Thursday, January 28, 2016

RECAP: Strange Empire 1x08 - Back Away Slowly, Kelly

Like any show of this type, some episodes of Strange Empire are more externally based than others. While last week and the couple of episodes before were more focused on looking at the events directly relating to our main characters, introducing very few new people and really just settling down and staring at the situations already there, this week's episode was a little different. This week, alongside the ongoing storylines, the plot was more "a stranger comes to town", with the bulk of the episode actually featuring three brand new characters.

Thematically speaking, this allowed the episode to act as sort of a break in between really intense plotlines. The story about Thomas' injury and worsening health is ramping down, as is the story about how John Slotter bought a mine with no coal in it, but the story about his continued lack of money and labor problems at the mine is ramping up. So we needed an episode to tie those two arcs of the season together, and to let us get some convenient character development and exposition through without also boring the audience to death.

Hence, this episode. As always, it would take way too long to just go through this chronologically, so let's talk major storylines. There were a couple this episode, so we'll start from the top and work our way down:

Like I said, the big plot this week is all about the stranger who comes to town, a nice young man named Jordan Young (Luke Camilleri) who flashes his cash around and proclaims himself too pure t be tempted by the sinning whores of Janestown. Well, technically just by Miss Logan, but we can infer. (It's also worth noting that the scene where he turns her down is adorable, not because of him but because of her wicked grin and impromptu offer to pretend to be the devil for him if he pays her more.)

Jordan Young is overtly religious and clearly planning on staying a while. Since he has a wad of cash burning a whole in his pocket, and since the other major storyline this episode is about how John and Isabelle need more money to get their mine up and running, everyone is very eager to make sure that Jordan Young sticks around and puts money into their burgeoning town.

If you think about it, there are strong economic reasons to keep this man around. The whole town runs on an enclave economy: all income comes because of the mine or the railroad. The mine produces coal, which pays the workers, who then buy whiskey and food and whores. So everyone's livelihood is dependent on this mine. Well, except for the Chinese laborers who are there to build the railroad, but we'll get to them again in a bit.

While Kat is off dealing with labor disputes (again, more on that later), Isabelle sets her sights on making sure that Mr. Young and his money stay in Janestown forever. Her plan? Getting Young to marry Kelly Loving, who you might recall from last episode is now, according to the times at least, "a woman". As in, she got her first period last week and is feeling kind of weird about herself right now. How weird? Well, she's wearing a dress all of a sudden, if that's any indication.

Oh, and before I get too much further I should mention that at the start of the episode Kat and her daughters come across two women in the woods. Lucy (Tanya Hubbard) and her daughter Martha (Laine MacNeil). After the women try to rob them - unsuccessfully because no one successfully robs Kat Loving - Kat brings them back to camp for food and shelter. Lucy isn't quite right in the head, and she's definitely an alcoholic, so it's fallen to the teenaged Martha to care for them in their situation. Okay, back to the main plot.

Mr. Young is clearly really into Kelly and Kelly is really into the idea of a wealthy attractive man being into her. What's skeevy here is that he's definitely in his thirties at least and that what he seems to like about Kelly is how young and inexperienced and innocent she is. Ew. So while Kat might absolutely be completely against the idea, she's busy and Isabelle has no such compunctions. She dresses Kelly up in one of her old gowns and shoves her off to go convince that nice man to stay a while. 

It works pretty damn well, with Mr. Young kissing Kelly and telling Isabelle that he'll stay and invest if and only if he gets to marry her. Good for Kelly, I guess? But not all is good and right in this already creepy situation. See, while Mr. Young was kissing Kelly the camera went to a wide angle to show us Martha watching him, and later scenes tell us that Martha is already involved with the good Mr. Young. More than that, he calls himself a prophet and claims to have been sent directly by God. Oh boy.

If you're smelling something foul here, you're absolutely right. Isabelle walks in on Martha and Mr. Young kissing one night, despite him having originally introduced her as his niece. And all of this does contradict Martha's previous statements about her and her mother having no one and her father being dead. Oh do I hope Mr. Young isn't her father. There's already enough ick here.

Kelly's too bowled over to care, though, so she happily agrees to sneak out and start planning her wedding. Sure it's only been a few days, but why wait? She gets all dolled up, dances with her future husband, and everything is fine except for how it really isn't. 

