A couple’s desperate ride to save their doomed baby. A young doctor’s honeymoon with her older physician husband. Two preteen sisters’ journey toward a life of prostitution. In the opening hour of frontier drama Strange Empire, all these people are headed to a place called the Station House … but their paths have only begun to cross.
This thirteen-episode Canadian series, which debuted last October on public broadcasting network CBC and runs through early next month, opens in 1869 near the Alberta-Montana border, an untamed place full of peril and promise. But this is not your typical Western tale of heroic deeds done by singular men. Instead, Strange Empire tells the story of the people usually relegated to the background in such fables: the women.
Created by Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik, Strange Empire joins a recent spate of notable, woman-led genre dramas produced by our neighbors to the north. The Old West setting is certainly different from the worlds of the cloning-themed thriller Orphan Black, the time-traveling Continuum, and the sex-positive urban fantasy Lost Girl, but it creates a similar thrill of seeing stories populated by female characters who are people, and not objects or plot devices.
As shown in debut episode “The Hunting Party,” Kat Loving (Cara Gee, above center), a Métis woman who can ride and shoot at least as well as any man (if not better), is well suited to the trials of this life — though she is not spared its cruelties. The mad horseback dash she and husband Jeremiah (Richard de Klerk) take to find medical attention for their baby ends with them burying the child … but moving on with their dream of starting a ranch.
The Lovings may be prepared to live in this world, but Toronto doctor Thomas Blithely (Bill Marchant) and wife Rebecca (Melissa Farman, above left) are merely tourists. They’re an odd couple: Rebecca is what some might nowadays call a high-functioning autistic, a clinical-minded brainiac living in a time when women are widely perceived as incapable of higher intellect, and Thomas, who found the child Rebecca in a mental institution, raised the girl as his own with his recently deceased wife. Now Rebecca is Thomas’s wife, though their roles as protectee and patriarch don’t seem to have changed much. Despite his compassion for Rebecca and the gift of education he has given her, Thomas isn’t very likable, peevishly demanding her obedience and often dismissing her medical ideas, even though he has exploited them by publishing her papers under his name (since of course the scientific community would never accept a woman’s ideas, he says).
Anyway, we know right away that Rebecca is interesting, because when we meet her she is sketching a detailed portrait of a woman’s reproductive parts. (This is the point where we realize that Strange Empire is going to be interesting, as well.) When the Blithelys learn that young travelmates Robin (Matreya Scarrwener) and Kelly (Michelle Creber) have been sold as whores, they intervene, and later talk the Lovings into adopting the girls. Cat and Jeremiah round out their newfound family with teenage Neill (Mitch Duffield) and young Georgie (Spencer Drever).
All of these folks are moving toward something, but Isabelle Slotter (Tattiawna Jones, above right) is already at her destination (though she has a journey coming too). Unfortunately for everyone, also present is her husband, Captain John Slotter (Aaron Poole), whorehouse operator and struggling mine boss and just about the blackest Bart you’d ever want to meet. Discovering that his two young prostitutes have gone missing, he threatens to sexually enslave all the women, to replace the whores recently lost to cholera. While searching for the girls in a rage, he goes toe-to-toe with the equally angry Kat, and permanent enemies are made. “One day you’ll go too far,” Jeremiah mildly tells his wife. “Better too far than not far enough,” Kat replies.
What Strange Empire sadly does not have in common with the previously mentioned shows, or such kindred mainstream hits as Global TV’s Rookie Blue, is a U.S. broadcast outlet. (However, it is not too difficult to find a way to watch it on the Internet.) And that has to change, because Finstad-Knizhnik’s show, which apparently represents a “dark” departure from the usual CBC fare, goes beyond just flipping the script toward the ladies. While giving us classic White Hat vs. Black Hat scenarios, such as Kat vs. Slotter, it also delves into the many gray areas of trying to build a new society, as a lot of basically decent people make tough choices to ensure their own survival … and a lot of rat bastards make it tough for decent folk to survive.
Individuals’ personal moralities shift and evolve, but also, the residents of the newly minted Janestown seem destined to knock together a moral framework for a community that may provide some hope of freedom for people who aren’t usually allowed to be free. (I don’t want to elaborate too much because, spoilers!) After ten episodes, that might be an optimistic reading on my part, because any potential social evolutionary leaps are constantly threatened by those who have an equal interest in upholding the status quo. Which makes Strange Empire a thoroughly modern parable.
(Attention, media moguls: If any of this sounds intriguing, U.K. company DRG has the international distribution rights. Get on it!)
Strange Empire is unabashedly woman-centric, but looping in minorities and other outsiders, and allowing even the horrible Captain John some vulnerable moments, makes it at heart a human story. It’s one of those shows with an atmosphere so palpable you can almost breathe it (a friend of mine called it a sort-of cross between Carnivale and Deadwood) — one that is sun-dappled and shadow-draped, brimming with menace, laced with magical realism, and shot through with golden moments of humanity that can suddenly, unexpectedly move you to tears.
Like the best TV shows, it is full of fascinating supporting characters, including Slotter’s Chinese right-hand man Ling (Terry Chen), a steely crew boss who is devoted to his elderly mother; Slotter housemaid Ruby (Marci T. House), who sees all, knows all, and unfailingly speaks her mind; mysterious cowboy Morgan, who takes a shine to Rebecca; and half-Indian marshal Caleb Mecredi (Tahmoh Penikett), who develops both sympathy and affection for kindred spirit Kat.
But back to “The Hunting Party.” Slotter’s next move after his showdown with Kat is one big reason I thought his surname was spelled “Slaughter” for a while. When the smoke clears, most of the men are dead or missing — including Jeremiah among the latter and one of the Lovings’ new children among the former. Thomas survives but is gravely injured. And now the women are literally stranded in the wilderness. Kat may be tough enough to accuse and even attack Slotter after the massacre (which he blames on Indians), yet the others have no choice but to take what they can get: a devil’s bargain with this awful man.
And they do what women have always done in a world ruled by men: whatever they have to do to get by. Dudes on Strange Empire can be surprisingly disposable, however — and Slotter is certainly the kind of fellow who’d be much improved by a bullet to the head. But that seems unlikely to happen any time soon. After ten episodes, I’m guessing he will somehow be a part of whatever strange empire is built. But I am pretty sure he’s not going to rule it.