Wednesday, March 4, 2015

RECAP: Strange Empire 1x04 - You Don't Belong With Us Either

At last, after a month-long accidental hiatus, I have returned to recapping this weird, weird, wonderful little show. The last episode was a while ago, so I'll forgive you all if you completely forgot we were doing this. But we are, in fact doing this. And faster now, as it has occurred to me that Game of Thrones, Orphan Black, and Outlander are all coming back on in like a month, and I am woefully behind in cranking this out. So, let's get this sucker done!

Which is a drastically inappropriate attitude with which to start talking about this episode, because this episode, more than any other, dealt with incredibly harsh realities of the world without a single filter or punch held. It was devastating and great and, to my mind, the first episode that really shows the potential of this series.

So, what happened?

This episode more than any other so far was unified in plot and theme. The major arc of the episode followed the camp as John Slotter decides to put out a reward for the alleged Indians who killed all the men in the first episode. For the first time we have rock solid confirmation that John Slotter and his men are in fact responsible, but the plot revolves around their attempts to hide that. They find some Indians to blame, courtesy of a local whiskey trader, and decide to string them up in the center of Janestown for everyone to see.

While all of this is happening there are a couple of other storylines tied in. First, Kat gets involved in all of this because she's a compassionate, loving woman, but it quickly comes out that she is half Indian herself. Second, Isabelle and Jared wage war over John's soul and affections, with the winner being able to destroy the loser. And third, everyone gets tired of Mrs. Briggs being super racist all the time and calls her on it. Repeatedly. Oh, and fourth, Caleb gets closer to solving the actual case and proving that John Slotter did kill all those men.

The episode as a whole used the backdrop of the Indians' capture and Slotter's men trying to hide their crimes as a basis for everything else that happened. But the basic timeline goes like this: John and Jared realize that everyone is getting super suspicious of what really happened, spurred on by two women: Kat and Mrs. Briggs. Kat is a problem because she won't shut up about how she's sure John had the men killed, and Mrs. Briggs is an issue because she keeps publicly mourning her husband and won't let anyone else forget the incident.

Since they can't deal with Kat without killing her - and they haven't succeeded at that yet - Mrs. Briggs is the obvious target. Hence, a plan. They find some Indians and blame it on them. As the Indians are unlikely to actually speak English and no one will listen to them anyway, this feels like a foolproof plan. And it is. At first.

It's unclear whether or not the plan is actually to find some Indians and kill them, or whether they just want to pretend to look, but either way, Jared finds some actual Indians to take the blame, courtesy of Roy Arnold, a whiskey trader. 

Roy's business is selling whiskey to Indians, but it's poison whiskey, tainted with strychnine, and it makes them go nuts. He and Jared drug a tribe and kidnap two of them in the chaos. Another one, a woman, is nearly beaten to death. But the key point here is "nearly". She doesn't die, and instead makes it to Caleb.

Big mistake there.

Caleb, who is an officer of the law and part-Indian himself, sees that an injustice has been done and seeks to rectify it. He brings the woman, Nuttah, to the Drs. Blithely (Rebecca and Thomas). There he insists on finding out who did this to her. And he has a strong suspicion who: Roy Arnold, who he knows and hates.

But Caleb has no power on this side of the border, so it's up to Kat to protect the men who have been brought into camp and who are being blamed for the murder of all those husbands and sons. She does protect them, righteously, but in her efforts to protect them Mrs. Briggs and everyone else discovers that Kat is half-Indian. They turn on her, and it's very hard to watch.

Kat is not deterred, though, and spends most of the episode sitting with the men to keep them from harm. Meanwhile, Mrs. Briggs goes about being all racist and Indian-hating. It's interesting because while she's really getting into her racist groove, more and more people find the nerve to tell her off for it. It's clearly a self-denial thing, and no one is taking her crap. Even her own daughter, Fiona, refuses to agree with her mother. "You got a dark heart to go with that widow's dress." Actually, Fiona gets a bunch of verbal bitch slaps in this episode, and they're all great.

And on the other side of camp, John and Jared are dealing with the logistics of hiding their crime while Isabelle schemes to turn the men against each other. See, since Jared saw her having sex with Cornelius Slotter, Isabelle needs a strong defense. She needs to make sure that if Jared ever does get the courage to tell John what he saw - which is doubtful, as they both know it would destroy John to know - she has to ensure that John will side with her and not Jared. 

So she poisons John with her words, twisting Jared's actions and the narrative until Jared seems like the worst person to ever live. And Jared is trying to get John on his side too, but as this proves almost impossible, he slides into a depression and then drunkenness. It's hard to watch on both sides.

"It's hard to watch" is pretty much the sentiment that best describes this episode overall, because nearly everything in it is hard to handle. Don't get me wrong, I think this is the best episode of the series so far, but that's because it's finally facing up to the really intense and brutal aspects of these people's lives. And that's difficult to see as an audience.

