Wednesday, February 10, 2016

RECAP: Strange Empire 1x10 - John Slotter's Worst Day Ever

I'm not really in the habit of feeling bad for John Slotter, but whoa did this episode push me to my limits emotionally. There were moments when I kind of just wanted to give him a hug, moments when I recoiled in horror and disgust, and more than a few moments when I felt like I should probably quietly leave the room - even though this is a television show and he's a fictional character. So while the ladies tend to rule this show, I have to admit that from every angle, this was really John Slotter's episode, and the actor who plays him, Aaron Poole, did an amazing job.

Last episode ended with the mining strike officially over and everything coming up roses for everyone, only for that happy moment to come crashing to the ground along with the mine. We were implicitly told that Ling set dynamite in the mine and made it to collapse - retribution for his mother's murder - but he was nowhere to be found this episode. Instead we were focused squarely on how the community pulled together to rescue those trapped below and care for the dead. Get ready for one hell of an emotional ride.

There were two big storylines this week, and honestly only one small one. The two big ones were obviously the mine collapse and the story of John Slotter's alarmingly rapid descent into madness. The little one was about those bounty hunters and Kat's probable murder charge. Yeah, it was the kind of episode where the main character being wanted for murder was no big deal.

We'll start with the John Slotter story, because that really was the central conflict of this episode. While the mine collapse was important, Slotter's story is where the most plot developments actually happened. To set the scene, remember that John and Isabelle borrowed money from his father, Cornelius, in order to keep the mine going. Well, now Cornelius is on his way over to them and ready to collect on his investment. The problem? With all the issues and holdups at the mine, Isabelle and John can't pay him back. So they're kind of screwed. The episode opens on John Slotter staring in horror at the literal collapse of all of his dreams.

But there's no time to mope. His father is going to arrive at the station today, and John has to go pick the man up. He and Isabelle confer and decide that if they want to keep all the progress they've made, they have to get his father in a good mood. Show him they're already recovering from the strike and the mine collapse. Start the men digging a new mine. Shove his "grandchild" in his face.* Feed him delicious things. Isabelle is sure this will work, even if Ruby, who has been with the Slotters since she was twelve and a slave it seems, is sure it won't.

It's a really distressing scene, actually, as Isabelle comments offhand that she knows Cornelius better than "a twelve-year old kitchen slave" who Cornelius apparently sexually assaulted. This certainly puts Ruby's status in the Slotter household in an even more distressing context. Then we see two women of color, both sexually abused or coerced by the same man, facing off against each other. 

John goes by the mine on his way to the station and orders the men to stop digging for the dead and start digging a new mineshaft. Naturally Kat gets in his face and refusing, pointing out that everyone needs time to grieve and recover. John calls her naive and stupid, pointing out that if this mine fails everyone will starve. Which is...kind of true, actually. Dammit.

Also, a quick point of note here, throughout this episode we see John worrying at a piece of skull he took off one of the bodies from the mine collapse. It's like a token or talisman. We also see him hallucinating a headwound on himself, blood pouring down from his temple. John Slotter is not a well man. This just might break him.

Anyway, he finally gets to the station and picks up his father, only to find Cornelius has started making plans without him. Those plans are creepy as hell and involve Cassie, the local blacksmith's daughter. The blacksmith is making a cage for Caleb Mecredi - a cage he apparently plans to give to Kat so Janestown can have a jail - and his daughter is helping. Since we already know that young women of color are Cornelius Slotter's preferred victims, it comes as no surprise but definitely a moment of gross when he offers to "rent" the girl from her father. He refuses, but Cornelius keeps demanding the girl.

John manages to coerce his father into the wagon, pointing out that this blacksmith is the only one for two hundred miles and they shouldn't alienate him, but the visit is already not going as planned. Cornelius wants that girl, or Isabelle, warming his bed and he won't take no for an answer. Then the men take a detour past the mine, at Cornelius' insistence, and find the miners digging. 

Only they're not digging a new mine, they're digging to rescue the miners trapped below. Cornelius demands his loan repaid or he'll seize the mine. John retorts by yelling out to everyone that there's been a change in management and that Cornelius will pay them all full salary, etc. Then both of them get into the wagon and ride off all angry.


