Strange Empire’s penultimate episode “End Days” answers a couple of age-old questions. How to earn twice as much? Kill your fellow bounty hunter. How to shake an unrequited love? Literally rip out someone’s heart in front of her. Another lesson is never trust a writer: Fiona’s story set the bounty hunters on Kat’s trail and opened Slotter’s eyes to what the women knew.
The episode also explores the grey areas between violence in the service of good or evil. While Slotter’s actions tend toward the black, what of Rebecca, forced at gunpoint to do that which she longed to do: see a living heart. What of Kat, who preemptively killed a surveyor trying to take her people’s lands, when we — and her daughters — see later the aftermath of such an exodus.
So close to the season (I refuse to think series) finale, the nascent town’s fragile existence is clear. Born as a confluence of dispossessed people, whether by force or choice, Janestown hasn’t yet reached that tipping point of permanence. Slotter has brought another shipment of whores in and a militia to drive the other women and the miners out in a bid to keep hold over his empire with a more pliable population. One that isn’t armed and in possession of Sloat’s confession. Slotter confiscates the arms and the confession, leading Kat to go in search of guns for trade in Indian lands.
The Janestown residents had arrived by stagecoach to Station House in Montana before the slaughter, never expecting to stay, but this is their only home now and most are determined to fight for it, through violence or through unusual ingredients in the stew.
Set a few years after the end of the US Civil War to the south, a couple of years after the birth of Canada to the east, this Strange Empire collects the misfits who belong nowhere else, surrounded by Blackfoot pushed into Cree territory and the cavalry who want them all eradicated.
Isabelle seems to be a victim of the slave trade, bought by Cornelius Slotter at age 12 and passed around between men. She hopes to use this truth to drive another wedge between the Slotter men — in a beautifully shot scene with her estranged husband submerged in a reflective bath — and John’s heart isn’t so black as to trivialize her story. Nor is it as black as his father’s, who is not only revealed as someone who bought and raped a child, but treats Ruby — who is attempting to take Isabelle’s place in the house and in his bed — with contempt.
Cornelius wants to team with John to “crush the seeds of socialism” (spoiler alert Cornelius: you’re going to lose that battle in the long run on this side of the border) but John isn’t ready yet to align with father or wife. As Kat says, he’s sound in his own way, still seeming confident he’ll retain control over Janestown.
With wily Isabelle grifting her way to other men’s wallets and cookie jars, Slotter fixates on Rebecca, using scarce food as target practice when teaching her to shoot. Morgan warns her to leave, but Rebecca knows he won’t let her go without hunting her down. “I am protected,” she says when Morgan offers to stay and protect her, demonstrating her awareness that she has aligned herself with Slotter, even if she isn’t fully aware of what that means. “I am not like you” she tells him. “But you are complicit with me,” he answers.
Slotter has given her the means to protect Morgan when she is raped by the bounty hunter, and in a twisted version of Pygmalion, he forces her — gives her permission to — conduct a near-autopsy on a living man. Morgan is horrified, and so am I, but Rebecca as usual doesn’t seem to fully process the taboos of her actions.
Kat finds her missing husband’s other glove while trading with the Indians, another dead end clue in her search. Marshal Mercredi intuits her reasons for bringing arms back and implores her not to sacrifice herself, but she and the other women start the showdown at Janestown … to be continued, presumably, in the finale next week.