So, I'm trying to figure out if Strange Empire really does take massive steps forward in terms of watchability and awesomeness in the latter half of the season, or if me-from-a-year-ago was just stupid and lame and didn't realize how good this show is. Because I remember watching the early episodes and not being all invested, and I also remember thinking that the lighting on the show wasn't that great. Now, however, I find myself binging all the remaining episodes in one go and loving the lighting so much that I took 123 screenshots of episode twelve alone.
As a side note, I'm thinking of posting all the screenshots I've taken of this show somewhere as there appears to be a dearth of good images from Strange Empire available on the internet. Suggestions?
My point is, either I've radically changed as a human being since I started recapping this show, or the show itself has radically changed from a cool premise with a slow start and boring plots to the kind of feminist Western epic that made me actually gasp out loud several times in the finale. I'm not sure which it is, but I'm inclined to assume it's the latter. I mean, it's not me, right? I'm awesome.
Anyway, this is my way of saying that episodes twelve and thirteen are a hell of a ride. I won't spoil you on the finale - we'll get to that next week because this episode really does deserve its own moment - but suffice to say that there was a lot of stuff in there I didn't see coming, and as someone who can always predict the murderer in crime shows, that's a big compliment.
Last week we left off with some major shakeups happening in Janestown. John Slotter was arrested, then set free, and proceeded to take his vengeance on the woman he views to have done him most wrong: his own wife, Isabelle. Kat had to find a way to stick some actual criminal charges to John and turned to tricking a confession out of the mentally unsound but definitely culpable Chase Sloat. The woman all started to band together to take back their town, which is what led to...
The start of this week, where we find the women being unceremoniously rousted from their homes by a militia representing John. While John does technically still own the cribs the women inhabit, he hasn't enforced that for a long time. It seems that with the miners out getting new timber and the women unprotected, it was a good time for him to step forward and wrest back control. He ousted the women, threw their possessions in the road, and took all their weapons away. The women have been forced to camp in the woods for fear of further retribution.
That's how this episode starts out. But there were actually a number of concurrent plotlines this week, all of them important and really interesting. First off, this episode totally belongs to Melissa Farman who got to do some of her best acting all season with Rebecca's plotline and the culmination of her character development over the past season. But we also got an amazing performance from Cara Gee as Kat traveled across the Canadian wilderness looking to buy guns, and Tattiawna Jones was no slouch herself in Isabelle's continued quest for revenge and power.
Hell, everyone was super interesting this week, including Aaron Poole who has somehow managed to turn John Slotter into the single most interesting villain I've seen in the past ten years. But more on him later.
So the big story was about Rebecca. After all the women flee into the woods and Kat takes off looking for guns, Rebecca stays in town, stays in her little medical office/house. Why? Because John Slotter is still sweet on her and she knows that if she flees into the woods he'll track her down and probably find all the other women. That would be very bad. So she stays and smiles and flirts and playacts as hard as she can, denying all of Morgan's attempts to get her to run. Morgan remains by her side the whole time because, obviously, John Slotter is out of his mind and could turn any minute.
There's an interesting dynamic here, though, with Rebecca staying in town to keep the other women safe and Morgan arguably endangering her by refusing to leave - because Morgan is sticking around and therefore John is always a little tense around Rebecca. Morgan claims they're doing it for Rebecca's own good, but Rebecca seems ready to fall on this sword. It's all very complicated.
It only gets more complicated as the episode goes on. First there are shooting lessons - John gave her a gun a while back and now he wants to make sure she knows how to fire it. Turns out that our Rebecca Blithely is a damn good shot. A while later he turns up and they have a nice sitdown together. Morgan is present for most of this and quietly disapproving, even as Rebecca proves herself to be the single best gatherer of intel on John and the best distraction they could hope for. But it's the climax of the episode that gets you really going.
First Morgan has a heart-to-heart with Miss Logan in the woods where Miss Logan reveals that she loves Morgan (surprising me, as I thought she had eyes for Fiona) and asks Morgan to marry her. Morgan doesn't really respond but we know their answer. They're head over heels for Rebecca, even if she doesn't seem to feel the same. And, when Morgan presses the issue, Rebecca tells them not to wait. Rebecca is setting Morgan free, even if Morgan doesn't want that.
Minutes after this heart-breaking confrontation, though, Morgan gets caught stealing supplies with Fiona. The man who catches them is a bounty hunter looking for Kat who used Fiona's published stories about Kat and John Slotter to track her there. The bounty hunter roughs up Morgan, tearing open their shirt and revealing the breasts we knew were there. Since the bounty hunter is a bad guy and this is a show set in the past, guess what happens next. The bounty hunter rapes Morgan while Fiona runs the hell away.
