Following a one-month holiday break, the CBC Western series Strange Empire resumed January 12th with the tenth episode of its debut season. While entitled “The Cage”, this tenth installment in fact represented several points of “breaking thru” for certain characters. Filmed in British Columbia, Strange Empire is set in the Alberta-Montana border region of 1869.
The major dramatic framework for the episode was the effort to rescue workers trapped within the coal mine of John Slotter (Aaron Poole) – the mine had been dynamited in an act of revenge by Ling (Terry Chen) against him. While bodies are being pulled from the mine, Slotter’s focus is financial, fearing that with the cave-in his father Cornelius Slotter (Duncan Ollerenshaw) will call in the loan he provided for operation of the mine.
BREAKING THRU TO HOPE – Rebecca Blithely (Melissa Farman) arrives at the accident site to give medical attention to the injured. As a practicing doctor, and with her allegiance to science, she cannot understand why the Janestown community continues to dig in the collapsed mine shaft with little likelihood of survival for those underground and when doing so risks the living. Morgan Finn (Joanne Boland), Rebecca’s rejected lover, explains that hope drives people onward, in effect giving them no choice but to try. Rebecca ponders Finn’s words, leaving the impression that she breaks thru to at least an understanding of hope as motivator, even if she cannot personally feel it.
BREAKING THRU THE FOURTH DIMENSION – The adopted daughter of Kat Loving (Cara Gee), Robin (Matreya Scarrwener), appears to have a gift for seeing spirits and channeling. Arriving at the site to bring food for the rescuers, she begins to sing a song that Franklyn Caze (Teach Grant), one of the missing miners, is known to sing. The rescuers, recognizing that Robin is standing above where one of the new areas of mine had been dug, see that as a sign to dig for the trapped workers there. Rebecca cannot fathom such faith in something outside of her empirical experience and will feel chastened for her reaction to their inspiration later on.
BREAKING THRU FAMILY BONDS – The bonds of family can be interpreted to be positive attachment and/or suffocating restriction. The latter interpretation is one clear metaphor for the title of the episode, in terms of John Slotter’s relationship with his father. There is a moment, however, when Slotter does clearly break thru his father’s control, to assert himself physically as an adult man. Cornelius, learning of the cave-in, decides to call in the loan for the mine and take control of the enterprise. Following a dinner in which he belittles both John and his wife, Isabelle (Tattiawna Jones), John rises from the table and attacks Cornelius. Pinning him to the floor, John appears quite capable of ending his father’s life at that point but does not. Cornelius seems to almost enjoy the fact that his son is trying to exert power over him, goading him on, but John pulls back. This particular scene was well-acted by all involved (Poole, Ollerenshaw, Jones, and Marci T.House as Ruby) – danger and tragedy intermix as a deep-seated family dynamic is challenged.
BREAKING THRU TO THE UNEXPECTED – Feeling the financial pressure that would come with estrangement from his father, as well as a hint from wife Isabelle that she would leave him if they were to become poor, John sets out to make amends with Cornelius. He is returning to his “family cage”. Remembering his father’s desire to be with the daughter of the African-American blacksmith at Station House in Montana, he decides to take the girl. When the girl’s father attempts to stop John, Slotter shoots him dead and knocks the girl unconscious. Slotter has been ably portrayed by Poole as coldly calculating in previous episodes, but this severe disregard for a woman in order to please his father appears unexpected to at least house-servant Ruby, who, having known John since he was a boy, emotionally asks, “What’s happened to you?” A further unexpected character move is by Isabelle, who renders John unconscious with a candlestick holder and turns him over to arriving US Marshal Mecredi (Tahmoh Penikett). Mecredi was away from Station House when Slotter took the girl but he did return to find the dead father as well as Slotter’s distinctive hat lying on the ground. Is Isabelle truly disgusted by John’s actions or is she now throwing her lot in with the father, who she has engaged in trysts with? In either case, she is a long way from an earlier declaration that she would remain by John’s side thru anything.
The episode concludes with the successful rescue of Caze and other workers and the acknowledgement by Loving to Mecredi that she is indeed the “murderess” that bounty hunters seek but that her actions were not murder. Mecredi replies that she can share her reasons with him as they “keep watch”. Who is it that they guard? The unconscious form of John Slotter in a mobile prison cage.
TECHNICAL NOTES – The use of muted grey tones in the cinematography of the episode was very effective and gave even the green grass a subdued and melancholy look. Additionally, there was an excellent use of background music as John Slotter sat in his carriage near Station House, deciding upon his course of action. Piano notes were joined by a string sound that in going back-and-forth created a tension reflecting that of John’s and a viewer could sonically hear the dark decision Slotter makes as those sounds are followed by drop-down notes – he is dropping into a dark place – as Slotter looks over at Station House.
Strange Empire airs Mondays at 9pm (local time), with three episodes remaining in the season. CBC continues to stream each installment at Strange Empire. Beginning with Episode One, Westernsreboot.com has reviewed each episode to date.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)