Wednesday, January 20, 2016

RECAP: Strange Empire 1x07 - How to Save a Life (Literally)


Wow. Strange Empire. It's been a while, huh? We started recapping this show early last year but had to take an extended hiatus when the recap schedule got too full, my life got too busy, and the show got way too hard to find. But now we don't have any other recapping on the agenda, my life has calmed down as much as we can really expect it to, and Strange Empire is up on Netflix. So, hit it!

Since it's been a year, I think it's safe to assume that we've all sort of forgotten what this show is about. So, here's a quick reminder (or you can go back and read the recaps from the beginning, starting here).

Strange Empire is a Canadian feminist western miniseries about a group of women who find themselves stranded out West in the 1870s. After a brutal attack kills all the men in their convoy - a convoy of pioneers, settlers, and travelers trying to reach the coast - the women are forced to go for shelter to the only livable place for miles: a brothel and mining camp called "Janestown". As in, Whoreville. Some of the women are forced into prostitution to pay for their lodgings while a few manage to eke out a living with other, not necessarily less degrading, work.

The whole plot of the show seems to be building to a central idea. Namely, that these women, living so far from polite society and the rule of law, have an unprecedented opportunity to make a new world. A "strange empire", if you will, where women and people of color are equals with white men. We can see the seeds of this coming in the way that the show deals with issues of race and sex and seems to be gearing up for a big showdown between the women and the horrible owner of the brothel and the mine, John Slotter (Aaron Poole).

We mostly follow three central women, though the other characters (almost entirely women) do get their own storylines. Our three heroes are all women who have managed to gain some level of independence, albeit in completely different areas. First there's Kat Loving (Cara Gee), a probably-widow with three adopted children and one hell of a history she's running from. She and her husband and their then-four children were on their way out to start a ranch when the attack happened, possibly killing her husband but definitely killing her youngest son. Now Kat, who is half-Indian and has a chip on her shoulder a mile wide, has found herself the new sheriff of Janestown, the only person the women trust to protect them. Oh, and did I mention she's a total badass who might be wanted for murder? That too.

On the other side of the tracks, we have Rebecca Blithely (Melissa Farman), a probably-autistic woman whose honeymoon trip across Canada was cut short when the attack happened. Rebecca is a brilliant medical mind and would be a doctor if only that weren't illegal for women at this time. Instead, she acts as assistant to her husband, a man more than forty years her senior, who adopted her as a child and then married her after his wife died to keep her from going into state custody and being sent to an asylum. Rebecca quickly becomes the doctor of the camp, taking over when her husband is injured, but her odd behavior and sham-marriage cause a few problems along the way.

And finally we have Isabelle Slotter (Tattiawna Jones), wife of John and head of the whorehouse. Isabelle is probably the most complex character on the show, a light-skinned black woman who traded on her sexuality to work her way up from common whore to madame but who actually longs to be a medium and commune with the spirits. Still mourning the death of her baby daughter, Isabelle forcibly adopted the child of one of their whores and is passing the child off as her own while also scheming to wrest control of the brothel from her awful husband.

Complicated enough for you? There are a ton more characters and backstories to get into, but I think I'll explain them as they come up in the episode instead.

It's funny that this show got so little attention, because for my money it really does hold up to any other prestige drama going. Sure, it clearly has a lower budget than Mad Men or Game of Thrones, but the acting and writing and cinematography are fantastic. The storylines are brutal in their explorations of humanity and it's hard to end an episode without feeling a little gut-punched. Which I generally consider a good thing. 

So, without further ado, let's talk about episode seven of Strange Empire. (And here's a link to the recap for episode six if you want to catch up.)

There are a couple of main storylines in this episode, which feels like one of the breather episodes they throw in every once in a while to make sure you're still alive. Coming off of the violence of last time (when Kat had to shoot a man who was trying to rape Fiona Briggs), this is a breath of calm air. Well, calmer. Even a few weeks down the line in Janestown, life is still a ridiculous mess.

The basic storylines for this episode, ranked in order of their importance and centrality to the plot, are like this: Rebecca has to decide whether or not to amputate her husband's leg because the wound has turned gangrenous and if she doesn't he will definitely die; Kelly and Robin stumble across some cattle rustlers and have to hide from them to avoid being killed; Isabelle is worried that John has succeeded in getting her pregnant and wants out of her marriage; Fiona and Miss Logan are in a fight over some stolen garters; and Kat and Marshal Mecredi are having complicated feelings at each other.

Got it? Good.

The first plot, about Rebecca and her husband, is the bulk of the episode and definitely the bulk of the emotional weight. Thomas' injury, sustained in the attack of the very first episode, has been the catalyst for so much of Rebecca's story this season. It forced them to stay in Janestown instead of leaving, even though they had the money to do so. It allowed Rebecca to step up as the medical professional in the town because Thomas was incapable of getting to patients. It gave Rebecca independence even as it sucked Thomas' life away.