Obviously, when they reach the main house, finally, no one is really ready for the big welcome Isabelle has planned. Cornelius barely greets her and the baby as he brushes past, and dinner is a tense affair. Well, it's tense until the tension breaks and Cornelius and John just start literally hitting each other while Isabelle and Ruby watch in horror. Cornelius says such charming things as, "You slid out of your mama onto the kitchen floor like a piece of shit". 

John, being younger and stronger, quickly gets the upper hand and viciously beats his father while telling Cornelius that he is the part of John that he's always hated about himself. John nearly kills Cornelius, pulling back at the last blow and running off while Cornelius asks for a piece of pie. Seriously, is it physically impossible to have a functional family dinner on TV?

Isabelle goes to John and begs him to make this right with his father. As she points out, without his money they have nothing. They'll be down in the dirt with everyone else - probably even worse off considering that everyone hates them and the only power they have comes from money. Isabelle tells John she refuses to be that low again, implying that she'll leave him if that happens. When he calls her on it she denies, but he knows the truth now. His wife's love, if she even loves him, is conditional as hell.

So he does what he thinks is the only real solution: he makes it right with his father. How does he do that, you might ask? The worst possible way. He rides back to the station house and shoots the blacksmith before kidnapping his daughter, Cassie. Then he dumps the beaten and gagged Cassie on their kitchen table and tells Isabelle that this is the price of their future. This girl in his father's bed or nothing.

Ruby openly refuses to help him in this and even starts untying the girl. When John leaves Isabelle helps Ruby get the girl free. When they take out her gag, though, they find John has shoved that little piece of skull in her mouth and she was choking on it. Oh man. Cassie is going to need literally all of the therapy. That poor girl. 

In a reversal of the previous scene between Ruby and Isabelle, here we see them teaming up together to make sure another young girl doesn't fall prey to the same man who hurt both of them. They get the girl safe and lock her in the bunkhouse so neither John nor Cornelius can get to her. Then Isabelle goes upstairs.

The husband she finds is already making plans for what to do to get the mine back on track. Isabelle doesn't even listen for a minute before picking up a blunt object and smashing him over the head. She knows a losing side when she sees one, and John Slotter has finally found a line his wife won't cross with him.

When Caleb Mecredi shows up on doorstep, looking for John because he straight up knows Slotter killed his friend and kidnapped Cassie, Isabelle doesn't even put up a token protest before she tells Caleb to meet her around back so he can take John away. And she steps in to see Cornelius playing with his "grandson" - a coded exchange between them makes it clear that whatever happens, Isabelle is going to land on her feet, even if she has to go back to her former life to do it.

So this episode ends with the once mighty John Slotter brought as low as he can be: passed out unconscious in a cage while two Indians - Kat and Caleb - stand over him and pass judgment. Yeah, I think this counts as the worst day of John Slotter's life. But even if I wanted to feel bad for him, when you look at all the horrific things he's done this season, it's easy to remember that this has been coming for a long time.

Okay. That was heavy as hell. The next storyline...isn't much better. But it has a happier ending.

Over at the mine we start out with the rescue going full tilt - Rebecca is tending to as many bodies as she can while Kat organizes the search. Mrs. Briggs is working feverishly, terrified that the man she loves (Franklyn Caze) died thinking she hated him. And Morgan is there too, helping haul bodies, digging, and generally working as hard as he can to make the survivors safe.

Rebecca is caring for the wounded as best she can, but she's very afraid that if they keep digging, more people will get hurt instead of saved. They've reached a point in the collapse where they're not bringing up any more wounded men. Now all they find are the dead. Still, Kat won't tell the men to stop searching. She explains that the loss of hope now would break the people left. Rebecca doesn't understand that. All she understands is that more people are going to get hurt.

Hours later, with no one found alive yet, Kat sits down with Mrs. Briggs and they decide to stop looking. It's not safe and it's not like Caze would demand to be buried in a church graveyard rather than a random mineshaft. He would want them to be safe, and he didn't even believe in God anyway. Mrs. Briggs cries as she explains that she didn't even realize she loved him until he was gone, but Kat is understanding.

