Wednesday, February 4, 2015

RECAP: Strange Empire 1x03 - Let's Build a Society!


Okay. Since last week's recap was really the pinnacle of my ability to turn a forty-five minute episode of television into a six-thousand word treatise, this week we're going to try something a little different! Mostly so that it doesn't take me five hours to write this and we all get to finish the series before we die of old age.

This week on Strange Empire, we picked up again directly after last week's episode. Or, more specifically, a day or so after. Slotter is still conniving and bad, Kat is still self-righteous and full of bluster, and Rebecca is still decidedly bonkers, bless her heart. Also she killed that guy. Don't forget about that part.

In this episode there were about six major storylines running through, and each of them interconnected back to the rest, albeit some more closely than others. It's telling about this show that analyzing it feels like analyzing a Russian novel. There are layers on layers on layers of story, everything is connected, and it's slow and plodding but even the slightest microexpression on an actor's face means something.*

The six storylines were this, roughly in order of importance and screentime: John Slotter and Isabelle try to pass off a whore's baby as their own in order to con his father out of more money for their mine; the miners and the women band together against Slotter and his men to protest the lack of pay and the terrible conditions; Kat gives up the search for Jeremiah but enlists a US Marshal in her quest for justice; the aftermath of Rebecca killing that guy; Robin develops the ability to see dead people; and, the women start to realize that they can build a society of their own out here in the wilderness.

Got it? Good.

We'll start with the first one, because like I said, this is the biggest and arguably most important of the plotlines this episode. It's the first time we've actually gotten a sense of John Slotter as a person and not just as an avatar for all that is jerk-ish and mean in the world. In this episode, as he struggles against his father and tries to prove he's his own man, we suddenly see that for all that Slotter is a terrible garbage human being, he's way better than his dad. And that's horrifying.

This plot starts out with Isabelle and Slotter planning for his father's visit. His father suspects him of skimming money from the railroad payroll, which he has been, and using it for something else. So they need to distract him from all of that with their decoy child, a healthy boy they bought from Mary, one of their whores. Slotter's going to have to suck it up and ask his father for a loan to get the mine going properly, and none of them like it one bit.

Once Cornelius Slotter arrives, we come to see that he's exactly as intimidating as he would have to be in order to raise John Slotter in his shadow. He's a hard man, but unlike his son, he has a quick and business-ready mind. His first order of business, before he does anything else, is to find out what all this commotion is over there and discovers his son's mine. He also discovers Caze, the foreman, and manages to get down to brass tacks: the miners haven't been paid in weeks and they are angry. He's been here five minutes and his son's plan is already up in smoke.

But when he gets to the house Isabelle is able to sufficiently distract him with the baby, and he's charmed and coos exactly as expected. Less expected is the revelation that before she was John Slotter's wife, Isabelle was Cornelius Slotter's whore. Cornelius maintains that she and John married to spite him and she insists it was love. I'm guessing it was a healthy dose of both. But yeah, that explains so much about their marriage. So much.

Not only did he used to sleep with Isabelle, it seems that Cornelius came here with an eye to sleep with her again. He brought a diamond necklace for her, a "whore's gift" as they both recognize it and call it, and he seems utterly unconcerned about the fact that he just propositioned his daughter-in-law. So, yeah, I'm calling it. Slotter Sr. is officially worse than Slotter Jr. Didn't think that was possible, but it is. It was also at this point in the episode that I started to feel some sympathy John Slotter. It was a strange feeling, and I did not like it.

Cornelius' presence is clearly making John more and more agitated - and at this point I started to think of him as John, not Slotter, much to my dismay - and it comes to a head when they visit the mine. Cornelius can tell in an instant that the mine isn't profitable. Three owners came and went before John. So he's not going to finance this mine. It's not a good investment. And if he catches John skimming the railroad money again it probably won't go well for John. Like deeply unwell.

Things start to go downhill for John from here. Not that they were that great to begin with.

While he and his father are out hunting game someone starts shooting at them - it's Neill, Kat and Jeremiah's older son, taking revenge for Geogie's death - and they run for cover. In the chaos, they come upon Kat, who was setting up traps for dinner, and Cornelius shoots her. In the back. Then just leaves the body there and walks away. It's a telling moment, because John actually recognizes her, calls out her name, and pushes at his father's gun, but there's nothing much to do. (Of course, Kat isn't really dead, but we'll get to that later.)

Then, when they come back for brunch in the garden with Isabelle and the baby, who's there to meet them but a US Marshal letting them all know that John Slotter has been accused of murder. Fun! For some twisted reason this puts Cornelius in a great mood, so he agrees to finance the mine. If John can break up the union that the women and the miners have going. He hates community spirit. Could the guy be any more of a mustache twirling Snidely Whiplash stereotype?

So John Slotter and his men break up the came where the women, having already been kicked out of the cribs for not being whores, have been taken in by the miners. But this time John pushes too far. He says that no one is to cross back into Janestown, but when the local preacher, Jamie, defies him, Jared, John's right hand man, shoots him. And that's the straw that breaks the illusion of his control.

