All right, chickadees, I can't put it off any longer. It's time to admit that Strange Empire really and truly is over and get down to recapping the final episode. Ugh. I really don't want to have to do this.
Or rather, I'm perfectly fine about recapping episode thirteen, end of the first season, but the idea of recapping the final episode of all of Strange Empire is depressing and frustrating to me. Mostly because I don't think this ought to have been the final episode at all. It feels like by the end of this first season the show was finally set up and ready to go. We were all prepared for the show that we all hoped we were getting in the first place, a cool period drama about a town where society's rules about who can have power and agency are flipped on their heads. A place, a "strange empire" if you will, where women and people of color are in charge and make it a good place to be. That's what we all signed up for, and finally it looks to be in our grasps.
So obviously this is where the show got cancelled.
Clearly I'm frustrated, but in a way I also can't blame CBC for choosing not to renew a show that was virtually invisible when it was on the air. And there's some hope that Netflix might save it, like it has done for other genre shows like Longmire and The Killing. So if any of this has sounded compelling to you, or if you just want Netflix to spend more money investing in cool unusual properties, go watch Strange Empire on Instant and boost the ratings. Please.
And now, without any further wailing or gnashing of teeth, here's what happened in the last (but hopefully not final) episode of Strange Empire:
Last episode saw us leaving on a bunch of pretty big reveals. Kat and her daughters stumbled across a mass Indian massacre. Morgan was sexually assaulted and saw their secret revealed in the most traumatic way possible. Rebecca had to face down John Slotter's fascination with killing. And everyone else had to decide once and for all whose side they're on. The final part of the episode showed Kat finally gathering the women to go after John Slotter once and for all to route his white ass out of Janestown, but they were foiled because he escaped back to his fortress-like house before they could get there. That's where we left off, and that's where this episode picks up.
Morgan is still reeling from being sexually assaulted and then watching the love of their life being threatened and forced to torture a man. Understandably. So now's a perfectly good time to have a long in-depth conversation about feelings, right? Morgan and Rebecca sit on the stoop of her little house, just outside the room where she killed a man and where so much bad crap went down literally minutes ago, and discuss their relationship. Or namely why they don't and won't have one.
It really sucks for Morgan, but I can see where Rebecca is coming from. She tries to put it gently, or as gently as Rebecca can, but ultimately she doesn't consider Morgan her equal. Rebecca is all about the intellect, the curiosity, the spark. And yeah, she does see that in John Slotter, and no, she doesn't feel bad about it. Obviously he's a bad man and she wants him to face justice, but the truth is that Rebecca can see herself with John Slotter more than she can see herself with Morgan Finn, and not at all because of the gender confusion.
Like I said, it really sucks for Morgan to find out that the love of their life just isn't that into them, but at least now they know. And Morgan did get a not half-bad offer of love and marriage from Miss Logan earlier, so maybe they will find happiness eventually after all. We can hope.*
And then the show skips off to another really important and badly-timed discussion about feelings: Kat and Caleb! Having reunited and presumably mourned the massacre together, Caleb and Kat are torn on what they should do now. He's off to Washington to give testimony about this massacre and hope to see restitution for those who lived or at least a loosening of Indian policy.
Kat has no illusions that this will work, but Caleb has to have hope. He just has to. Though there is a great moment when Kat points out that Caleb might be half-Indian, like her, but he's a whole lot more white-looking and he's a man and he works for the government. Of course he trusts them.
But that's not the ultimate point of this conversation. The point is that Caleb is going away for a while and will not be able to help Kat with her machinations. But when he comes back, he'd like to take her away from all this, to a new life. He wants to marry her, to adopt her children and raise them as his own (not that they need much more raising). He wants to be a family. And Kat? Well, she reluctantly agrees. Reluctant presumably because she's not exactly on-fire in love with him and because she still misses her lost-and-presumed-dead husband, Jeremiah. But sure. She'll marry Caleb Mecredi. Fine.
