Another week, another recap of Strange Empire. Or, I suppose if we're being accurate, another week when I may or may not recap Strange Empire because I am fickle and lazy. But this week we're doing it. Yay!
As you may recall, last week's episode was a sweet, frothy (for this show) little ditty about romance and love for the community, not to mention a dab of love for yourself. It was hands down the most upbeat episode this show has had so far, and it was love. So, obviously, this week's episode is a total downer.
The episode starts in a thunderstorm with Kelly and Robin racing to wake up Kat. It seems that John Slotter is even more bugnuts than usual and has decided to murder his son. Well, he's decided to murder the baby that is not his son because he and his wife, Isabelle, stole the baby from a whore.
Slotter is drunk and angry and lots of things, and the whole camp is gathered around him to make sure the baby stays safe. Kat is able to rescue little Cornelius Jr., but it's a close thing, and she sends Robin with them to make sure Mary (the baby's mother) and the baby stay safe.
What's interesting here is that this is the first time Robin has spent a significant amount of time around Isabelle since the time where Isabelle and John kidnapped Robin and her sister to make them whores. Isabelle is a little creeped out by her, but it gets stronger when she realizes that Robin, in contrast to her own fake psychic gifts, actually is psychic.
This is a solid lead in to what this episode is really about: ghosts, grief, and power, with a healthy dose of sex in there to spice things up. The major plotlines in this episode all revolve around the characters facing seminal crossroads in their lives and seeing the immediate results of their choices. It's also the episode that deals with the most emotionally intense storylines - and that's impressive considering that episode four was about racial tension and had our lead character nearly getting lynched.
The main plotlines are this: Isabelle, Robin, and John going back and forth over what to do with baby Cornelius; Kat considering whether or not to become the sheriff of Janestown; Fiona deciding if she is willing to whore herself out; and Rebecca choosing how to pursue her own sexual education. It's an intense episode, and no one comes out unscathed.
In that first plotline, Isabelle and John go back and forth all episode about the baby: it's not theirs, but it is crucial. The baby, a healthy (white) son for the Slotter family, is what convinced John's father, Cornelius Sr., to give them more money and keep them afloat. Cornelius dotes on his namesake and sends presents nearly every day. He also checks in with Isabelle every day, using the telegraph wire that Ling had installed.
Except the telegraph wire blew in the thunderstorm, John hates the baby exactly because his father loves it, and Isabelle is convinced the baby contains the soul of her dearly departed Ada. Meanwhile, Robin is just trying to keep the child alive - and if she happens to do some incredibly creepy psychic stuff along the way, well, that's her business.
It seems that Robin really is psychic, too. She's not just weird. She is legitimately psychic of some kind, because there is a scene where Robin finally gets John to believe by telling him all about his past and his father and why John is so messed up about the baby. His father was horrible to him, and there's a hint that John is terrified he'll be just as bad to his own son. But also, he'd like a child of his own.
It's not enough for John. And their exchanges this episode, as well as the ending, bring to light once more all the reasons why their marriage is desperately unhealthy and incredibly abusive. On both sides. At the end of episode, John, having been brought to repentance by Robin's psychic counseling session, and Isabelle, who doesn't think she's done anything wrong, talk. And John insists that they have to make a new baby. Right now.
We already know that this is against Isabelle's wishes, since she stated already this episode that she has no intention of having another child, but it's heartbreaking to hear her refusal. And then it's horrifying to watch John rape her, completely ignoring her wishes in his desire for absolution. He rapes his wife, and we watch Isabelle's face go completely dead.
I can only imagine how the repercussions of this are going to fall out.
It's also worth noting that this storyline had Isabelle doing everything in her power to convince John not to kill the baby. She even got him to sit for a seance where she and Ling used their usual tricks to fake a spiritual experience. But Ling screwed it up on purpose, and the seance failed. John destroyed all their equipment in a rage, and it's implied that Ling did it because he's actually in love with Isabelle and wants to end her marriage. So there's that.
In the next plotline, Kat has to face a reality of staying in the community of Janestown, which means finding a way to feed herself and her two* children. She starts out by hunting rabbits and selling them for a few nickels a day, but that's not nearly enough. And Kat is still grieving - for her dead child, her missing husband, and her murdered son. She's not in a great headspace.
Still, she could do better than she is, and Mrs. Briggs knows it. So, Mrs. Briggs, that fantastically cutthroat woman, decides to offer Kat a job. The women of Janestown need protection. Kat is a fair hand with a gun and they all trust her to stand for justice - she's stood for it quite a lot already - so she would make a great candidate for the sheriff of Janestown.
There's just one problem: Janestown already has a sheriff. Technically. The sheriff, Mr. Little, is a corrupt, greedy man on John's payroll pretty much to keep the town running how John wants it. And since John is a little bit crazy at the moment, Mr. Little is just doing whatever the hell he wants.
Up to and including deciding that he doesn't have to pay for anything. Mr. Little is the terror of the cribs. He steals Kat's rabbits, drinks whiskey and refuses to pay, and makes horrible passes at Fiona. Tells her she'd be a good whore and he would pay her well. The worst part? Fiona's considering it.
She has two babies, no money, no prospects for marriage, and a strong will to survive. As she tells her mother, she will do what she has to do to get out of this place and keep her babies safe. She will take whatever punishment she must, but she will live and she will escape.
But this attitude doesn't work for Mr. Little. He wants Fiona unwilling, and if she's considering playing the whore, that's no fun. So he rapes her - or tries to. He tears open her dress and slashes her with a knife across the chest. He tries to go further, but before he can, Kat is there with her gun. She warns him away.
