Strange Empire, the new CBC Western series that launched in October, looked at emerging capitalist-worker tensions in its latest episode (December 1st). The notion of a unionized workforce in an unorganized territory in 1869, in what is now the Alberta-Montana border region, would be far ahead of its time, yet the reasons for workers to challenge a capitalist owner cross eras.
The flashpoint for tensions is the unsafe working conditions in the Slotter coal mine. Cheap, weak timber supports are failing as the mine goes deeper and pumps are needed to remove water. The discontent among the workers, with Franklyn Caze (Teach Grant) as their spokesman, is coming to a head just as the mine is starting to produce promising seams of coal. John Slotter (Aaron Poole) proudly declares to his wife, Isabelle (Tattiawna Jones), that engineers confirm the grade to be of high quality.
Caze will make the dramatic move of visiting Slotter at his mansion during a work day to demand changes, with Kat Loving (Cara Gee), as Janestown-appointed sheriff, alongside. Caze insists that the workers’ wages be doubled (to $3/day) to compensate for the dangerous conditions. Slotter rebuffs Caze, saying that the mine has been safe so far, that Caze has been going into the mine and that he will continue to go in. Slotter repeats an emerging mantra – that once the mine starts to produce then improvements will be made.
Kat visits the mine site and sees just how rotten the timber supports are – she argues to Caze that to simply ask for more money to risk lives is in fact “greed on greed”. Kat then publicly addresses the men, challenging them to ask whether Slotter (who stands nearby, listening) is bluffing when he says that increased wages and structural improvements will happen. Caze is now roused to action and with the nodding support of his men, declares that no work will happen until assurances are made by Slotter. Slotter, laughing, declares Caze to be a “socialist” and promptly fires the men and shuts down the mine. That the mine’s workers represents a prime revenue stream for Janestown entrepreneurs like saloon-owner Mrs. Briggs (Anne Marie DeLuise), is seen in the reaction of Briggs, who promptly blames Kat for the discord.
Seeking an alternate group of workers, Slotter goes to the neighboring Chinese settlement and meets with community leader Ling (Terry Chen). Reflecting the discrimination of the day, Slotter offers to pay the Chinese workers one-third of a “white man’s” wage. Negotiations between Slotter and Ling will happen over a number of days.
The owner-worker conflict connects to the episode’s other major narrative thread, that of a polygamist prophet, Jordan Young (Luke Camilleri), seeking the hand of Kat’s adopted – and innocent – daughter, Kelly (Michelle Creber). Learning of his multiple marriages, Kelly rejects the man, who had previously murdered to take on a mother and daughter as part of his “family”. Outside of the Slotter mansion, Young, who had indicated to the Slotters that he would build a church in Janestown and invest in their mine, declares to John that he will now take his potential investment elsewhere. With a musing, low-voiced “I’d think on that,” John draws his gun and shoots Young dead. Slotter then discovers that the funds and bank letters Young carried were a fraud.
Slotter returns to Ling to accept his offer of the Chinese workers receiving half of a “white” wage and Ling’s 25% ownership in the coal mine. The episode concludes with the fired white workers battling the arriving Chinese workers at the mine. Kat, on horseback, is unable to stop the erupting conflict.
On a technical note, the episode, which was entitled “How Far is Heaven”, had two particular moments of strong composition. The show, which is filmed in British Columbia, offered a beautifully scenic segment along a laneway with adjoining fence, with the wind in the trees blowing and the sound of that well-captured. Also, there was an excellent use of a foreboding musical tone, deep “below” the scene in which Slotter shoots Young – the two men are captured in full frame, each at opposite ends, just before the shot is fired.
Strange Empire airs Monday nights on CBC at 9E and previous episodes can be streamed at Strange Empire . Westernsreboot has reviewed each episode to date, beginning with SE – E1. The series is slated for 13 episodes, with the next installment Monday, December 8th.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)