But now we've reached an impasse. The wound is horribly infected and Thomas really can't walk anymore. Rebecca knows that the solution is to amputate it, and she's even pretty sure she can do it, but Thomas refuses. He can't imagine letting his wife cut off his leg, even if he knows better than anyone how skillful she is.

Instead of listening to reason, Thomas joins the other lost souls at Mrs. Briggs' whiskey bar - really more of a patio, but whatever - and drinks away his troubles. Meanwhile, Rebecca decides to make her preparations anyway. Thomas isn't going to heal on his own. Either he'll let her amputate his leg, or he'll die.

Unfortunately for Thomas, there's a not inconsiderable number of people who would prefer the second option. First on the list is John Slotter, who knows that if Thomas dies the camp will be easier to control as he won't be able to oppose Slotter's views. He also knows, though, that Isabelle has been putting off having another baby because she claims she doesn't want to bring a soul into their house when a man is dying in it. We know this is a feint because Isabelle actually just hates John right now, but he doesn't. So he wants Thomas dead because he's an awful person.

Morgan Finn, on the other hand, has much more complicated feelings on the matter. He's in love with Rebecca, we're very clear on that, but he's also not a bad enough person to actively want her husband dead. Passively, sure, but not actively. So Morgan struggles throughout the episode with how he ought to behave in this situation. Rebecca is closer than ever to being his, but he's not the type to stand back and let Thomas die either. As Miss Logan's prodding reveals, Morgan will even help Rebecca try to save Thomas if she asks. Morgan's a really good person.

Rebecca, however, has enough sense not to ask her kind-of boyfriend to help her operate on her sort-of husband. Instead she asks Caze for help - Caze being the most trustworthy man in the camp - because Rebecca knows she's not strong enough to hold down Thomas and saw through his leg bone on her own. She also goes to Ling for chemicals to knock Thomas out for the surgery, though Ling demands something other than money for his price.

Not that. He's a weird dude but not an actual predator (probably) - Ling has Rebecca do some "women's work" for him, washing and changing the bandages on his mother's feet. This raises a couple of questions. First, since when has Ling's mother been living here? Has she been here the whole time? Does she speak English? Where did this lady come from? And second, is that what bound feet really look like? Whoa.

Anyway, Rebecca washes her feet and gets the drugs. And, really, Ling couldn't have done better in finding someone to care for his mother's feet. Rebecca is both medically trained and the kind of person to react to bound feet not with horror or disgust but with unbridled curiosity and wonder, which Ling's mother seems to accept as her fair due. I kind of want more scenes with the two of them.

John Slotter has meanwhile been working on Thomas to make him not want to get his leg amputated, making a show of mocking the local cripple at the whiskey bar. The "cripple" - a man who seems to have lost both his legs, possibly in the American Civil War - sits around begging for money for whiskey, making him a pitiful, pitiable character. But John's mockery has an unintended effect. He moves Thomas to the realization that his leg is never getting better. He has to let Rebecca do the surgery.

So she does. Terrified and with only Ruby (the Slotter's general house-person) and Caze for help, Rebecca tries to amputate her husband's leg. But she runs into a few problems. First off there's Caze, who admitted when she asked him that he can't abide the smell of dying flesh due to his memory of his father's slow death, but there's also Rebecca's sudden inability to distance herself from the situation. This is her husband she's operating on, but really he's her father. Thomas literally raised her, saving her from the asylum twice in her life, and now she has to save his. She's very understandably upset.

And then Morgan walks in, like a hero, and offers to help. He stands ready with the saw after Thomas is out, and once Rebecca has cut the skin, Morgan quickly severs the bone. Only, as it turns out, they're too late. The rot has turned Thomas hip black. It's now on its way to his heart and there's nothing that can be done to stop it. Rebecca runs from the room sobbing and Morgan and Ruby are left to clean up on their own.

This is when the story gets really interesting. Thomas wakes up, still delirious, and realizes that the surgery hasn't worked and he's going to die. Then he spots Morgan and is faced with the realization that with him dead, there will be no one to keep Morgan away from Rebecca. He's convinced that Rebecca is well above Morgan and could totally do better, so he warns Morgan off, but Morgan has a trick very literally up his sleeve.

As Morgan strips off his blood-stained shirt, we come to realize that Morgan has been keeping a few secrets from everyone. Namely that he's actually a woman. Bear in mind that we're working with 1870s gender concepts here - Thomas looks at Morgan's breasts and calls him a woman, and Morgan agrees, so I guess that's what we're going with. Morgan is a woman, and suddenly a lot more of her relationship with Rebecca makes sense. Like how insistent Morgan has been on Rebecca never getting her naked. That kind of thing.

Anyway, Thomas is even more insistent that a woman can't marry his darling Rebecca, even if Rebecca almost certainly will have no problem with this development. He tells Morgan that, and reminds her that she can't give Rebecca children, which seems to bother Morgan. I don't know where this relationship is going - and I kind of saw this coming - but it's a solid reveal that adds a lot of complexity to that character.

