A new Western TV series has launched on CBC, the Canadian national broadcaster. Strange Empire premiered on October 6th and focuses upon three very different women in the 1869 border region of Montana and the new country of Canada. Though the three women come from dissimilar backgrounds, they are brought together in the first episode, “The Hunting Party”, to share in both a physical –and moral –struggle to survive. The series is written by Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik.
Strange Empire opens with a man and woman on horseback racing thru a wooded section of Montana with the woman clutching a baby to her. They arrive at a stagecoach station, named “Station House”, seeking the assistance of a doctor but the child has passed. The woman, named Kat Loving (Cara Gee), is Métis (mixed Indigenous & European heritage) and is clad in dark pants, coat, and hat; the viewer immediately recognizes a woman outside of the gender conventions for that time period. Gee brings a nuanced combination of both strength and vulnerability to her opening scenes; it is clear that Kat is a resolute survivor as she moves forward with her new husband toward building a ranch.
The second major character introduced is Rebecca Blithely (Melissa Farman), a young woman from the East travelling westward with her much older –and recent – husband by stagecoach. Blithely is earnestly interested in science, although her husband is somewhat condescending toward her keenness. Station House will also be a stop for Blithely and when camping before their arrival, two young girls reveal to Rebecca and her husband that they have been sold into prostitution and will be retrieved by a man named John Slotter (Aaron Poole) once they arrive at the stop. Farman does well to portray an intellectually-curious urban woman who, perhaps naively but with spirit, struggles against the gender expectations of her era.
The stagecoach group arrives at Station House and the third major female character is introduced. Isabelle Slotter (Tattiawana Jones) is partner, both romantic and business, to husband John, but in an eerie parallel to Kat, is also mourning the recent death of a child. Jones captures a sense of mystery about her character that hints of an interesting backstory.
John Slotter arrives to retrieve his “workers” but Blithely’s stagecoach group, with the help of Kat and her husband, have hidden them instead. Slotter, with a menacing but matter-of-fact approach ably acted by Poole, sets about to find the girls. Unable to, Slotter casts his eyes upon all of the various women in the travelling party headed to Canada and realizes the profit such a group could bring his enterprise. Slotter and his gang depart but before doing so, one of his men nods to the women and states that they are “the real treasure of the West”.
The assembled group at Station House leave for Canada and when camping en route, a number of the party’s men, which includes the husbands of Kat and Rebecca, decide to hunt game for a feast to celebrate Kat’s recent wedding. It is at that point that the events turn dramatically for the women left behind.
Strange Empire lead characters – Rebecca Blithely (Farman) / Kat Loving (Gee) Isabelle Slotter (Jones) / John Slotter (Poole) (CBC Image)
On a technical note, Strange Empire is filmed with a moody approach that works well – in certain segments the washed-out tones are reminiscent of the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). The show also uses an effective haunting and low-key organ backing track that murmurs below a number of scenes. The landscape and settings are also worth a mention. While the show is set in what will become the province of Alberta, the first year of the series was filmed in BC and that location gives Strange Empire a unique feel that is alternately lush and melancholy. Here is a trailer for the series:
For this writer, this is a show is worth watching, both for its original approach and to see where the series will go. Strange Empire is slated for a 13-episode first season and the first installment is currently available for viewing online at Strange Empire.
The second episode of Strange Empire premieres Monday, October 13th, at 9pm on CBC television.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)