Wednesday, February 3, 2016

RECAP: Strange Empire 1x09 - Someone Hand Over the Dynamite

If, thematically speaking, Strange Empire has been building all along towards the creation of a society where the people with no power and no standing in "civilization" are the ones calling the shots, then this episode was a huge step in that direction. This week it was all about power struggles, specifically the struggles of men as they fought over resources. The women, by and large, this week were trying to support their men or else go behind them and make a better way. In the end, what mattered here were the people who were willing to go against conventional power structures and make a new path - which is an important step if you're going to make your own society out in the middle of nowhere. 

Just saying.

I've noticed that this show really does go in cycles, so while last week was kind of a down episode, setting up lots of plot points, this week was all tension and action - the main plot was about the continued fight over Slotter's mine. John Slotter continues to really not want to pay people what he ought and to not want to buy them good wooden beams either, hence why Caze and the miners went on strike. But Slotter also doesn't like dealing with Ling and his Chinese laborers either. Oh and the white miners and the Chinese laborers really really hate each other right now.

In the middle we have Kat, desperately trying to keep the peace, and Rebecca, whose devotion to medicine knows no racial bounds. Isabelle was obviously on her husband's side, though she did wander over to Ling a few times, while Mrs. Briggs* was firmly with Caze and the white miners. Which is unsurprising as Mrs. Briggs has been known to get a little bit racist at times. And by a little bit I mean super duper racist.

This episode, like always, was split into a bunch of different stories, with the main arc involving most of the characters but a few tangential pieces there too, like holding patterns for storylines that will come up later. So, big story first then we'll look at the little bits:

Obviously this week we're all about the mine. Last episode ended with a fight breaking out as the Chinese laborers broke the white miners' strike and crossed the line to start work in the mine. This episode picks up a few days after that, with wounds healing but tensions still super high. The basic gist is this: the Chinese laborers are making good progress on the mine, which is good because John and Isabelle need that thing cranking out profit yesterday. John's father, Cornelius, is coming soon to check on his investment and collect on the loan he signed over to Isabelle. She's anxious that they don't have the money to pay for it, which would be disastrous for her and John.

John starts the episode in high heaven because he has workers in his mine, his wife is (probably?) pregnant, and things are finally going his way. This good mood slowly dissipates over the course of the episode.

Kat is furious that no one is listening to her try to make peace, while Caze and Ling both plot against each other. The tension hits a breaking point when Caze, another miner, and Neill (Kat's son) ambush a Chinese worker coming through with the dynamite needed to get at the seam of coal. They steal the dynamite, but in the altercation Neill gets jumpy and shoots the Chinese laborer. Obviously this is not good.

Ling and his men bring the man to Rebecca, obviously, and she does her utmost to heal him, ignoring the literal shouts and accusations yelled at her as she lets them in. Basically, by agreeing to heal this man, Rebecca is being a "race traitor" and seemingly siding with the Chinese laborers instead of the white miners. 

Rebecca doesn't care because, as you might have guessed by now, social norms aren't her favorite thing in the world. She even says as much to Ling when he asks what she'll do now that her husband is dead, how she will find a proper life: "Proper life seems not to suit me." Right on. Oh, and we learn in this sequence that Rebecca is fluent in both French and Chinese (Cantonese, I think). Because Rebecca is amazing.

Anyway, just across Janestown, it seems that Caze and his men have a co-conspirator. Mrs. Briggs is actually the mastermind behind a lot of this, and she's happy to hear that the dynamite was stolen and hid. She's less happy to hear that Neill is devastated to have shot someone and is terrified that he might have committed murder. She basically tells him to swallow his feelings and buck up, which is not the nicest thing to do in this situation.

Tensions ratchet even higher when Ling, after conferring with his mother, decides to press John Slotter harder now that he has the advantage. He orders his men to stop work on the mine, hoping to get more ownership from John. John has already, if you recall, agreed to give Ling twenty-five percent ownership. It looks like Ling is after as much as he can get - he even says as much, explaining that he wants everything John Slotter has. 

Which brings us to Isabelle. John's not above using his wife to get results, so he sends her over to negotiate Ling back down, knowing that Ling has a thing for her. What he doesn't know is that Isabelle has a thing right back. So he sends Isabelle over to negotiate, figuring that this solves all their problems. Isabelle and Ling get to have a sexy rendezvous with the veneer of politeness and everyone is happy. Mostly.