Fiona doesn't run far, though, and comes back with a gun-toting Rebecca. After firing off a single warning shot, Rebecca demands the man let Morgan go. Drawn by the gunfire, John immediately shows up with his posse and strongarms the man into Rebecca's medical room so they can "talk." Meanwhile, Morgan tries to compose their tattered shirt and dignity while Fiona takes a minute to reel in the revelation. More on that in a minute.
John Slotter doesn't "talk" to people - instead, he views this man as a perfect opportunity to give Rebecca the world's most horrific courting-present. He and Rebecca strap the man down so Rebecca can look at the gut wound John gave him, then he goads Rebecca into cutting the man's chest open so they can study his beating heart. Naturally, Rebecca is resistant to this: she takes her oath to do no harm very seriously. That's why she's been healing people everyone else hates since day one. But John Slotter doesn't take no, even from Rebecca. He holds a gun to her throat and makes her help him torture and kill a man.
And all the while, Morgan is watching through a crack in the curtains. Imagine how awful this scene is from every direction - you've got a woman being forced to abandon her only guiding moral principles by a man clearly in the throes of a nervous breakdown being watched by a person who has just been sexually assaulted and is now watching their "one true love" commit murder. Yikes.
Over in the other, slightly less traumatic parts of the story, Kat and her daughters set out at the beginning of the episode to find more guns. They need to replace what was taken from them if they want to get their town back. And here's the thing: they really do want to get their camp back. For all that Janestown is kind of a crapheap in the middle of nowhere, it's their crapheap in the middle of nowhere.
Plus, it has the potential to be better. The railroad is coming through, there's a profitable coal mine waiting for the crazy to die down, and this could become a real place. Their place. So yeah, they're fighting for it.
Kat's quest, however, is not an easy one, and it means abandoning the women of the camp to hide in the woods for a week, possibly more. They have no protection and the best they can do is try to find the miners coming back before the men get to town. If they make it that far, John's militia might kill them. So Kat's journey is both necessary and super dangerous to the women back home.
It is, fortunately, also a successful one. After bartering with one tribe up North, Kat comes away with eight guns and a traditional bow and quiver of arrows. They're on their way back to Janestown when Kat and the girls are waylaid by a mass migration of Indians coming up from the south. The people - mostly women and children - are fleeing the landgrab happening in the United States. Their lands have been taken and their populations devastated by disease and violence, so they're striking out for new territory. Unfortunately this means that they're also forced to go up into the lands belonging to other tribes, causing other problems.
Robin and Kelly are adorably wide-eyed and naive when talking to these Native women, but it's Kat who gets the real showstopper. She shares some of the food with one woman in particular, only to be floored when the woman offers to trade with her and pulls out, of all things, Jeremiah's glove. Mate to the one that John Slotter was keeping as a souvenir. Kat freaks the hell out on the woman, but her quest for answers is derailed when shots ring out over the refugee camp (because that's what it is - mass migration of refugees seeking asylum). Kat takes her daughters and they hide in the trees.
In the morning they emerge to see what has happened. The verdict? Not good. Kat climbs the rise of the hill to see hundreds of dead lying in the grass where they were shot as they ran. Kelly, who was told to stay put but absolutely never listens to stuff like that, runs over and sees it too, horrified by this sudden revelation of the badness of the world. And you would have thought that Kelly, of all people, already knew how bad the world could be.
It's at this point that Caleb shows up to the scene, equally devastated and angry as Kat. But unlike Kat, Caleb has an inherent trust in the American justice system. He's angry, but he also believes that some of it was a mistake. The massacre was done by cavalrymen, he says, who mistakenly shot down these women and children because they thought they were soldiers or hiding fugitives or some other bullshit reason. Kat is all set to call him on that, but Caleb reminds her that they're on the same side. Mostly. He asks her to stay and help file the report, but she has to go. She's needed in Janestown.
There's a moment just after this when Kelly turns to Kat and tells her that she finally understands why Kat killed that man. Earlier Kelly was confused because the man Kat first killed was a surveyor who was just doing his job when he came to scout the Metis land where Kat grew up. He was just doing his job, and Kelly doesn't understand why Kat would kill him for that. Now, though, she does and she tells her mother that. She gets why Kat killed the man. It's a genuinely sad moment.
Back at camp, Kat and her daughters arrive to find most of the women gone or actively fleeing. There's almost no one left. On the plus side, though, the militia men have been laid low by food poisoning (courtesy of Mrs. Briggs and Fiona) or are too drunk to move. With John in the bunkhouse with Rebecca doing their horrific murder courtship thing, now is the perfect time to strike.
So they do. Kat and the other women barricade the men in their bunks, beat up those left outside, and barge into Rebecca's office... only to find that John has already left, leaving Rebecca with a dead body and really bloody hands. John is safely back in his own house, surrounded by his men.
They'll have to fight another day.