And Kat still won't take the job of sheriff, but she will stand guard over Fiona and Mrs. Briggs (and Miss Logan, who is helping out) as they recover. John refuses to really punish Mr. Little, because at this point he just does not care, so there's no real satisfaction coming. Mrs. Briggs puts things into her own hands and decides to pay Kat to kill Mr. Little. It's the only way they'll be safe.
Kat considers it, but after a late night conversation with Caleb Macredi (in bed, without clothes on - surprise!) she decides not to. She comes back to town the next day and finds Mr. Little terrorizing Mrs. Briggs and Fiona, trying to chop his way into where they've barricaded themselves in the cribs, and she shoots him. For free.
Actually, it's even more badass than that, because Kat calls out his name to make him turn around first. Her reasoning? "I'm no backshooter, Mr. Little." Then, bang! She shoots him dead. So amazing. And I don't normally condone violence, even fictional violence, but it was very satisfying.
Kat takes the job. Janestown needs law, needs justice, and she's the only one with both the inclination to provide it and the skills to enforce it. She'll do it.
"Justice is a woman, which is only fitting."
There are a couple other little details about this storyline worth mentioning: As you may recall, last week Fiona and Thomas bonded over their mutual grief for lost partners, and there was some implication that there might be something there. But this episode, in the wake of being slashed in the chest by a man who almost raped her, Fiona absolutely refuses to let Thomas touch her to treat the wound. Rebecca has to do it instead. And while it's totally reasonable to us that a woman might not want a man touching her after something like that, Thomas is hurt and frustrated, the episode just being (to him) another sign of women's irrationality.
Also, like I mentioned above, apparently now Kat and Caleb are a thing? It comes completely out of nowhere. Literally, Kat just appears in someone's doorway, talking, and then we look over and it's Caleb, in bed, and then they have sex. It's clear it's the first time, too, because he wants her to be absolutely sure she's done mourning her husband first. It is interesting, though, because these two characters have the most in common out of everyone on the show. They're both "half-breeds" - they compare tribal tattoos in the scene and talk about their heritage - and they're both obsessed with justice. It's a good match, even if Neill doesn't agree. (As you might recall, Neill is already paranoid that Caleb is trying to usurp their father's role.)
And finally, I think the interaction between Fiona and Mrs. Briggs here is really interesting. At first, Mrs. Briggs is completely horrified that her daughter would consider turning whore, but when Fiona explains her reasons, Mrs. Briggs actually comes to support her. It's the rare case where Mrs. Briggs' clawing and scraping personality is a good thing. She will support her daughter doing whatever she has to do to survive. She gets that. She even gives Fiona a solid piece of advice: "Get the money first."
Okay, and on to the final major plotline of this episode: Rebecca, the love triangle, and a very late in the game sex education.
See, Rebecca and Thomas have never consummated their marriage. This is because Thomas only married Rebecca to keep her from being a ward of the state again. He's still mourning his late wife, and he views Rebecca as his daughter. But, technically speaking, because they haven't had sex, their marriage isn't actually legal.
On top of that, Rebecca has a romance going with Morgan Finn, the miner, and she's really eager to pursue that. Morgan is totally in love with her, and while it's unclear whether or not Rebecca shares the emotion, she is super into the sex part of it. She loves the way Morgan makes her feel. On top of all of this, it becomes clear this episode that while Rebecca is a literal genius and extremely well educated about anatomy and physiology, she has no idea about sex. Like, she knows what it is technically speaking, but she doesn't know what it is in any practical sense.
Thomas, meanwhile, is steeling himself for the inevitable. He has to have sex with Rebecca or else she could have their marriage annulled. And while it's clear he's not into the idea of actually being married to her, he's also possessive and still rather fatherly towards her. He doesn't like Morgan - he tells him so - and he doesn't want Rebecca being with him. Thomas sees no way out of this but to actually marry Rebecca for good, and keep her safe. Which is patriarchal and annoying, but kind of understandable. Sort of.
Anyway, after Rebecca loudly tells Morgan how much she liked it when he fingered her the other day, and how she would like to repeat the experiment, Morgan is even more into her. Fortunately, though, he has some sense and is able to keep his distance for the most part. He's a lot better at it than she is, at least.
When the time comes, and Rebecca and Thomas are supposed to be consummating their marriage, we get a heartbreaking shot of Morgan standing outside the house, looking up at their bedroom light. Ugh. There is no way this can end that isn't horrible for someone.
And speaking of horrible, the wedding night screeches to a halt when Rebecca tries to put her hand seductively on Thomas' thigh: she puts it right on her wound and discovers something Thomas was trying to keep from her. He has gangrene. The wound is infected. The only thing to do now is cut off his entire leg. As soon as possible. It seems Rebecca might be a widow before he's even technically a wife.
Rebecca, still reeling, comes out on the porch and spots Morgan. She asks him to kiss her, and he does. They're good, even if everything around them is completely nuts. And, what makes us root for them as a couple is that, compared to how Thomas tries to shush Rebecca up and put her down, Morgan loves it when she talks science to him. As they walk together on the porch, she tells him, "It's an experiment, Mr. Finn. To do with electricity." And damn if that isn't weirdly romantic.
So, like I said above, this week's episode is all about death and sex and power. But, more accurately, it's all about electricity. The electricity of the telegraph wire: an electricity that has the power to transmit messages across thousands of miles and also has the power to kill a man and stop his heart. Electricity that runs between people and electricity that keeps our blood pumping in our veins. And the electricity of a kiss or a gunshot. The whole episode is about power in all its senses, and it's very well done, thematically.
The big question is, what the heck is going to happen now?
*Neill is in and out so much I have no idea whether or not to count him. And while I like that we get a better feeling of the strong bond between Kat and her daughters, it's still kind of confusing. I legitimately have no idea where that kid's gone off to.