The sixth episode of CBC’s new Western series Strange Empire, entitled “Electricity”, debuted November 17th and while giving some story-time to emerging electronic communication (i.e. the telegraph) it was another source of power that drove plot-lines forward – that of legal authority. Set in 1869 in what will become the border region of Alberta-Montana, the latest installment in this well-written & strongly-acted series explored competing claims to jurisdiction among the group that occupies Janestown and neighboring Slotter mansion.
An incident at the start of the episode leads saloon-entrepreneur Mrs. Briggs (Anne Marie DeLuise) to see the need for a sheriff for Janestown and to see Kat Loving (Cara Gee) as best able to deliver law-and-order. At an impromptu community meeting there is talk of which code of law can legally be applied, given that their region, which is in fact traditional Indigenous territory, is still under British claim and is technically neither part of Canada nor the United States. In the political vacuum, the source of power that Briggs believes should be referred to is the Bible, arguing that the Christian holy book provides the needed guidelines. Kat listens calmly to the group’s talk and replies that she will not be a sheriff but rather simply a “shooter” as needed. Raised to hunt buffalo in the Red River country of the Métis, she then demonstrates that sharpshooting is gender-neutral by easily hitting a target some distance away. Annie Oakley would have been proud of that shot!
John Slotter’s reckless disregard for his Chinese workers (a worker is electrocuted trying to repair the telegraph line) causes Briggs to inform Slotter (Aaron Poole) that Kat has been hired by their Citizens’ Committee as sheriff. Would-be mining impresario Slotter is immediately dismissive of Briggs and Kat and states that his is the only authority in Janestown and nonchalantly appoints henchman Abe Little (Eric Keenleyside) as sole sheriff.
The appointment by Slotter sends Kat and Little on a collision course that is marked along the way by verbal sparring and a disturbing abuse of power by Little toward the women of Janestown. Little slashes Briggs’ daughter Fiona (Ali Liebert) with a knife after attempting to take her sexually, with Kat arriving to force him to his knees at gunpoint. Slotter intervenes to say Fiona will be monetarily compensated but that is not enough for the senior Briggs – she offers Kat a gold nugget afterwards to take Little’s life.
Mulling over Briggs’ proposition, Kat visits US Sheriff Mercredi (Tahmoh Penikett) in Montana Territory for what turns into a romantic encounter. Kat shares Briggs’ offer with Mercredi and he responds that the law will hold her accountable, with Kat replying that the law “is for those afraid to face up on their own”. In this interlude, another source of power in the series – and of colonial history – is acknowledged, that of “white man’s law”. When Mercredi says that Kat is acting as if the law is set against her, she claims that the white man’s law in fact is and that in her experience it has been “ill-used” and manipulated for gain. She adds that she has never seen it help “an Indian, Chinaman, or a woman”; the character of Kat Loving is vocalizing a perspective outside of the colonizing British-Canadian institutions of power.
The confrontation between Kat and Little is brought to its conclusion when Kat returns to Janestown to find Little violently smashing his way into Fiona’s home with an axe to try and again take her. Calling out his name, Little turns and is shot down by Kat from horseback. At the end of the episode, Kat accepts the job of sheriff and returns the gold nugget to Briggs, declining any payment for her actions. Thus, at this point in the first season, there are now two equal and competing poles of authority in Strange Empire; the wealthy Slotter and his hired men, and the Janestown-endorsed Kat Loving. While fictional, the series represents the very real historical process by which authority was asserted, contested, and established in the developing North American West.
Filmed in British Columbia, Strange Empire airs Monday nights at 9E on CBC and previous episodes (and information about the series) can be accessed online at Strange Empire. Westernsreboot.com has reviewed all episodes to date, with the first episode reviewed at SE1 . Here is a clip with the full opening credits for the show:
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)