Wow, these stirring conversations about love are so romantic, huh?
These two scenes are mostly about cleaning up existing plotlines. The rest of the episode, by and large, is about the ultimate resolution for the story: what is going to happen to John Slotter, and what will happen to his mine once he's gone? We'll do this in reverse order, because it turns out that the question of the mine deeply affects what can and will happen to John Slotter.
Sensing that everyone he knows either wants to kill him or send him away to a very large dark pit, John gathers his nearest and dearest together to read them his Last Will and Testament, a document that he wrote with the help of that super creepy guy who showed up out of nowhere last week. Said creepy guy is actually a very efficient lawyer who has helped craft an iron-clad will that makes sure no one gets what they want if he dies. No one.
Take the mine, for instance. Now, he can't divorce Isabelle, even if he hates her and she's actively trying to kill him (more on that in a little bit), and he can't legally disinherit his wife. But he can be a dick about it. So while Isabelle stands to inherit 49% of the mine when John dies, she can only inherit if she marries within a certain timeframe. Because John "wants to make sure she's taken care of" - or because he hates her and wants her to be miserable forever. Not hard to guess which one it is.
The other two mine owners, Ling and Cornelius Slotter, own 25% and 26% respectively, meaning that if Isabelle were to marry one of the two of them, they'd have a strong majority over the other. If the two men band together against Isabelle, however, they have the majority and can shut her out. Cue the dramatics.
But that's not all there is. John leaves a few other tidbits here and there, but notably he leaves nothing to Ruby, and this is all the more alarming considering what she said about their childhood a few episodes ago. They grew up together. Ruby was the Slotters' slave her whole life and she and John were children together. Now he leaves everything he has to people who hate him and nothing to the one person who's been loyal to him her whole life?
Yeah. Basically. John tells Ruby that he gives her her freedom, not that she knows what to do with it. It's a hard blow for the character, but it's a fair point. Ruby seemingly doesn't have any idea what to do with her freedom. She's been free for years, but she still lives with the Slotters, still serves them, still cleans up their messes. It's hard to blame her - she has no idea how else to live - but it's still a valid point that her identity is based entirely on what she's seen around her, and what she's seen is awful.
Anyway, the question of what will happen to the mine, and therefore the livelihood of the town, is a big question. While the miners and the Chinese laborers have been decimated in number by the recent fighting, it's still a profitable coal mine if someone would just run it properly.
Both Ling and Cornelius approach Isabelle and offer to marry her so that they can have more ownership of the mine. For some reason, though, Isabelle isn't taking them up on it. With Cornelius, it makes sense. He bought her at age twelve, raped her, and got off on how scared and hurt she was. Why the hell would she want to marry him if she had a choice?
With Ling, however, her refusal is more nuanced. Because ultimately Isabelle really does like Ling. He's conniving and scheming and all her favorite things, plus he basically worships her, and you know she likes that. He is, however, Chinese, and she is black. As she points out, a Chinese man and a black woman running a business? Every door would be shut in their face. So no, she will not marry him either.
What to do? Well, with Isabelle not agreeing to marry anyone, Ling and Cornelius are left to put aside their mutual hatred and go into business with each other, which will leave Isabelle all out in the cold and also without anyone to marry and receive her inheritance with. Balls. This is about when Isabelle starts regretting the poison she put in John's room and was hoping he'd kill himself with already.
Oh right. I'm skipping around in time. Let's backtrack.
Earlier in the episode, before all this plotline about the will and the machinations got going, Isabelle, Kat, and Rebecca finally had that meeting of the minds we all so desperately want. They all agree that something must be done about John Slotter. At this point none of them are really against killing him, not even Rebecca, but it's clear that they'd like to make sure it happens cleanly and that no one else gets hurt. So they all agree to wait on it and set out a plan.