It's also interesting that right after this, John sees Kat again, alive, for the first time since she "died", and he can't figure out if she's haunting him or not. This episode, it seems like all John's done is try to hold things together, but the tighter he holds, the more it falls apart, and now there are multiple deaths on his hands and the law is closing in.

Cornelius, of course, smelling weakness, decides that his loan will have predatory terms that John's pride can't accept. And then he meets the baby's "nursemaid" and clearly figures out that something is up with this baby that neither Isabelle nor John is overly interested in. So Isabelle takes matters into her own hands and bites the bullet. While John has a panic attack upstairs over how he's going to lose everything, Isabelle puts on the necklace and plays whore for her father-in-law one last time. She gets the money, but it's clear she hates doing this. In a weird twisted way, this is the first time I've truly believed she loves John. So of course Jared sees her through the window and is probably going to tell John next episode.

It seems like so far the episodes have gone in order. The first episode was all about Kat, last episode was very much about Rebecca, and this episode has been about Isabelle. It's about how far they are all willing to go for the people they love and the things they think are right. And it's telling that each of them reacted in a radically different way.

Isabelle as a character is really interesting to me because of all the stuff we don't really know about her yet. She's a woman of color in the 1860s, a former whore, a spiritualist, and now married to the son of her old patron. She's a hell of an interesting woman and every little piece we get about her past only makes her more compelling. 

She comes off as the sort of woman who learned early on not to rely on anyone, and while that has made her hard and unsympathetic, you can't deny that she's used whatever she had to get ahead. So it was also weird to realize this week that she really does love John. I wasn't expecting that, but I'm curious to see how their story turns out. And her best line of the night was in taking down Cornelius just a peg when he laughs over the idea of her having been his wife rather than his son's: "I was your whore. I don't imagine being your wife would have been much different." Oh snap!

So, like I said above, the second plotline of note is the plight of the miners and the women. The major message of this plotline, which mostly plays out in the life of Mrs. Briggs and her interactions with different miners, is that community spirit is impossible to stamp out. While there is a lot of bad in the world, there's also a fair amount of good, and this storyline was fortunately about the good. Which is a relief because it was pretty unrelentingly bleak there for a while.

The episode starts off with the women still mourning their dead and the miners reaching out a hand to help them get closure. Mrs. Briggs, Fiona, and Miss Logan all head out to bury their brothers and husbands and sons, and the miners lend them horses and shovels to help with that. 

Then, later, when the women are kicked out of the cribs for not being whores basically, the miners take them into their camp and help them get set up. The miners seem by all accounts just happy to have them there, which makes sense when you think of how long it's been for them since they saw a friendly face for free.

But then Slotter comes and busts the camp, shoots the preacher, and tells them to get off his property, and everyone has had enough. The miners haven't been paid in weeks and they're pissed as hell. The women have been stepped on one too many times. There's a very symbolic and significant moment right after the preacher's been shot when Mrs. Briggs hikes up her skirts and declares she's going to get some water for the doctors. From John Slotter's well. She won't get shot, she has rage on her side.

And after that, our next shot of the women is of them all standing in the cribs again. Because they've realized that there are more of them than there are of Slotter's men, and frankly they just don't care. Slotter's power over these people, enforced by guns and threats, breaks down when there's no money or food and he's already played his hand. They have nothing left to lose.

So while the miners do get paid by the end of the episode and peace is nominally restored, it's clear that there's no going back now. The women and the miners have realized that they don't have to take this anymore, and so they won't. They even have a mass for the preacher on John Slotter's front lawn.

The third major story this week is Kat's slowly dawning realization that she can't find Jeremiah and it might be time to let him go. Not to say she doesn't try. She rides back to the station house and finds his horse there, but no Jeremiah. Instead, she finds Marshal Caleb Mecredi (Tahmoh Penikett), a half-blood Indian who Kat is horrified to find works for the government. 

But Caleb has his reasons. He's there to give out real justice and not let Indians be persecuted for every little thing that goes wrong. He's trying to keep the cavalry out of Montana.

And Kat's actually kind of happy to see him. Because the men were killed on the Montana side of the border, they fall in his jurisdiction, meaning that Caleb is fully within his rights to investigate John Slotter, even though he's up in Canada. So he does. But Caleb and Kat run into some obstacles that Kat didn't expect. For starters, Mrs. Briggs is apparently racist as hell and refuses to talk to Caleb because he's an Indian. Which does bring up the very important question of whether or not Mrs. Briggs is deeply stupid to have not realized that Kat is also an Indian, but whatever. Suspension of disbelief, I guess.

Furthermore, it's hard to find anyone willing to talk, at least at first. Everyone's too scared of John Slotter. But now that Kat has that ball rolling, she has other problems. Like nearly getting shot to death while she's out setting snares for dinner. She plays dead and lets them go by, but Kat is not going to forget that a Slotter tried to kill her. Again.