What this interlude really shows us is that, archaic desires to "own" Isabelle aside, Ling does get her in a way that John Slotter really never has. He understands her as a person, not a trophy. He even tells her that, "It is in your nature to belong to yourself." He then goes on to offer to make her an empress, a woman to be worshipped and adored. "The world you were meant to rule is not yet built." 

That's just a super interesting line, especially when said by a Chinese immigrant to a mixed race former-prostitute. They both understand power and ambition, and they both understand what it means to have doors shut in your face. I can see why they want each other.

Back in camp, Morgan has overcome their** awkwardness towards Rebecca to come warn her that the people in Janestown are about ready to turn on her. Rebecca really isn't interested in caving to the racist beliefs of the people around her, but she is willing to think about safety. Together she and Morgan bring the man to the Chinese camp, taking him into Ling's house to care for him there.

Rebecca and Ling have yet another of their really profound and interesting conversations while they care for the man, with Rebecca explaining that she would very much like to visit China someday. Like he's trying to prove that he gets all the good lines this episode, Ling bounces back with one hell of a line that might as well be the show's motto: "The lives of women are the same the world over. Stay here, doctor. The world will come to you."

Ugh. Writers, you are absolutely killing it this episode. So good.

Anyway, while all of this is going on (and while Kat and Isabelle raise eyebrows at each other on the edge of the Chinese camp), Caze and his miner friend are getting down to business. Bad business. They set dynamite charges around Ling's house with the intent of killing him and ending this feud by force. I guess they don't care that Rebecca is still inside? You would think they have enough self-preservation to not want to kill their doctor, but whatever. They're being idiots.

The dynamite goes off and everyone runs to Ling's house. Rebecca and Ling carry the injured man out and they're clearly fine, but a second explosion sends Ling racing back into the house while Morgan holds Rebecca back. He comes out slowly, holding his mother's body. She couldn't get up and run, because of her feet, and so she had nowhere to go. She's dead.

Kat, Rebecca, and Morgan, as well as all the Chinese workers watch as Ling cradles his mother. Then Isabelle comes back over and goes to his side. They mourn his mother together as Caze watches from the bushes, horrified that he killed an innocent woman he never even knew existed. It's a touching, tragic human moment, and then John Slotter sees his wife holding another man while he cries and we know bad things are coming.

John's really not a man burdened with an over-abundance of sanity to begin with, so he doesn't take this realization very well. He assaults Isabelle while she's bathing, telling her that she's dirty now because Ling touched her hand. It's full on domestic abuse, not that there's anyone Isabelle can really tell about it. Well, she could tell Kat, who would love to have a reason to hurt John Slotter, but Isabelle isn't the type to do that. She'll wait and bide her time.

Franklyn Caze isn't the best of men - despite being better than most of the men in Janestown because there is a really low bar here - but he has enough conscience left to feel bad over killing a woman he didn't even know existed. He goes to Mrs. Briggs for comfort, and gets it. Also he gets sex, because their longstanding flirtation chooses the world's most inappropriate moment to burst into sexytimes. Mrs. Briggs is unsure at first because she believes sex outside of marriage is a sin, but Caze convinces her without making it feel coercive, and they presumably do the do. Again, not sure I'd be in a sex mood after all of this, but sure. Whatever.

Over in Kat's tent, her daughters are as mysteriously absent as they've been all episode, but Neill is there, finally back in his mother's tent. He's been crying too, and Kat immediately wants to know what's wrong. Neill finally confesses the truth: he's the one who shot the Chinese laborer. Kat knows that, really, this isn't her son's fault. He's just a kid getting swept up in problems he doesn't understand. So she decides to end this once and for all. She makes Neill tell her where the damn dynamite is.

Kat's solution to their problems? She stands out in a field and shoots some of the dynamite to get John Slotter's attention, then drags both Caze and Ling out to the house to discuss terms. While the men bicker outside, the women confer inside. Mrs. Briggs, Isabelle, and Kat all discuss the real terms of this ceasefire. Mrs. Briggs will talk Caze down in his demands, Kat will bring Ling around, and Isabelle will keep John in line. Got it? Good.

Unfortunately, while Caze is brought around, Ling is still mourning his mother and unwilling to compromise. So, halfway there. The white miners go back to work in the mine, John Slotter agrees to better timbers, and Kat gives back the dynamite. The Chinese laborers go back to working on the railroad. 

The next day sees Janestown roughly returned to rights. The miners are going back in and peace is finally here. Mrs. Briggs is hella awkward towards Caze, and basically tells him it was a mistake and she's not doing that again, but I feel like we could have anticipated this. He goes into the mine, slightly dejected, and then all hell breaks loose.