It all comes to a head at pretty much the exact same time. Just as Kat is coming home to find Robin there, crying about how her sister left her behind, Kelly is waiting for Mr. Young to come around when Martha comes in, clearly having just been, um, "rumpled". The truth comes out. Mr. Young is already married to Martha. And her mother. Ewwwwwww.

No, he isn't her father. Thank goodness. But it seems that after Martha's father died, Mr. Young pounced on the widow Lucy and her daughter, marrying them both. And then he proceeded to only really ever have sex with Martha, starting who knows how long ago, driving Lucy to drink and twisting Martha's mind around. A lot. It's why the scenes with Kelly are so uncomfortable even when you count in the different moral climate of the times: he is literally a pedophile trying to groom his next victim. There aren't enough barf buckets in the world for that one.

Isabelle might be willing to send Kelly off into marriage with a complete weirdo for money, but she won't marry the girl off to a pedophile. Even Isabelle has limits, as does John. When the full story finally comes out, with John and Isabelle and Kat conferring while Martha cries in the next room, it gets even worse. It seems Mr. Young shot Martha's father in front of them before he married them. Kat is fully ready and willing to execute him for that, but Martha is too far gone. She can't go up against him.

So when Mr. Young comes to collect his latest bride - at which point Kelly runs the hell away because she is actually a very sensible girl who had a good cry with her mother and is ready to go now - John Slotter is right there to confront him. He demands the money that Mr. Young promised, and when Young prevaricates, John just straight up shoots him dead and takes the money pouch out.

The inevitable revelation? Yeah, there wasn't any money after all. It was a couple of bills wrapped around a wad of worthless paper so that it looked like he had much more than he did. Of course. John doesn't feel bad for killing him, just angry the money isn't there, and Kat can't even bring herself to do something about the cold-blooded murder she witnessed. He definitely deserved it. It's a weird moment to be cheering John freaking Slotter, but for once he wasn't the worst person in the room.

Kat and Kelly offer Martha and Lucy a place to stay in camp, to keep them fed and sheltered and to let them rebuild their lives, but they leave anyway. Lucy is mentally too far gone - she still believes Mr. Young is alive and up ahead of them - and Martha seems unwilling to leave her mother and unwilling to fully confront what happened to her. So they go off into the woods on their own, probably to die. It's not a happy ending for much of anyone this week.

Obviously that's the main storyline, but there was other stuff happening too. Second we had all the plots about the mine and labor relations there. As evidenced by how desperate John and Isabelle were to get Mr. Young's money, there's not a lot of capital floating around Janestown right now. The engineers have found a new huge seam of coal in the mine and John is eager to dig it out, but he doesn't have the money to pay the men well or to buy good timbers for the mine construction.

This is a problem. Without good timbers, the mine is in desperate danger of collapse, potentially killing hundreds of men and definitely shutting down work. So while her daughter is being pimped out, Kat spends this episode trying to keep the peace and convince everyone not to go in the mine because it's definitely not safe. Franklyn Caze is, as always, at the center of things, but for once he's not the obvious good guy.

I mean, he's still Caze and he's still a much better guy than most everyone else on the show, but he seems more beat down and morally conflicted than usual. He's not even up to flirting with Mrs. Briggs, which is a sad day for her. No, Caze is willing to have his men work the mine, but only if they get double pay. Kat insists this is a terrible idea and that there's no way a man who can't afford real timber can afford to pay double. She's right, but no one appreciates her pointing that out. So the men go on strike and the mine is shut down.

John doesn't have a lot of options for labor. He's not about to ask the women, so there's only one other group of potential workers: the Chinese railroad laborers. Their leader is Ling, as we'd already established, and Ling and John don't really like each other. Their entire negotiation is one big power play. John has to go to Ling and Ling makes him wait for an answer. Then Ling demands more money. So John makes Ling wait for an answer. Then when John goes back - having shot Mr. Young and now aware that he has no other options - he has to bow to Ling's demands. Fun times.

The upshot, though, is that Ling gets a percentage of the mine's profits and John get's a month of free labor from the Chinese workers. This naturally pisses the white miners off, inciting a fight that everyone saw coming but no one seems able to stop. Kat sits on her horse and tries to break it up while a full on brawl envelops the mine. The most heartbreaking moment? When she spots her son Neil with the miners, still looking rebellious and angry.* 

The episode ends on that fight, and presumably this is going to be another couple episodes worth of story arc. But, like I said, there were a couple of other minor story points going on this week. So, really fast, here they are:

While Kelly is getting shoved at the creepy Mr. Young, Robin is off saying goodbye to Mary Colacutt. You may remember her as the young girl who was pregnant when she was sold to John and Isabelle and whose son they are now passing off as their own. Mary is being sent away, ostensibly to learn better manners and get an education and all that. We'll see if she comes back. Her son, needless to say, is staying here.

