Review: Strange Empire explores the hearts of darkness

So that John Slotter, he’s not such a bad guy after all, right? In this episode, “Other Powers,” he had a preacher shot in cold blood, desperately turned desperate people out of their shelters and cut off their access to supplies, and he’s skimming from his father’s railroad and acting as a pimp to fund his lavish lifestyle … I mean, sinking his mine … and he may or may not have had a caravan full of men murdered and put their women to whoring.

But there is a heart in there somewhere. I’m not saying it’s a large one, but he was dismayed when his father shot at Kat and seemed relieved to learn she was still alive. No taste for senseless murder, as his father thinks, or a bit of a taste for Kat?

Plus he seems to have genuine affection for Isabelle. She thinks so, anyway, even if daddy dearest thinks John married her to spite him. Captain and Mrs. Slotter aren’t exactly romance novel material but she does occasionally “gentle” him into thinking he’s a good man, as Kat put it last episode – or at least gentle him into not completely poisoning himself with alcohol and whatever else is eating him up inside. “I am to burn in hell.”

Aaron Poole is killing it (heh) by painting Slotter with many shades of grey. All of them dark, crossing over into black, but nuanced nonetheless.

The miners are threatening to leave if they don’t get their late payroll now, but Cornelius is not letting his supposed grandson or his son — a son who didn’t merit inheriting his name the way the fake grandson did — sway him into giving them the funds they need to not lose everything. It takes Isabelle’s wiles and her steely will to do that.

The child’s natural mother, little more than a child herself, soothes the crying baby while creepy Cornelius paws at her, but the secret seems safe after Isabelle’s earlier threats. “You sold your boy and I bought him. What kind of a mother does that?” Good question, Isabelle. What kind of mother buys a child?

With few options and her husband destroying himself rather than agreeing to a minority share, Isabelle gives herself to Cornelius.  She’d been his whore before, but this is another example of the lengths she’ll go to in order to make her new life work, and how little regard the man has for his own son. The first thing Janestown needs, after Mrs. Briggs gets her saloon/bakery, is a family therapist.

Beautifully directed by Amanda Tapping, the episode starts with a shot of the telegraph wire, bringing news from far away, turning into a shot of the preacher, offering news from their dead — and charging $1 a shot for holy water, but even a preacher’s gotta eat. While telling people the money goes to charity.

Mrs. Fogg and her tarot cards and Isabelle and her seances are nothing compared to Robin’s ability to see dead people. She first demonstrates the gift when the women go to bury their dead while Kat crosses the Montana border to get reinforcement. Robin is calm and even comforted by the sight while the women digging graves bond in their grief.

Meanwhile in Montana, a powerful lens flare and Jeremiah’s horse waiting at the trading post makes Kat believe she sees her missing husband walking toward her. Instead another attractive man steps into focus. It’s hard not to side with the girls who believe Jeremiah must be dead, even if Kat is determined to wait for him to find her, but as long as she has hope, I will too. Neil — one of the boys they adopted — has resurfaced, after all.

The Montana visit is a reminder that south of the border is at least an attempt at law and order, with Marshal Caleb Mercredi (Tahmoh Penikett), half Indian like Kat, trying to prevent the US army from clearing the land of Indians.

Though Kat has demanded her place in the what-passes-for-society of Janestown, becoming mother and protector for many of the outsiders, Mercredi is dismissed as a half-blood and as powerless north of the border, where he tries to talk to the women and to Slotter about the massacre. “I’d have to be a genius or a madman to work such evil,” Slotter reassures him unreassuringly.

This strange empire is “birthing a town” as one of the women puts it, envisioning a newspaper, school, a whole community. At some point law and order will probably have to enter into it as well, but that day is not today.

It already has two medical professionals, though. Rebecca continues her socially awkward ways by flirting with a kind man without knowing there was flirting going on. She’s strangely — and I do mean strangely — good at it, until she learns the valuable lesson that disclosing the man three times your age is your husband and not your father is a sure-fire way to end that kind of encounter.  I wouldn’t bet on her understanding why.

When Rebecca tells Thomas about killing her attacker and shows him the drawing the aorta where she stabbed him, he’s horrified by her sangfroid. He’s reassured that the killing was justified and that Mr. Case, who buried the man, will stay silent, but not reassured by her single-minded desire to understand what she was raised to try to understand.

When she wishes she could shock the preacher’s faintly-beating heart, Thomas slaps her for her vision. He’s not wrong that his foster daughter-turned-wife is not blessed with an abundance of empathy or social mores, but maybe he needs to learn the lesson that if you raise someone as a science experiment, they might see the world as a science experiment.

Mrs. Briggs is among those who have a vision of what Janestown could become, putting out feelers about how to get supplies so she can fill the miners’ bellies. The Slotter’s cook sneaks some supplies for her, but knowing that all supplies into the camp go through Slotter doesn’t bode well.

Neither does the fact that Cornelius Slotter laid down the edict that no union or community must be formed in his son’s nascent mining town, causing his son to wreak even more havoc than his usual havoc making.

Even so, these women are up for a fight. With the help of sharpshooter Kat, Mrs. Briggs and her daughter steal the wagon full of provisions and leave the drivers pantsless. It’s a laugh out loud moment in a show that doesn’t dole out many smiles.

After the preacher is buried, Rebecca confesses to Kat that she cares less about the men below the ground as the science within them she could learn from. “I am no believer but in nature.” Kat, who is likely more used to being called the savage than asked if she sees savagery, smiles and asks Rebecca to walk with them.

The episode ends on a more hopeful note than some, with Robin seeing the beatific figure of the preacher with his hands full of roses. “He’s at peace. He’s promising peace for us too,” she shares. Probably not within the next several episodes, I’ll wager.

But Cornelius Slotter is too late. This is a community already. A brutal, strange, in-progress one, but a community nonetheless.


3 thoughts on “Review: Strange Empire explores the hearts of darkness”

  1. “Rebecca continues her socially awkward ways by flirting with a kind man without knowing there was flirting going on.”
    Who is the actress playing ‘Morgan Flynn’, aka the guy Rebecca was flirting with? I’m 99% sure she is an actress, but it’s driving me crazy cause I can’t place her or confirm it. Worse part is the character is currently not showing on the the show’s IMDb cast list.
    If you who who she is, which show she’s from (feel she’s from a CTV or Global series), please share.

Comments are closed.