Then something weird happens. As Kelly and Robin are bringing over biscuits and carrots for the workers - provided by Ruby and hypothetically the Slotters (but probably just Ruby, let's be real) - Robin goes into one of her weird moments. Remember how Robin is very probably kind of psychic? Well, she has a moment where she starts singing Franklyn Caze's favorite song and wandering over to a specific spot in the camp. When Kat and Morgan look at the map they realize this is the deepest part of the new mine and probably where Caze would have been when it collapsed.

In other words, Franklyn Caze might be alive and Robin might be channeling his spirit. Or she might just be a weird kid. Rebecca thinks it's a terrible idea to start digging in literally the most unstable and dangerous part of the mine, hoping to find a man who is almost certainly dead, but Kat overrules her. They sharpen the shovels and go in.

It's hard going, and Rebecca still doesn't understand why they would do this. Why risk the living to go after the dead? Morgan tries to explain it in terms of hope: it's not just that people cling to hope, it's that hope clings back. People can't give up hope because it's got its claws in. They could no sooner consign themselves to die. At another tender moment, Mrs. Briggs tells Rebecca that it's good she doesn't feel - a backhanded compliment if ever there was one - because she doesn't mourn with the rest of them when things like this happen. She is spared the pain.

All these words come through to Rebecca as the search wears on, and although she never really starts to believe or hope, she does decide that if hope and faith help other people, she can be there with them in it. Morgan and Kat bring up two more men alive, but Caze is still in there. The women form a prayer circle, led by Mrs. Briggs, and as night turns into another day, even Rebecca sits with them in their praying. This is, for the record, a huge character moment for her.

There's a scary moment in the rescue when Kat gets stuck and it looks like both she and Caze will be victims of the mineshaft, but finally, just as the mine starts to truly give way, everyone pulls together one last time and brings Caze up. He's alive, if barely. I guess this week some stories actually have happy endings.

The final coda for this story is when we see the makeshift hospital in the cribs, where Caze is recovering and Mrs. Briggs is hovering. He tells her to take her hair down and get in bed with him, clearly still keeping his sense of humor. But to his surprise she actually does, and they lay in bed and cuddle. It's sweet.

So yes, this was a very emotionally intense episode. The one final plotline felt more like setup for a later episode than anything else. Caleb has mentioned before that there are bounty hunters coming looking for Kat. Well this episode we finally saw them when Caleb went out to meet them. 

He tells them that the woman they're looking for - who is wanted for killing a white man in Texas - passed through a few months ago. He implies that he had sex with her (which, to be fair he did), and demands that they give him part of the reward if they find her. In other words, Caleb goes straight against his oath as a man of the law to help a known outlaw. Those bounty hunters aren't finding Kat any time soon if Caleb has any say in the matter.

Then when he comes to town after the murder and kidnapping, looking for John Slotter, he takes the time to find Kat and show her the wanted poster floating around. In other words, he tells her that he knows and she agrees to tell him the whole story. Presumably that's what they're going to do while they keep watch over John Slotter in the cage.

Heavy heavy heavy.

That's all that happened this episode, but I think it was more than enough. This episode was very heavy on paying off plot points that have been brewing all season long, and I think it's safe to say that we're now coming on the final story arc of the show. John Slotter versus all of the women, I'm assuming? It feels like the natural conclusion to where the show has been heading all along.

Once more this week we were deprived of any real Miss Logan or Fiona Briggs or Mary Colacutt stories, but that's really all right. There was plenty else going on. Overall, I think this episode was about hope and faith: we saw John Slotter's hope systematically destroyed in every aspect of his life. His prospects and ability to be financially independent have literally crumbled beneath him. His wife admitted she'll leave him if he doesn't have money. His son isn't even his own child. And his father, the man he's hated all his life, has more power over him than ever.

Meanwhile, the women at the mine are all dealing with hope and faith and how to manage them against realistic expectations. Rebecca learns the value of hope. Kat finds her faith in her daughter's psychic abilities vindicated. Mrs. Briggs is rewarded for her faith and hope that Caze would be found. 

And Caleb Mecredi is betting everything, his life and his livelihood, on the faith that if Kat Loving killed a man, she had a good reason. We'll see if he's right.

That's all for this week. May I suggest watching some kittens or something now? I think we all need to decompress a little.

Morgan for Mayor? They are the most helpful and respected person in town at this point.
*As in, shove the baby boy that they bought from Mary Colacutt and are passing off as their own child in his face.