Okay, so obviously those are the two big ones. But like I said above, this episode had great storylines for just about everyone.
On Isabelle's side, we see her mostly recovered from her injuries and trying to take control of her future. Mostly this means plying her trade even though Ling would totally love to marry her and keep her in style and all that nonsense. Isabelle is very much over marriage (can you blame her?) and has no desire to be in debt to another man. So she keeps on keeping on.
She does take a minute to pry at the bond between John and his father, though. While John is enjoying a nice hot bath, Isabelle steps in and does her whole sinister Lady MacBeth thing. Her topic? Isabelle explains once and for all, in alarming detail, how Cornelius Slotter bought her at an auction when she was twelve years old and raped her. He enjoyed her fear and her distress and her misery. That's what made it good for him. She tells John this to ruin his relationship with his father, sure, but she also says it to hurt him. When John asks her why she never revealed this before, she says she thought it would upset him. Now she doesn't care.
Up in the main house, it seems that Ruby is trying to step into Isabelle's shoes as mistress of the house and the brothel. They've brought in more girls to keep the militia-men happy, and this means that Ruby has girls to supervise again. She's resplendent in a beautiful gown and has flowers in her hair just like Isabelle used to. But internally things aren't as good. John and Cornelius still treat Ruby as a servant, and her attempts to get into Cornelius' bed fail. He likes them young and scared, and Ruby is neither.
Again, this was some next-level internalized misogyny, and it was hard to see Ruby living out her perception of what she should be like this. It's like she wants something different from her life, but she doesn't know how to get it and she is so deprived of examples of who she could possibly be. So she grows into the roles she's given. Props to the actress, Marci T. House, for making this transformation believable and painful as hell.
Meanwhile, in the camp, Fiona and Mrs. Briggs were debating whether or not to pack up and leave. I mean, clearly things aren't going all that well for them in Janestown right now. But this is their place. As Fiona says, "This is our place. Built up from nothing. We will not be made slaves or driven off like cows."
So she and Mrs. Brigs stay in their saloon and serve food to the militia-men. Mrs. Briggs also tips it with a few extra spices - like sawdust in the bread and shit in the soup. No wonder all the men end up with food poisoning and terrified about a cholera epidemic...
Mrs. Briggs has been waiting anxiously for Franklyn Caze to get back, convinced that when the miners return they'll be able to actually take back the town. But the miners are massacred on their way in and Caze slips into town to see if Mrs. Briggs will run away with him. She won't. Worse, though, is the revelation that Franklyn Caze is not as free as he pretended to be. He's actually married to a woman out East, though he insists that he really does love Mrs. Briggs.
And for Mrs. Briggs this really is the last straw. She can handle the idea of sleeping with someone outside of marriage - barely - but the idea that she's helping a man commit adultery? Oh hell no. So Caze leaves and doesn't come back and Mrs. Briggs is all the hell more determined to save the town. Even when it gets her beaten for the whole food-poisoning thing, she's not backing down.
Fiona, for her side of the story, is dealing with the revelation that her stories are now starting to inspire true events and that her written words have a reach much further than she expected. Also she's trying to figure out if she should stay in this violent town with her two children - ultimately the answer is yes, but she takes a while coming to it.
Oh, and as for the revelation that Morgan isn't who Fiona thought they were, that's a hard pill for her to swallow. It's not explicitly dealt with in the episode, but Fiona is confused and a little betrayed. She thought Morgan was safe, but Morgan was keeping secrets. Even if she understands the secrets, Fiona is still a little bit 1860s uncomfortable.
Okay. I think that's it? Like I said, this was the big buildup and next week's episode, the finale, is the payoff. But as always, this show gives so much interesting material to work with. I genuinely don't know if it gets better partway through or if I just learned to appreciate it more, but either way I know that it's a really really good show that deserves a lot more attention than it's getting.
But for all that this is a show by, for, and about women, I have to admit that possibly the most enduring character to come out of it is John Slotter. Aaron Poole is clearly a really incredible actor, and the character he's created here is one of mind-boggling complexity. I mean, John Slotter can swing from sympathetic hero to sociopathic villain in the course of ten minutes without the show really doing anything to change his character.
He's this damaged, wounded man who lashes out so much and is so virulently evil yet so fascinatingly human. I think there's a whole paper on how John Slotter is probably one of the most accurate depictions of actual human evil on television. Because he is evil, oh is he evil, and the show never makes that okay. But it also never reduces him down to a simple immorality. He's never just evil.
He's evil but sometimes kind but cruel with an occasional streak of mercy. I don't mean for this to be one of those "he's just misunderstood!" things - John Slotter is not misunderstood, he is a monster. But he's a really well-written monster who explores the questions of how morally reprehensible people explain their actions to themselves. It's just really masterfully done.
That's all for this week - tune in next week to find out how the whole thing ends!