroux, it has drastically changed the era, almost all of the narrative journey, and made what is essentially an unrecognizable adaptation. Making substantial alterations isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as proved by a work like The Leftovers which also starred Theroux and made bold leaps in moving beyond its source material to become one of the best shows of all time. While The Mosquito Coast was never aspiring to be as emotionally resonant as that show, over the 10 episodes of Season 2 it perpetually struggles to find anything interesting of its own to grapple with and ends up just tossing all it can at the wall only for very little to stick.
While the first season of the show was miles from perfect, it at least felt more streamlined and grounded. Although it was built around being more of a thriller as opposed to a haunting character study about a family falling apart from the book, it would provide glimpses of what a story like this could be by linking itself to some deeper ideas about violence and disillusionment. There are some elements of this that remain in Season 2 as Theroux’s patronizing patriarch Allie continues to cruelly control his family. It is one of the sole remaining aspects that connect to the book and also the show’s most engaging. Though he isn’t the first actor to sink his teeth into this role (as Harrison Ford did so previously in the fraught yet faithful film in 1986), Theroux still gives a dynamic performance that is desperately trying to break through the woefully scattered story playing out here. Everything ends up being too busy and gets so thoroughly lost that this version of The Mosquito Coast struggles to hold together. That it unnecessarily adds three more episodes this go-around only prolongs the show’s directionless nature.
Picking up right where the first season left off, Allie is now seeking to escape on a boat with his family along for the ride to a destination where they hope that no one can find them. En route to this supposed utopia, it’s revealed that matriarch Margot (Melissa George) has a past that has been kept from their children Dina (Logan Polish) and Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) for their entire lives. Through flashbacks, we learn why exactly they all had to go on the run in the first place. What had been only hinted at, and honestly felt like it could be a misdirect in keeping with Allie’s propensity in the novel to manipulate the truth to his own ends, is instead explained to within an inch of its life. Without giving away all the revelations, Margot had a past life as an activist willing to do anything to fight against the destruction of the environment as we know it. Such a storyline was recently portrayed to outstanding effect in the film How to Blow Up a Pipeline, but this show ends up feeling more like the atrocious Last Light. It isn’t nearly as misguided as that and will occasionally stumble upon a more interesting observation. However, the rest of the story is so preoccupied with too many subplots running in opposite directions that it becomes a muddled narrative wash.
In particular, there are several episodes in the middle of the season that take such sudden swerves that they almost lose the plot entirely — like when a character from Season 1 reappears and becomes aligned with Allie for a little side mission. Not only does this basically undo everything from before, but it just ends up driving the plot forward into yet more distractions. Very little is propelled by character development, save for scenes where we get an emotional exposition dump before continuing to plod along. This ensures the dialogue ends up sounding hollow and forced no matter the best efforts of its cast. Every time a character starts a sentence with the phrase “do you remember,” it is hard not to groan at the clunky conversation that is soon to follow.
Most stories do have to provide background in some form or another, although the subtlety required to smooth over any rough patches is utterly lacking here. That this is all in service of repetitive and one-note character beats further dampens the experience. Once the family arrives at the location in the jungle they will stay for the majority of the season, there are painfully few moments of substance to be found. All the new additions end up mostly as background noise to the main family who isn’t all that developed either. In spite of new complications that introduce some degree of uncertainty for their future, there is no energy behind it when the characters are largely stagnant. Instead, we get a lot of information about an algorithm that takes up all the oxygen closer to the end. A forced conclusion just serves as the final nail in the coffin.
If there is a saving grace through what is otherwise a mess of a second season, it would be Theroux. Although the narcissistic and callous character seen in the source material is sanded down, his performance frequently provides some texture to everything. Allie’s flashes of anger are terrifying in how quickly the facade of friendliness can fade away. It is a shame that the story isn’t more willing to lean into that and let him more fully embrace the darker potential of the character. Not to harp too much on its difference from the book, which feels especially meaningless at the end, but that’s pretty much the whole point of the original story: children finally seeing their flawed father for who he really is with one moment where he reappears after seeming to be dead still cutting deep for how devastating it was. Nothing else compares here, despite this being the exact type of role that Theroux is well-equipped to play. However, this just makes one want to go back and watch The Leftovers again to see him given a story that better serves his talents. For all its potential in its source material and Theroux at the center, The Mosquito Coast Season 2 just gets caught up in straightforward clichés crossed with convention that it tries to dress up with twists that go nowhere.