Isabelle then proceeds to completely ignore this plan, get some poison from Ling, and put it in John's bedside bottle of wine when she's there for the will reading. It's fast-acting stuff, so she figures the sooner it's done the better. She does not tell Rebecca or Kat about this, just figuring that "Oh no, my husband has mysteriously and suddenly died immediately after reading out his will!" is a valid alibi.
As luck would have it, however, just when Isabelle realizes how thoroughly John has screwed her and that she doesn't want him to die this instant, actually, because she doesn't have a husband lined up, Chekov's bottle of poison comes into play: Adaline, the whore that John likes and who has been being crapped on in every storyline for about two episodes now**, happens to take a playful swig from the bottle during sex and then wind up immediately dead. John is not confused as to what has happened. Nor is he that broken up about it either. I mean, he did write out his will yesterday. He knows he's about to die, and it seems he's quite okay with that.
He is, however, a little miffed that Rebecca chose not to attend the reading of his will. So he goes to confront her about that and finds Kat there too. Rebecca points out that she's basically nothing to John legally and that she has no desire for anything of his anyways, but John says that he left her the only thing she would want: his corpse. And that's almost kind of sweet? In the creepiest possibly way, of course.
As for Kat, John Slotter freaking hates Kat and the feeling is mutual. He's also incredibly attracted to her, though that feeling is anything but mutual. She rushes him and tries to attack, but he subdues her and knocks her out, taking the time to manhandle her body and just be an awful awful creepy person about it all. He kisses her while she's unconscious and basically promises that they'll both get a good ending in this "dance" they're doing.
Oh, and that reminds me - Miss Logan and Fiona have the briefest of storylines about how Fiona's stories about John and Kat pursuing each other across the West and fighting and haunting each other are basically coming true, and they're even able to predict what will happen based on the stories. Fiona, it turns out, is a very good writer.
Kat is all fired up and ready to kill John, even as Rebecca points out how alike the three of them really are. All bound together by their relationship to death. It's gross, but pretty on point. Kat even takes some time to say goodbye to the massacred dead, striking a mercy blow on one woman and her child and possibly making peace with her past. But with Kat it's hard to tell the difference between making peace and swearing more revenge.
At least there is one person with a plan more complex than "Kill John Slotter until he is very dead." And that person is Morgan, actually. Having found the rancher whose brother assaulted Morgan and was killed by John and Rebecca, Morgan brings the rancher back, shows him the body, and says that John Slotter did this. Morgan will bear witness but they leave out any mention of Rebecca. And anyways, she's a woman so clearly she couldn't have been involved. With the death of a white landowner, now, at long last, there is a murder charge that will actually stick.
So while Morgan and the rancher round up a posse, Kat and John go on a cat and mouse chase through the woods with him daring her to kill him, daring her to finally end it. She will, too. She's totally there. Only she's not fast enough. John is captured and arrested before she can kill him.
At the Marshall's station, it looks like everything is over, but thanks to Rebecca giving Isabelle the surprising news (and pretending not to notice how baffled Isabelle was that John was still alive), there are still a few more twists to go. Remember, this is the Marshall station where it all started. Where Kat and John first met, where everyone was happy for the last time before the massacre. We've come a very literal full circle.
Isabelle turns up to "say goodbye to her husband", and in one last seeming act of kindness, she gives him a knife to cut the ropes tying him up. John is off like a shot with the posse scrambling to follow. But no one can follow faster than Kat, who's already up and after him, the bow she traded from a local tribe clutched in her hand. It's another game of chase, but this time Kat doesn't hesitate. When she gets John alone, gets him in her sights, she shoots an arrow before he can blink, and now it's really all over.
So yeah. In the end, John Slotter dies at Kat's hands, in a proto-form of "suicide by cop", receiving the death and peace he so clearly wanted all along. It's a sad story, but also one with a nice resolved ending. And at least John can't hurt anyone anymore.