Ruby rushes out into the woods to find Rebecca and convinces her that as sad as she is, she can't let Thomas die alone. So Rebecca goes back and sits with her husband while he dies. But really she sits with her father as he finally tells her he's proud of her, gives her his pocket watch, and holds her while he passes from this world. It's very sad and very sweet and a good ending for a complicated character. 

There's a moment when Thomas tries to tell Rebecca to go back to Toronto, to live the life prescribed for her, but she refuses. In his final moments, Thomas begins to see that life in civilized society is no life for a woman like Rebecca. She'll be a spinster, a freak, whereas here she can be a doctor. Thomas dies with the understanding, finally, of who Rebecca really is, and what more could you want?

In the morning, Rebecca goes to the whiskey bar and gives Thomas' pocket watch to the amputee there. She tells him to use it to get back to his "people" so that he won't be alone any more. Sad.

Obviously this was the bulk of the story this episode. But I mentioned a few other plotlines, so here's the rough sketch of what happened there too:

Robin and Kelly, Kat's adopted daughters, are in the woods dealing with Kelly's menarche (her very first period), when they realize they're right next to some stolen cattle. With Kelly now a woman by the law of the day and Robin not far behind her, the girls know that if the men who stole the cattle (and the cattle has to be stolen as there are no ranches nearby) find them, they'll be raped or killed. The girls end up hiding way up in a tree, hoping someone will come along and scare off the rustlers, or else that the men will just move on.

In the end, it's the former. Their brother Neil sees them up in the tree and sees the cattle rustlers, so he runs back to the camp for help. Kat comes and between the two of them they manage to stop the rustlers and get Robin and Kelly down out of the tree. Of course, Kelly's still acting strange, because she feels she's now a woman and therefore has to face the prospect of marriage and child-rearing, but Kat understands. Kat's a really good mom. Most of the time.

Kat's taking down the cattle rustlers is a feather in her cap when it comes to dealing with Marshal Caleb Mecredi, who came to town looking for them and gave Kat crap about her new sheriff job. Kat's feeling conflicted about having slept with Caleb while her husband might still be alive, so she's not interested in him asking why she's not been around and if she's busy later. 

Sure, he's the first man she's met in years who she has something in common with - that they're both part-Indian - but she's got her own crap going on. She doesn't need him gumming up the works. So she drops the rustlers off and makes a few smart remarks. The only shot he manages to land is the reminder that some bounty hunters came through looking for a woman of her description, wanted for murder, and Kat had better be careful. Fair enough.

Up at the main house, Isabelle had a quick story dealing mostly with her desire not to have John's baby and the aftermath from her affair with Ling. She ends up going to Ling's house in the Chinatown camp to see him, and they have hot steamy sex right on his kitchen table. While his mother watches from the other room. Wow. Did not know that this show could get creepier, but it did. Well done?

And finally, the counterpoint to all this doom and gloom is a slightly silly, slightly heartwarming story between Miss Logan and Fiona Briggs. It starts when Kat has to break up a literal mud-wrestling fight between them as they argue over whether or not Fiona stole Miss Logan's garters. Then we find out that, yes, she did, and she apologizes. Why did she steal them? Because Fiona is still clearly working through the trauma of last episode, when a man tried to rape her and slashed her with a knife. She's scarred all to hell now and believes she's damaged goods.

When Miss Logan hears this, she feels a rush of compassion, and so she does the kindest thing she can. She gives Fiona a dress she had bought for herself back before she became a whore - not that Miss Logan ever seems to indicate feeling bad about her prostitution, which is oddly refreshing - and tells Fiona it won't suit her now. 

Fiona is touched. She's been afraid that no man will ever love her again - she's too damaged for whoring and she has two babies no man would want to marry her and adopt. It's like watching the lights go on as she realizes that men might not love her, but women will. So Fiona and Miss Logan end the episode friends, sharing a bottle of whiskey, and vaguely contemplating the idea of Fiona doing some writing about what happens in Janestown.

That's about all that happens this episode, but I think it's really interesting how the storylines here follow different ways that the women of the show are dealing with the affection they receive or don't receive from men. Kat is obviously dealing with Caleb Mecredi by proving that she's every bit the competent leader and badass that he is, proving that she doesn't need him. Robin and Kelly are reeling with the realization that Kelly is now becoming a woman (whatever that means) and that marriage and sex are no longer abstract concepts. Meanwhile, they're literally hiding from the male gaze.

Isabelle is on the one hand pushing away male affection from her husband and on the other hand pulling towards it with Ling. And Rebecca is being forced to deal with the loss of the one man she could depend on in her life. Sure, her relationship with Thomas was weird to the point of being actually damaging, but he was still her father figure for most of her life. She loved him. He raised her. His word was law in her life, and now she has to figure out a life without him in it. That's a lot to take in.

So welcome back to the ridiculously overblown world of Strange Empire recaps! I know you've missed them just as much as I have.


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