The first episode of CBC’s newest series brings the disparate characters and story threads together into the camp-turning-town of Janestown. Set in 1869 along the Montana/Alberta border, Strange Empire starts with two dead babies and a graveside wedding, ends with a cozy pseudo-family scene threatened by lawlessness, and in between there’s the slaughter of men.
A fun romp this is not, but it is a rich exploration of a time and place we think we’re familiar with — our own country, our own history. We’re wrong.
Some of the preliminary publicity said the men have disappeared, leaving the women to fight for survival. This is true in the sense that the cult members of Jonestown disappeared, or the Donner party got a little peckish, or the dog of your childhood went to live on a farm. Some of the men survived, some have not yet been found, but most are quite dead.
Just prior to the attack that killed the incoming men, one of the townsmen tells a story about Indian savagery. A warning about the dangers of this territory the newcomers have entered, or priming them for a certain belief? The attack itself is shot so we don’t see the attackers clearly, and as becomes clear, neither do the survivors.
Headstrong Kat Loving, herself half Indian, is convinced Captain John Slotter is behind the slaughter, while most believe Indians are to blame (and yes, in this world it’s still “Indians” and “whores” — it’ll take more than another century for our language to progress).
Cara Gee plays Kat with a fierce intensity and tenderness, often in the same glance, and she is the emotional heart of the first episode. Aaron Poole as Captain John, then, is the emotional heartlessness, though he’s played with enough brutality, bravado and pain to allow for some doubt about where the truth lies.
It was Kat’s dead baby and her marriage in the opening scenes of the episode, and now her husband is among the missing. So are the two girls they had just adopted to prevent them from being sold as whores to Slotter. Also disappeared is one of the boys also under their protection. The other boy, the youngest, is found dead, tongue cut out, hours after he had mocked Slotter. It’s hard not to see Kat’s point that his name is written all over the tragedy.
We first encounter a disappointed Slotter after he’s received news that his father has once again not sent his mine’s payroll with the stagecoach. And yet the coaches and the men-only cull have brought him this bounty of unprotected women. Whores are as good as payroll in the town he controls, which is called Janestown because all the women are “Janes” – generic, commodities, treated as subhuman while labelled angels and whores.
Yet our three heroes have distinctive names, names with symbolic resonance — Slotter, Loving, Blithely. The names are neither descriptive nor ironic, but somewhere in between. Did Captain John order the slaughter, and how complicit is his wife? Kat is both loving of her protectees and intent on revenge (“better to go too far than not far enough”).
Dr. Rebecca Blithely’s character is the most awkwardly introduced with exposition — “Mrs. Blithely, tell me about yourself” — though it seems fitting for such an awkward character that she blurts out all the pertinent background details after that. She can seem blithely callous but is also deeply shocked by the brutality around her.
Placed in an insane asylum by her parents before being unofficially adopted by the Blithelys, she was raised as something of a science experiment. “Female ability is so difficult to prove,” moans her foster father-turned-husband (after the death of his wife two months previously. Ick.).
She is clearly more capable than he in medicine and in an awkward kindness, though her sheltered life has not prepared her for life in the West (or, possibly, any other direction either). Physically hampered by her formal dress and socially by her position as the young wife and student of her husband, she begins to feel her own power as the episode progresses and as her husband is incapacitated.
She overcomes intense fear to go with Kat to Janestown to rescue the girls from Isabelle and John Slotter. She uses her medical skill on both her injured husband — who unfortunately wasn’t one of the dead — and nauseated John Slotter, whose wife has secretly doused him with a little medicinal arsenic out of revenge for his callousness after the death of their baby.
Isabelle has put the two girls to work in her shabby chic mansion/whorehouse, despite her protests to her husband that they’re too young. She is a powerful woman in some ways, but power is relative in this world. Caught in the act of arranging an escape, Kat and Rebecca convince Isabelle to let the girls go with an appeal to her motherly grief … and a threat to expose her poisoning ways to her husband.
Written by Durham County’s Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik, this is not much lighter fare than that cable series despite airing on the public broadcaster. Just as Durham County used the harsh crisscross of black power lines to convey an ominous suburban atmosphere, Strange Empire uses tree branches, shooting some visually striking scenes from below and from above, and displaying a muted colour palette. The scenery is at times beautiful, at times harsh, always uneasy.
This first episode is setting up the tone as much as setting up the town. If it caught you in its spell, as it did with me, welcome to the Strange Empire — the intrigue intensifies in the weeks to come.