At least this incident has reunited her with Neill, who is happily alive! Though, much less happy and carefree than before. Kat's got her girls back, her one living boy, and now she just needs to trust that she's done all she can. If Jeremiah is still living he'll find his way back to them. And she refuses to believe he's not still living.

For now, she'll have to satisfy herself with getting justice and not revenge.

Meanwhile, Rebecca and Thomas continue trying to figure out how to be married to each other, and Rebecca continues to not really understand the whole "you just murdered a man" thing. Fun times.

We also get to see the miner that Rebecca flirted with at the station house - the one who saw her mostly undressed and with whom she shared some heated eye contact - introduce himself to her. He's Morgan Finn and he and his uncle are there to work the mines. He thinks Rebecca's great, you can tell, but when she calmly tells him that the old man he thought was her father is her husband, he literally backs away slowly. I like you, Morgan Finn. You are a man with a strong sense of self-preservation.

Anyway, the episode continues with Rebecca trying to explain to Thomas what she learned about science when she murdered that guy, only for Thomas to get really really freaked out by how casually she's taking this. Later this comes to a head when they're trying to save the preacher and Rebecca insists that she could save the man if only she had some electricity to restart his heart - and here we have a female character inventing shock paddles, right on - and Thomas freaking the hell out. 

She's playing god and she has no idea of the consequences of her actions! He slaps her and I recoiled in terror. Partly that Thomas would be so cruel, and partly because you never really know how Rebecca will react to something like that. Her face was unreadable but possibly murderous. Eeep.

As everyone gathers for the mass to mourn the dead preacher, Rebecca reaches out to Kat, who has somehow become both her best friend and her moral touchstone. "Do you think me a savage, Mrs. Loving?" Because Rebecca has more respect for nature than God and because she wishes to examine the dead bodies in order to see how they work. 

Kat doesn't have a good answer for her, but in another sense, she does. While Rebecca states openly that she doesn't care about God, Kat asks her to come to the mass anyway. And she does, for the sake of the others. So, no, Rebecca, you're strange, but you're not a savage. Not by a long shot.

Robin's newfound ability to see the dead only comes up a couple of times but it is by far the plot twist I am most curious about. It starts when the women are burying their dead and Robin looks up to see the dead themselves standing behind the women, watching. They don't seem to frighten her or anything, and the spell is broken when Kat rides up with Caleb. Then, later, at the preacher's mass, Robin is standing with Rebecca when she sees the preacher standing in the woods. She tells Rebecca that he's at peace. His hands are full of rose petals and he's smiling. 

She says that he's telling her they'll have peace soon too.

And finally, the last big plot of this episode is the underlying throughline of the series itself: let's build a society, one without any of the rules that made us outcasts where we came from. While this the smallest plot in terms of explicit screentime, you could argue very easily that it's the biggest in terms of long term consequences. This is, after all, what the show is about. The "strange empire" where women and people of color make the rules and wield power and make a land for themselves.

The whole idea starts off with Miss Logan, who has taken quite well to being a whore. She has her own money and horse, and while she's not happy with her circumstances, she's using them to her advantage. I like her. She has a lot of sense. 

And she thinks that between the railroad coming through, the mine, and the river nearby, Janestown could become an actual for real town. With schools and a post office and a saloon where Mrs. Briggs sells whiskey. A place for people to have real community and know they are cared for.

Mrs. Briggs and Kat shake it off at first, but later the idea starts to take root. Mrs. Briggs sells the miners some fried bread and it's very popular. She could start a bakery. But Slotter controls the supplies that get run in and he's not a man likely to give out of charity. While they're outside society for the most part, the patriarchy does still hold out here. Strangely enough, it's Ruby, the Slotter's cook, who brings the solution. There's a supply wagon coming, and if they get it before Slotter does, then the supplies are theirs.

So the women rob a wagon. It's great.

And the message from that and from all the other little things this episode is clear: the women are used to deferring to men like Slotter because that's how it works back in civilized society. They have the power and money and the women just have to try to live with it. But here, Slotter only has slightly more power than they do. They are more equals than not. And, for that matter, as we see from Slotter's plot this episode, he has just as much to lose from the intrusion of the civilized world as they do.

It's clear in this episode that while John Slotter is bad, Cornelius Slotter is worse. He's old money, old power, old white guy supremacy, and he treats everyone else like dirt. He's used to his power and prestige and he's not at all fussed by the idea of hurting people who get in his way. He represents the old world they've all escaped. And so too, in a big way, does Thomas. They both fit in back in society, while nearly everyone else in this story is an outcast, intentionally or not. 

These women, for whatever reason, belong out here in the wilderness in some very real way. The reinvention of their lives and the creation of a society that values them is a powerful dream because it's a dream that affirms their humanity. The fact that these women now see that their dream of inclusion and social value and community is reachable makes it all the more important that they pursue it. That they take the power they already have and use it to make a place for themselves.

I'm excited. "No law but our own" indeed.


*Some actors are more about the microexpressions than others. Teach Grant, who plays Caze, is great at them. Cara Gee, who plays Kat, is more of an all face expression kind of girl. And they both work equally well for their characters.

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