With John's death, it's like the fight is taken out of everyone. The women file back into a deserted Janestown, baffled to realize that they've won and it's really their town now. All of it. Sure, Cornelius and Ling are still there, but they have no real power with John Slotter gone. Nope. It's actually time for these women to start rebuilding their lives, whatever form that takes.
For Isabelle and Kat, it means impending marriages. Isabelle isn't about to let her share of the mine go that easily, and Kat figures that she did promise Caleb. But there's still a few more wrinkles ahead. The first comes when Isabelle makes Kat an unusual offer. Isabelle needs to be married, she points out, but no one ever said to who.
So yeah. The show goes there. The super sketchy but very technically skilled lawyer is also apparently capable of performing marriages, so Isabelle sticks a hat and suit on Kat, puts some dirt on her chin to look like stubble, and voila! A perfectly functional husband person. Now Isabelle can inherit, which she does, and Kat can get some capital with which to start her ranch at long last.
It's kind of a brilliant ending for them, the revelation that they really don't need to marry nice men in order to be happy. I mean, Kat and Isabelle have no intentions of living as a married couple (Isabelle will claim that her husband is away on business in Montana all the time forever), but they found a way to get what they want without having to sacrifice their independence. Right on.
Rebecca too is happily unhitched. She's by herself now, no husband or father or suitor or even crazy guy who really wants to love her for her brain, but she seems stronger and more self-reliant for it. She even decides to decline John's offer to use his corpse for her studies. She buries him instead, placing him in a little grave next to the daughter who didn't live. And then Rebecca moves on, because that's what she does.
So that's it, right? That's all the story we have left. Kat and her two girls are left standing in Janestown thinking through what they're going to do with the money, the ranch they'll finally get to have (and seriously, where the hell did Neill end up?), when one last surprise turns up befuddle us.
After like six months and countless bloodshed and drama, Kat looks up and sees her husband, Jeremiah, standing in the middle of Janestown. His hair is long and he's wearing buckskins, but that's totally Jeremiah. She gets ready to run for him when, out of literally nowhere, two Indians on horseback swoop in, grab him by the arms, and carry him off. Kat is left screaming what might as well be her catchphrase, "Jeremiah!" And that's how the show actually ends.
There's so much to this show, and it's so good, that I'm not going to do you all a disservice by trying to sum it all up here. I'll just finish off with this: these are the stories we all know we want more of. Stories about women and men fighting to make the world a more inclusive place. Stories where it's not always easy or good or even clear what to do, but where they try anyway.
Kat Loving, Isabelle Slotter, Rebecca Blithely, Morgan Finn, Ling, Fiona Briggs, Miss Logan, Ruby Slotter, Caleb Mecredi, these are all characters who would be surprising and unusual characters on any show set in the present day. For a period piece to have the guts to take on neurodivergence, complex issues of race, gender fluidity, and sexual assault all in a show that never once felt like it was preaching or in any way anachronistic, that's a hell of an achievement. And it's a hell of a message that no one can say period pieces don't have to be diverse because "the world wasn't like that back then."
That's bullshit. The world has always been a diverse place, and the good shows, the best shows, are the ones that recognize that and represent that. Strange Empire deserves so much credit not just for daring to tell stories from points of view that no one cared for, but also for doing it so well. It's the best of what we could have hoped for, the show we keep saying we really want.
I miss Strange Empire already. It's not an easy show to watch by any means, but that doesn't mean it's not still incredibly powerful and important. I can only hope that more people will realize how valuable shows like this really are, and that there will be some new additions to the genre really soon.
Until then, have some extra screencaps from the finale. Let's remember what a damn good show that this really was.
*Even though I maintain I really thought that we were going to get Miss Logan and Fiona Briggs as life partners. A little disappointed here.
**Adaline is smug and hard to like, but damn does she really go through it in these episodes. From accidentally eating Mrs. Briggs' poop soup to being literally waterboarded by Isabelle to being chewed out by Ruby to accidentally drinking poison, Adaline had a very short, very eventful run on the show. May she rest in peace.