Strange Empire is a land of outsiders thrown together by harrowing circumstance, scrabbling on a land where they seek to make outsiders of those who lived there first.
There’s Isabelle, the former whore who fights for respectability far beyond the boundaries of respectability, and longs for a world beyond her own (and who is, as Jared says, “a little brown” herself).
Slotter, an ambitious man who didn’t merit the paternal given name or the family business, who struggles with — and often loses to — his inner demons. He confesses to getting his men drunk and rousing them to blood, tells Isabelle he’s not the man she thinks, but his confession seems to stop short of admitting he ordered the men to kill.
Rebecca, for whom any social encounter is like a strange new world, unmoored after the death of the woman who raised her and hasty marriage to the man who raised her.
Among the other supporting characters who are coming into their own is Ling, the “Celestial” and son of a concubine who finds himself the lover of a madame, and Marshal Caleb Mercredi, who is ostracized for his Indian blood and makes a powerful enemy by vowing to bring Slotter to justice.
And then there’s ferocious yet vulnerable Kat, who has fashioned her own instant family after the loss of her original family, and who belongs to neither the white nor the Indian societies. With Cree versus Blackfoot blood she and Marshal Mercredi should be enemies, but in this new world all Indians are lumped together as the “other”, turning potential enemies into allies.
Given how freely the show publicity shared that Kat Loving is Metis, and that an early encounter assumed it, it didn’t occur to me that some of the characters weren’t aware. That explains a few things in past episodes, though it felt jarring in this one when the Janestown women felt betrayed at her deception. Mrs. Briggs in particular, who’s sold her soul to the Slotters in exchange for shelter and supplies, turns on Kat for being “one of them”, while Rebecca reveals herself again to be Kat’s most devoted and awkward ally.
“The Whiskey Trader” opens with an ominous shot of a hanging doll and introduces another outsider, the titular character played by a seedy Ian Tracey. He takes advantage of the lawlessness north of the border to sell “Indian whiskey” — aka strychnine — which incites violence (and not just in Indians) and allows him to serve up two Blackfoot to Slotter as scapegoats to hang for the massacre his men carried out.
Isabelle, whose impressive deviousness seems more cool and calculated than her husband’s, frames Jared, who threatens to reveal her infidelity with Cornelius Slotter. With twisted loyalty, Jared balks from spilling the news that could destroy the Captain and tells him instead that Isabelle lusts after Ling.
Drunk on the whiskey, his attempt to hang Kat about to be foiled by Slotter, Jared begins again to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear and is shot dead for his near-candour. Hos before bros, dude. With the Indians escaped and Janestown folks not buying their guilt, the Slotters bring in Jared’s box full of items plundered from the slain men. A dead man makes an ideal scapegoat after all.
Rooted in history, Strange Empire plays with heightened language and surreal elements that are combining into a strange and wonderful adventure. How guilty is Slotter, and how far can he trust Isabelle’s devotion? How long can Isabelle hold her world together through cunning? Why does Slotter want Kat alive, though he can kill innocent Indians and his own man? How many more times can Kat swap herself for her girls before saying you know what, just take them? When will Thomas realize his wife is a far better doctor than he is?
The episode ends with the marshal killing the whiskey trader and blowing up his dynamite-filled wagon. It can only hint at explosiveness to come.