Does a “capital trail” lead to the Strange Empire? Viewing the second episode of the new Western series on CBC, economic self-determination, both macro and micro, was a dominant theme.
Set in the Alberta-Montana region of 1869, two years after the formation of the Dominion of Canada and four years after the US Civil War, Strange Empire launched this October. Cara Gee, Melissa Farman, Tattiawana Jones, and Aaron Poole lead an ensemble cast that in its first episode, established the dangers for unaccompanied women travelling in the developing West. In the second episode, it was clear that the ability to access capital, to have hard cash, would define both economic projects in the region as well as the range of choices available to individuals, particularly women.
John Slotter (Poole), who runs a pleasure house for men seeking the company of women, hopes to develop a proposed coal mine. The son of an industrialist that plans to build a spur line to the Northern Pacific Railroad in the US, Slotter wants to blaze his own independent financial trail instead. His partner, both business and romantic, Isabelle Slotter (Jones) will use her guile and charms, as well as her working girls, to persuade two arriving businessmen to invest in the mine.
Adjacent to the Slotter mansion is “Janestown”, a collection of small houses where women from the travelling party of the first episode have taken refuge following the killing and/or disappearance of their husbands. Isabelle visits there to entice potential “companions” to work for her and it is in her pitch to the mother of one young woman that the economic options for the women become clear. The Slotters can offer room, board, personal profit, and the elusive potential of “marrying rich”. One of John Slotter’s men soon informs the women they will have to pay, in some way, for their stay and so for those with no savings and thus no ability to pay any wagon team to carry them onward, the range of choices constrict.
The path to the capital that Slotter seeks will also include a “spiritual” dimension. Isabelle, with the assistance of her bodyguard Ling (Terry Chen), will use the 19th century tricks of a phony “medium” to try to push one of the investors, Porter (Jesse Moss), to front money for the proposed mine. Porter’s rich father had recently passed and in his vulnerable state, he seeks direction as what to do next with the family fortune. Sounds piped into a séance room that Isabelle claims come from Porter’s father, a table that mechanically “levitates”, and a coin that magically appears covered in coal dust, seem to be enough to secure Porter’s backing.
Part of the “investment package” offered by the Slotters includes the companionship of the two adopted daughters of Kat Loving (Gee), the strong and gun-wielding Métis woman who is still searching for her missing husband. Outnumbered by Slotter’s men, she gives herself up instead as a “worker”, so as to spare the young girls. In a nod to the episode’s title, she is presented as a “buckskin princess”. If there was any doubt that “cash was king” in this era, it was erased by the payment from the Eastern-raised Rebecca Blithely (Farman) for Loving and her daughters to able to leave the Slotter mansion untouched.
In the final moments of the episode, it is revealed that the visiting businessmen have declined to invest in the Slotter mine but all is not lost as another “capital path” has been shown. One of the conscripted working girls was in fact pregnant and following the help of the medically-adept Rebecca in delivering the baby, that boy will now be raised as John Slotter’s son. The Slotters had recently experienced the trauma of a stillborn baby girl but now the grandfather, John’s father, has a male heir. Isabelle had astutely telegraphed this news to Cornelius Slotter and that magnate is now on his way to see the grandson…and the bankroll necessary to start up the mine.
The second episode of Strange Empire was a meditation on the power of money in a developing economic region and what that power, both positive and negative, can mean for individuals and those of a given gender. This is a Western that thus far is very strong on a number of levels; writing, acting, cinematography, and soundtrack. For the Westernsreboot.com review of the first episode, visit Strange Empire Episode One. The next installment of the series debuts Monday, October 20th at 9E on CBC television. Further info about the series and streams of the first two episodes are available at Strange Empire.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)