Isabelle might actually have become pregnant, despite her best efforts. The question, however, is whether this is John Slotter's child or Ling's, since she has had sex with both of them recently. Also Isabelle seems oddly okay with this information, which suggests it's not John's.

Rebecca got a very minor plotline this week - since she was so much of last week - mostly about her figuring out what to do now that Thomas is dead. 

John shows up and in a move of uncharacteristic kindness, offers her the use of one of the cribs to do her doctoring in. His explanation is simply that he expects her to put him back together when he gets hurt, which she can handle. He also gives her a couch and a dead body (Mr. Young's) so that she can learn more about medicine. I am deeply worried that John is developing an obsession with Rebecca. She is, after all, a virgin who was in a sham marriage and is now basically on her own. Then again, hopefully he'll keep his creepiness away - he did give her a gun after all.

Also with Rebecca this week is the counterpoint to last week's epic reveal about Morgan. Morgan has decided that it's time Rebecca knows the truth, though I'll admit to still being a little confused about the truth myself. Basically Morgan decides that show is better than tell, so when Rebecca wakes up in the middle of the night she comes out to find Morgan sitting on her couch, shirtless, with the breast-binder on the floor. Rebecca's answer: "It's not what I expected." Understatement, I'm sure.

Morgan is hurt, I think, that Rebecca isn't more immediate in her acceptance, but I think Rebecca will come around. She's not horrified by any means. I'm still not sure if Morgan is meant to be a lesbian hiding from society, trans*, or some variety of intersex, but I think it's safe to call her/them/him "gender nonconforming" for now. At any rate, Morgan walks off before the conversation can get much further than Rebecca's confusion and science babble, so we'll have to see where that goes.

That's roughly what happened in this week's episode. Unlike last week, it doesn't feel like we had a clear underlying theme this time. It was much more nebulous and more just about getting the plot and exposition across to set up the big scenes coming. If anything, though, this episode seemed to be about innocence and experience. On the one hand, you have the storylines explicitly about how innocent Kelly and Rebecca are, while on the other you have plots about devious people scheming and plotting and clashing with each other. It's a bit of a stretch, but I think that's the big thing.

The other thing we saw a lot of this week was power plays. You could say this episode was all about power, but that's generally true of any story. Still, there seemed to be more emphasis than usual on power dynamics. When John Slotter comes to speak with Rebecca each time (he comes three times), he is always shot from below, making him look huge, while she is shot from above, making her look small and big-eyed. The emphasis here is on how she is in a position of relative weakness and is very dependent on him.

Comparably, the lighting was very intentional when it came to shooting Kat and Caze. Even though they were both wearing hats, Caze's face was always in shadow and Kat's was always open to the light. The cinematography was great this week is what I'm saying.

But yeah. Power. While John and Isabelle scheme and scramble to hold onto their power and Caze and Ling fight over the scraps, Kat wonders what if any powers she actually has. I mean, she's an elected official who only has as much power as is given her. What can she really do? And Kelly and Rebecca were both strongly reminded of how little power they have to protect themselves in the end. Kelly with her heart, but Rebecca with her very livelihood and safety. I can only assume that the show will address this more directly further down the line.

For now, though, let's all just be really glad that the storyline with Mr. Young didn't drag out into more weeks. I'm glad he's gone, interesting though he was. And I am, as always when I watch this show, ridiculously glad I live in the age of indoor plumbing and the right to own property. The past is horrible.

Miss Logan is the cutest cutie to ever cute.
*Neil is, presumably, still angry about the time that Kat had sex with Caleb Mecredi and then made her kids eat dinner with him. He thinks she's trying to replace her former probably dead husband Jeremiah. Also he resents that they haven't moved on to their ranching pasture to set up there. He doesn't like Janestown and he can't handle the concept of "we have no money" and "these people here need us." Neil is fine, but his mom is amazing and he really could have picked up some slack this week if he'd been paying attention to his sisters.


  1. I dont watch strange empires but your break down of the episode is very interesting and i will definately be binging on it this weekend! I see some eye candy too!


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