Strange Empire’s second episode demonstrates that Janestown is the Hotel California of the wild west: even those who have the resources to leave end up back at the nascent town.
The Slotter’s maid says there’s no way out of this hellhole; Ling adds the only surefire way is a hole in the ground.
The women who have been stranded there after the stagecoach slaughter are frantic to leave or to find their missing men so they can. But with civilization comes an economy, and in this empire, until the mine or the railroad become more than a Slotter man’s dream, women are the product.
The women waiting for their men or for onward passage they can’t afford are offered whoring work in the house or the lower-class “cribs,” and told stories of the Indian savages who await them if they try to leave.
Before Isabella Slotter offers a little whoring work to Mrs. Brigg’s daughter, Mrs. Fogg — she of the outfits and psychic interests to rival Isabella but without the youthful beauty or megalomaniac husband — confesses to Mrs. Briggs that she was once a lady’s maid until the lady’s husband demanded more than a little darning. The grateful expression on her face at a hint of acceptance from Mrs. Briggs is poignant.
“Buckskin Princess” opens with Kat Loving smudging in the forest, believing she sees her missing husband Jeremiah stepping out of the mist. When the figure come into focus it’s only Ling, Isabelle Slotter’s mysterious henchman.
Kat is ruthless in defending her own and in telling her truth, but she won’t believe her husband is dead like all the other husbands. And since she isn’t like all the other wives, fair enough I guess. Without a body there is hope.
So she leaves her adopted daughters — dressed as boys, knowing that Slotter will be looking for them — while she searches for Jeremiah and their adopted boy Neil so they can continue on their way to start their own ranch. What could possibly go wrong?
Throughout the episode the cinematography lingers on what should be the beautiful treed landscape, but the beauty is often marred by the threat of violence. Amid the pretty trees Kat finds more bodies, including Mrs. Briggs’ men and horse, and Jeremiah’s hat. She has money and a plan, but odds are she won’t leave without him.
The Blithelys have money too, enough to buy passage to leave, and Thomas orders Rebecca to arrange it in his usual charming way. Partway through the voyage, the driver demands more money and then a little extra — he tries to rape Rebecca in front of her injured husband. After a struggle with Thomas’s gun, Rebecca shakily aims it at her attacker before Kat rides by to save the day, shooting the man’s hat off while declaring “I aimed high.” I believe her.
Melissa Farman plays Rebecca beautifully as a socially awkward, sheltered woman who is stepping into her own skin for the first time. The character could easily be a collection of ticks and Asperger’s cliches but in her hands she is someone learning to rely on herself instead of who she’s been told she is by first her parents, then her foster father-turned-husband.
She’s puzzling over the conflicting information she has about Captain John Slotter – did he order the attack on the stagecoach men, or are his offers of shelter a lifeline? “You’ll end a whore. That’s all you need to know,” Kat tells her.
But what other option does Rebecca have with the rapist driver run off, an unknown route onward, and her husband incapacitated in the back of the wagon? “You able?” Kat asks before they part, the Blithleys on their way back to Janestown, and takes Rebecca’s word for it that she is. It’s a whole new world for the young Mrs. Blithely in many ways.
But it’s Kat who ends a whore first, trading herself for her girls when she shows up just in time — again — to rescue her girls from punishment for helping fix a card game, and Slotter shows up just in time to foil the rescue.
Slotter and Isabelle discuss their plan for world domination — or at least Janestown domination — which involves trying to entice a couple of investors to back his mine so he has a legacy apart from his father’s railway.
John Slotter explains he intends to build an empire on the mining town. “Indians, Negroes and Celestials. Strange empire, yours,” replies the man. Slotter needs Isabelle’s wiles to beef up his sales proposition.
The Slotters’ discussion also involved a kiss where Isabelle looked like she wanted to crawl out of her skin. Isabelle’s social standing went up when she went from whore to wife but the transition might not have been too big a leap. Slotter even casually points out to her that Isabelle can be offered to the investors in the absence of another suitable whore.
With intel Ling gleaned from the telegraph, Isabelle conducts a seance to try to steer one of the investors to put his recently deceased father’s money into coal. It doesn’t work, but it turns out she does believe in spirits despite using the appearance of them for her own devious purposes. “I believe there Is a world outside of this one,” she tells Ling. You’d have to, wouldn’t you, if this was your shiny new world.
The seance was just the appetizer of Isabelle’s deviousness, though. A disturbed girl left behind by her family can’t be put to work as a whore after all when it turns out she’s “already occupied.” Rebecca delivers her baby, saving her life but leaving her barren as Thomas is horrified to learn. Bad, science experiment. Bad! He’d be even more horrified to learn she stabbed the wagon driver who’d attacked her on the way back from the birth, leaving him bleeding out on the ground. One of the Blithelys is starting to adjust nicely to their new circumstances.
When her investor plan falls through, Isabelle decides to take the girl’s baby as her own and present him to Slotter’s father as his namesake and reason to shower money on the happy family. Even babies are commodities, it seems.
Despite those demonstrations of evil power, Isabelle seems unable to exert it over Kat, even thought Kat has submitted herself to be a whore. Mrs. Loving ends up choking her while calling her husband a murderer, which is possibly not the best negotiation strategy for a woman who could put you and your children to whoring.
Even the hole in the ground wouldn’t be an escape for Kat as long as she needs to pay off the two girls’ potential earnings. “Be informed, Mrs Loving, that if I have to bury you that’ll cost too,” Isabelle says.
Rebecca is horrified at the sight of Kat in whore’s clothes and takes the money Thomas has given her to provide for their passage to Toronto and gives it to Isabelle to buy Kat back. Isabelle arranges an elaborate plan to auction Kat off to the highest bidder, preserving the illusion to the investors that they are being offered the prime whore while using the card sharp Jack to outbid them, even when they’ve surpassed Rebecca’s funds.
Are we seeing a glimmer of kindness from Isabelle? Or self-preservation? “It’s for the best,” she tells her husband when she reveals Kat has been sold. “She troubles you.”
With the sisters’ shenanigans with Jack there was slightly more levity in “Buckskin Princess” but the show’s not in danger of making me laugh just yet
The episode ends with one of Slotter’s men burying Rebecca’s attacker and Kat staring at Jeremiah’s hat while the girls sleep — an echo of the first episode’s closing scene, but even less cozy. What do they now owe and to whom, and what payment might be extracted?
Kat and Rebecca can check out any time they like, but can they ever leave?