Strange Empire

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“Strangely appealing.”

strangemepireThis Canadian TV series ran for 13 episodes, but was not renewed at the end of the first series, leaving the double shock which occurred at the end of the final episode, with no hope of resolution. That’s a shame, since there was a lot to like about its grubby portrayal of 1869 life, just north of the border between Canada and Montana. It begins when a wagon train of settlers, passing near the mining settlement of Janestown, is attacked and almost all the men are killed or driven away, leaving the women to fend for themselves. In particular, there is Kat Loving (Gee), a half-Indian sharpshooter who seeks the truth about her husband’s fate, and Rebecca Blithely (Farman), a female medical researcher, something almost unheard of at the time. But they are up against John Slotter (Poole), who runs Janestown as his own personal fiefdom, and whose wife Isabelle (Jones) is a match for the new arrivals in terms of her wits, and likely surpasses them when it comes to crafting of intrigues.

It’s the characters – the three women, and let’s not forget John, who eventually becomes the glue that binds them together in common cause – which drive this. Kat is certainly the most conventionally “heroic,” becoming the town’s sheriff, a position which brings her into direct conflict with Slotter; yet, she also has a murky past, being a wanted woman for the murder of a surveyor. Rebecca is the most difficult to get a handle on; while possessing a brilliant mind, she has a near-total lack of “people skills”, to the point of near-sociopathy. Finally, Isabelle possesses no scruples and is prepared to do absolutely whatever may be necessary to achieve her goals and escape her low-born upbringing – including seducing her husband’s father, when access to his money becomes necessary. They make a fascinating trio, well-drawn and well-portrayed by the actresses concerned.

The past year has seen a number of new takes on the Western genre, from Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight to The Revenant. Empire does, perhaps, try somewhat too hard to be subversively revisionist, not least in the gratuitously transgender “cowboy”, who seems to have been added to the story for no reason than to appeal to trendy modern sensibilities. It’s much better when not attempting to pander to those, sticking with the Slotters’ efforts to keep their teetering mine business afloat, along with its probably more profitable brothel sideline, by any means necessary. This is balanced with Kat’s refusal to let John act like some kind of medieval baron, and insistence that he face the consequences of his murderous actions, which are becoming increasingly more frequent – if she can’t get justice for the massacre of the male settlers, perhaps there are other crimes that can be pinned on him.

While there are a number of side-threads (the strong role of Chinese businessman Ling is also very interesting), it’s this which drives the plot forward, and I was kept watching in the fervent hope of seeing Slotter get what he deserves. It’s to the show’s credit, with its unwillingness to collapse into a simple “black hat/white hat” mentality, that the outcome remained in doubt until almost the last few minutes of the final episode.

Created by: Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik
Star: Cara Gee, Melissa Farman, Tattiawna Jones, Aaron Poole

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