STRANGE EMPIRE REVIEW – Episode 12 – The Power of Print

In this site’s review of Episode 11 of CBC’s Western series Strange Empire, the question was raised as to what repercussions the story sold to a US newspaper by Fiona Briggs (Ali Liebert) could bring to the community of Janestown. With the dime novel-style headline, “Massacre on the Plains”, Briggs’s tale gave an account of the killing of the women’s men (husbands, sons, brothers), which took place in the first episode. Written in sensationalistic prose, it included fabrications about her own role in the ordeal and described a coming showdown between two individuals that clearly represented John Slotter (Aaron Poole) and the Kat Loving (Cara Gee). In the most recent and 12th episode, entitled “End Days”, the consequences of that story began to fall like dominoes. Launched by CBC television in October 2014, Strange Empire is set in the Alberta-Montana border region of 1869. 

DOMINO #1 – And Then There Was One. The January 26th episode opened with a scene of the two previously-seen bounty hunters  – whom US Marshal Mecredi (Tahmoh Penikett) had diverted from trailing Kat – camped around a nighttime fire. One bounty hunter lies on the ground reading Briggs’s tale to the other, recounting an “Indian gunslinger woman”, and then pauses to say it sounds “a lot like that one we were tracking”. The other bounty hunter, sitting up and above the first, asks where the story was written, to which the first replies that it was north in a “lawless land….Canada”. The second man realizes that the story’s female gunslinger could likely be the Kateri Dumont they seek for the murder of a government surveyor in Red River country (now Manitoba). With cold poise, he promptly shoots his partner to ensure that the $1000 reward for Dumont can only go to him. The remaining bounty hunter heads toward Janestown and Brigg’s story has had its first result. 

Ali Liebert as Fiona Briggs  (CBC Image) / Click to Enlarge
Ali Liebert as Fiona Briggs (CBC Image) / Click to Enlarge

DOMINO#2 – “It’s my world, Kat Loving.” Copies of “Massacre on the Plains” have now reached Janestown and the hands of John Slotter.  With his coal miners sent to timber trees for supports, Slotter has a hired militia raid the women’s shacks in the early morning to confiscate their guns. In the show’s previous episode, Slotter had personally accepted a path to do whatever necessary to ensure financial success with his coal mine and keep his control over Janestown and he now states to an outraged Kat that “tables need be turned”. He then cites Briggs’s story, saying that “tales here speak of us, though wrapped in fancy ”. Clearly the kind of power that Kat is given in the story, as an equal in a “dance toward death” with Slotter, is a challenge to the reality that he wishes to create. While he mocks the tale, Slotter is in fact a powerful man not pleased with his media image. Briggs’s account provides further impetus for Slotter’s plans to dominate, which he verbalizes in a scuffle with Kat, holding her and saying, “It’s my world, Kat Loving. I’ve taken it from you.”

DOMINO#3 – For Every Action There is a Reaction. The blunt use of force by Slotter, which includes having the militia shoot and drive off the returning miners so as to replace them with lower-wage workers, pushes Kat and the Janestown women toward a final confrontation with him. While Kat sets out with her adopted daughters into Indian territory to trade for more guns, the women do their best to weaken Slotter’s hired men with booze and contaminated food. Upon Kat’s return, the women are able to render unconscious, incapacitate and imprison a number of the militia but Slotter himself evades capture and takes refuge in his still-well-guarded mansion. Thus, one could view Briggs’s tale as having accelerated events toward a showdown, as the tension between Slotter and Janestown has significantly built from the first episode forward. Will some form of resolution come next week, in the final episode for the show’s first season? 

L-R - Cara Gee, Ali Liebert, Joanne Boland (CBC Image) / Click to Enlarge
L-R – Cara Gee, Ali Liebert, Joanne Boland (CBC Image) / Click to Enlarge

NOTES – The episode demonstrated the specific pressures that Indigenous groups faced in the 19th century in the face of the expanding settler population and the consequences that could have for them. After trading for guns, Kat and her daughters encounter a group of Blackfoot that had been driven into the territory of their traditional enemy, the Cree. While talking, shots are fired in the distance and all scramble for cover. Kat and her daughters are successful in doing so but the Blackfoot end up massacred by a US Calvary troupe that “mistook” the group for another that supposedly harbored a murderer. Viewing the aftermath alongside Mecredi, Kat dismisses his idea of finding out what caused the slaughter, stating that “the cause is land” and “a wish to see every Indian who walks dead”. Both Gee and Penikett brought an emotional dignity to their acting in this very powerful scene.

The last (13th) episode of Season 1 of Strange Empire airs this coming Monday, February 2nd at 9pm (local time). CBC also streams each episode at Strange Empire following its original airing. Westernsreboot.com has reviewed each episode to date, beginning with Episode 1. While CBC has yet to make an official announcement to renew the series, this writer believes that in terms of its singular story-telling – there is no other show currently exploring the history of the North American West this way – it is deserving of a second season and more.

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)

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