In its fourth episode, Strange Empire, the new Western series on CBC, took a multi-angled approach toward exploring the politics of race. The show, set in 1869 in what will become the Alberta-Montana border region, features a strong ensemble cast but this installment anchored itself around the Métis character of Kat Loving (Cara Gee). The fourth episode aired October 27th.
The groundwork for the episode’s focus on race was set early when Kat and her adopted children enjoyed a meal prepared by US Marshal Mercredi (Tahmoh Penikett) at Station House in Montana. After the dinner, Mercredi, who is of mixed white & Blackfoot ancestry, jokes that with Kat’s Cree background, they should be enemies. Kat responds with “not in these times”, thus hinting at the larger forces of Euro-Canadian expansion pressing upon traditional Indigenous cultures and territory with notions of white superiority and ideas of “progress”. When Kat acknowledges that she has not shared her Cree heritage with the women of Janestown or even her children, Mercredi says that sometimes “that is a wise thing”.
The first revealing of Kat’s background to those unaware comes when she speaks in an Indigenous language to a young Blackfoot woman who has stumbled into Janestown quite sick. Dr. Blithely (Bill Marchant) and his young wife, Rebecca (Melissa Farman), are plainly shocked that Kat is Indian. Kat responds that it is half of her that’s Indian with the other part “as white as you”. Is this a half-hearted defense or simple statement? The acting of Gee in the moment is nuanced enough to let the viewer ponder.
Following a bounty posted by John Slotter (Aaron Poole) for those responsible for the massacre of the first episode, argued to be Indians by Slotter, two Blackfoot men are captured and brought to Janestown by Irish whiskey trader Roy Arnold (Ian Tracey). The two men are to serve as scapegoats to appease the widowed women and fatherless families staying in Janestown, thus reducing distractions from Slotter’s developing coal mine. While the innocent men sit shackled, and their gallows is being built, Kat speaks to them in their language and is overheard by the widowed Mrs. Briggs (Anne Marie DeLuise). Briggs is mortified to learn of Kat’s background and it is at this second point of revelation in the episode that Kat articulates her identity as that of Métis. The groupthink politics of race via then surface intensely as Mrs. Briggs suggests that perhaps Kat had originally called upon the Indians to kill their men.
The narrative arc for Kat in the episode sees her increasingly isolated. The momentum of events related to race is pushing her away from the larger community with her adopted family the last connection left to break. When a group of fatherless boys tells Kat’s son and two daughters that they don’t want their Indian mother in the camp, one daughter, reflecting an internalized racial hierarchy, responds that she is “only half” before a fight erupts. When Kat breaks up the fight, one daughter angrily yells that “you could have told us!” and Kat is left standing alone as they leave.
Kat now believes it necessary for her adopted children to live among “their own kind, their people”, telling Rebecca that they “are harmed by me”. She informs Rebecca that her son will go south for work at Station House and asks that Rebecca find a suitable home for her two girls. The mixture of strength and painful emotion within Kat is very well-acted by Gee in the scene via tone of voice and conflicted facial expressions.
When Slotter takes Isabelle (Tattiawna Jones) and Mrs. Briggs to a nearby Blackfoot camp so they can investigate whether their two prisoners are truly responsible, they meet Mercredi who informs them that Arnold had sold the camp a form of strychnine alcohol to effectively poison and incapacitate them, and thus capture any two men that could be turned in for the bounty. Earlier in the episode it was revealed that Slotter is aware that his own men, led by Jared (Michael Adamthwaite), had committed the massacre but the question does remain as to the degree of Slotter’s role in those events.
Before the two Blackfoot men can be hung, one of Kat’s daughters has taken the key for their shackles and Kat releases them, telling them to run for their lives. She tells them that she will also come to join them, adding that she doesn’t belong in Janestown. However, one of the men responds, “You don’t belong with us either.” The politics of race continues and the viewer is left to wonder if that statement was made due to Kat’s mixed heritage, the fact that she wasn’t raised in their particular culture, and/or that the Cree and the Blackfoot are traditional enemies.
A drunk Jared takes one of Kat’s daughter’s hostage, forcing Kat to give herself up in exchange. Jared blames Kat for the problems of Janestown and is set to hang her. Kat is now at the point of ultimate aloneness, the edge of death itself. However, Slotter has returned and tells Jared to let her go. Then, as Jared is about to disclose Isabelle’s indiscretion with John’s father, Slotter shoots and kills his second-in-command. There is the impression that Slotter did not want to hear what Jared would have said. At that point, Kat gets free and reunites with her family.
At the conclusion of the episode, the Machiavellian trader, Arnold, has moved south back into Montana where he is confronted by Mercredi, who declares he will impound Arnold’s wagon. In addition to whiskey, the trader is also transporting dynamite. Arnold, in one last example of the politics of race, declares that no Indian will tell him what to do and goes for his gun. Mercredi draws and kills Arnold. Then, in a nice “action hero” touch that brings some levity, Mercredi lights a stick of dynamite from his cigar, tosses it into the wagon and then walks away as it explodes behind him. All of this is observed at a distance by Kat on her horse.
Strange Empire, to this writer, is growing stronger in its first season with each episode. Each of the main characters, and a number of secondary ones, have now been given enough screen time for the viewer to have an understanding of their motivations and personal challenges. The macro themes of the show thus far, which have included expansionist capitalism, personal and gender dynamics, Indigenous and non-Indigenous tension, are explored within a dramatic framework that has been well-delivered. The at-times washed-out cinematography and moody backing soundtrack has complemented the structure of the show.
Strange Empire airs Monday nights at 9E on CBC and past episodes (and information about the show) can be accessed online at Strange Empire. Westernsreboot has reviewed all previous episodes to date beginning with the first episode at SE1.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)