It's honestly hard to watch a woman like Mrs. Briggs, who on any other show would be the moral center, descend into racism-fueled hatred and self-pity. Her self-delusion is so deep and so hard to get out of, especially as she trades her honesty for the comfort and protection of agreeing with the Slotters, that it really burns. Credit to the actress too for making this arc both heart-wrenching and also realistic. Mrs. Briggs' face when Ruby confronts her about her denial, or when Fiona tonelessly says, "I suspect, mother, that Indians bleed and feel their grief same as we do," - it's a kick in the teeth. For us and for her.

It's also hard to see her at odds with Kat, since the two of them are easily the backbones of the burgeoning community. Kat isn't proud of her Indian heritage by any stretch of the imagination, but neither is she going to flat out deny it. She refuses to either condone or deny, and as such carves a little space for herself in the middle of everyone else. She pushes away even her own children because for the first time we see that Kat herself has no idea where she belongs.

The kids get their own storyline this episode, grappling with their mother's newly revealed "dirty blood". The other children in the camp are horrible to them, and Kelly especially lashes out. She doesn't like being called dirty and stupid. And no, it's not fair. But it's also not fair for the kids to turn on Kat the way they do, enraged that she didn't tell them about any of this.

The rest of the episode, from Nuttah attacking the whiskey trader to Mrs. Briggs finally admitting the truth to Caleb revealing that he will ultimately have his justice on John Slotter, is mostly a buildup to the end. And the end is certainly epic. Jared, despondent that their attempts to blame the Indians for what they did didn't work and frustrated that John has turned against him, decides to take out his rage on Kat. He tries to lynch her, in front of everyone, insisting that she is the author and creator of all of their pain. She isn't, but it wouldn't be the first time that a woman of color has been held to account for the sins of white men.

Fortunately for Kat (and the audience), John and Isabelle arrive in time to stop the lynching. And John, having finally really turned where Isabelle wanted him, sees this as just one last betrayal from his old friend Jared. When Jared tries to tell John the actual honest truth, John shoots him dead. The truth might have a way of coming out in the end, but it's sure as heck going to meet a few speedbumps along the way.

This isn't as detailed and nit-picking as my previous recaps for this show because, for once, the show really operated as a whole. The entire episode was about one single thing: identity and truth. Well, two things. But two very intricately related things. We were forced to look at each of our leads - except for Rebecca, really, because this episode was mostly about Kat and Isabelle - and examine who they are versus who they think they are. Most notably, this came about in Kat's storyline, where she gave up trying to hide her Indian side and tried to embrace it instead, only to be rebuffed by the very Indians she was saving. Kat, who spent so long hiding who she really is, revealed it only to find that the truth did not set her free. It just showed her more problems.

Mrs. Briggs was also forced to face the truth of herself, and while she did make the right decision in the end, it's worth noting that it took her a very long time. It took her a long time and a ridiculous pileup of evidence. The power of her self-delusion might have been what kept her going, and while she was a kinder woman once she stopped, she was ultimately a less powerful one. Which is interesting.

And of course there's how Isabelle, having mostly embraced her identity as the "spider in the web" or the "cheating whore", uses her wiles to cover her tracks, and decides that love for her husband will cover over a multitude of sins.

All does come to a (mostly) happy end by the end of the episode, except for poor dead Jared, but this episode didn't answer questions so much as raise them. If Kat doesn't belong here and she doesn't belong with the Indians, where does she belong? If Isabelle is willing to manipulate her husband into killing her best friend, what isn't she willing to do? If Mrs. Briggs can convince herself that Indians killed her men even when evidence to the contrary is staring her in the face, what else is she ignoring?

In other words, this episode casts some serious doubts about all of the characters we've come to love. And the thing is, that's great.

Seriously! This was the best episode yet because it was the first one where the emotions all felt gripping and real, where the whole story was unified and solid, and where each person's emotional journey contributed to the whole. Plus, it didn't skimp on the season plot (finding Jeremiah), and it even hinted that Kat and Caleb might develop feelings for each other later down the road.*

Perhaps the most telling moment of the episode is towards the end when Kat, having been nearly hanged and having seen her tormenter shot in the street by another man who has tortured her, is forced to pull the noose off her own neck and get down from the stool. No one comes to assist her, but no one comes to stop her either. 

As she runs to her children, who greet her with cheers, we're overcome by emotion, but we're also caught by the idea that maybe Kat can belong here after all. Not because anyone was particularly good to her this episode. They really weren't. 

But because Janestown is what you make of it. And if Kat is willing to put in the work, she just might be able to make this a place she can finally call home. No one is probably going to help her much, except Rebecca and the kids, but no one's apt to stop her either. And that's promising.

*The scene where Kat and the kids have dinner with Caleb is absolutely adorable, if incredibly awkward. And Neall's need to defend his mother against the horrible (incredibly kind) Caleb is frankly hilarious and wonderful. More of this, please.