By that I mean that there's an earthquake, or seems to be, and everyone feels it. They all race over to the mine where, sure enough, the thing has finally collapsed, trapping miners inside, including Caze. John Slotter stares out at the mine as it slowly dawns on him that he's not going to be able to come back from this. There's no salvaging this situation. And we pan away to the woods where we see Ling staring at the mine with really big eyes, saying that this was for his mother. Well that's not good.

Okay. So clearly this was the bulk of the episode. There was really only one storyline that got left out, since for once nearly everyone was involved in the main plot. The one outlier? Mary Colacutt. 

You may remember her as the girl whose child was bought by the Slotters and is being passed off as their own. They sent her off to town last episode so she could get a job and not hang around being suspicious all the time, but Mary pops back up this episode. She's walked all the way back because she claims she could hear her baby crying.

Ruby Slotter, the Slotter's housekeeper/cook/confidante/ambiguous family member, likes Mary but is totally aware that Isabelle doesn't want her around. Sure enough, as soon as Isabelle sees Mary she tells John to get rid of her. Since John is an inherently violent person, he interprets this as "have her killed right away." So he does. He threatens Chase Sloat, one of his henchmen, to kill her. It's a hard scene to watch, as Chase is (presumably) mentally ill and John just walks all over his needs and wishes, telling him to kill the girl or find somewhere else to live. Even when Ruby begs him not to, Chase is still determined to follow orders.

As you might guess, though, the story goes all Snow White from there. Chase likes Mary, so when he brings her out to the woods to kill her, he can't do it. Instead, he sets her free and brings her bloodstained dress back to John Slotter as proof. The blood on her dress was actually from a rabbit, but how will John ever know? Oh, and Mary and Chase are super cute in a creepy way, neither of them the picture of mental health and stability but somehow they work together really well. They have sex in the woods and I have a sneaking suspicion this relationship might not be over and done with.

That was this week's episode. No Robin and Kelly, no Miss Logan or Fiona Briggs, and no real development in the Rebecca/Morgan storyline to speak of. This week was all exposition all the time, an episode to get us closer to the inevitable ending of the series where, John Slotter's iron grip on Janestown finally lifted, the women and people of color and disenfranchised people of the earth are free to set up their own society.

Just a few points before we go. First, out of all the characters in the show, I think it's a little frustrating that so far Ruby Slotter is the only one we've never seen get her own story. We know very little about her, aside from her apparent ability to make friends with just about everyone, and she only ever appears as the background to someone else's plot. 

I do think it's interesting from a cultural standpoint that Ruby always wears a headcovering in the Slotter's house but has her natural hair uncovered when outside, but I'm not sure if this is significant in any way. Similarly, I'm not sure how intentional it is to have a black woman working for and with a light-skinned mixed race woman of a higher social class, but it does make for an interesting storyline. 

Second, Rebecca is quickly becoming one of the coolest characters on the show. I mean she already was, but now she's rivaling Kat in her levels of awesome. She speaks a ton of languages, fears nothing, doesn't care about gender or race or sexual orientation, and is generally a time traveler trapped in the past but determined to change it for the better. Rock on.

Third, it's a show of good writing that Strange Empire is exploring the different levels of disenfranchisement that occur in a society like Janestown. It's actually looking at intersectionality and issues of patriarchy. For instance, the white miners are more disenfranchised than John Slotter and in some ways have fewer rights than the women but in other ways have more. The Chinese laborers are hated for their race, but Ling has more political power than pretty much anyone else on the show. Kat is allowed to intercede between people because as a half-Indian woman she is considered beholden to no side but her own. It's just super interesting.

That's all for this week. I hope you're all enjoying this show as much as I am. I think it's the kind of prestige show that we really need more of: too complicated to fit the normal bounds of genre and style, and too interesting to want to put down. More please.

*Apparently Mrs. Briggs' first name is Sybil? I think I heard Caze call her that at one point, but I'm not sure. I understand that she must have a first name, and I totally get that it would be weird for Caze, her pseudo-boyfriend, to call her by her husband's name, but I kind of forgot to wonder what her first name might be. Sybil. Huh.

**We're using gender neutral pronouns for Morgan now because I frankly have no idea how Morgan's gender identity shakes down in a modern context. I rather doubt Morgan does either. So, in lieu of further clarity on the situation, we're going with neutral.


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