Strange Empire, the Western series that launched on CBC television in October 2014, concluded its first season on February 2nd. In this final and 13th episode entitled “The Dark Riders”, the show reset its direction for a yet-to-be-announced but hoped-for second season. To do so, a number of major pivot points occurred within the overall story-line. Created by Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik, Strange Empire is set in the Alberta-Montana border region of 1869.
PIVOT POINT#1 – The End of John Slotter. Since the first episode of the series, tension steadily built between the women of Janestown and Captain John Slotter (Aaron Poole). Slotter, owner of a local coal mine and brothel, was suspected of killing the women’s men (husbands, brothers & sons) in the first episode so as to eliminate any male threat to his power and drive the women into prostitution. In the 11th episode he admitted to Rebecca Blithely (Melissa Farman) his role in engineering the massacre and as the season developed, Slotter came to embrace a path that would coldly do whatever needed to secure advantage.
By the final episode of Season One, Slotter was effectively in a vice. The women of Janestown want him hung for his role in killing their men, his estranged wife Isabelle (Tattiawna Jones) actually attempts to poison him to inherit his estate, and his own father, Cornelius (Duncan Ollerenshaw), sets out to shoot him while sleeping to consolidate his own control of the mine and gain Isabelle as a wife. Trapped by those pressures, and with a recognition that his own end is likely to come soon, Slotter sets out in threatening fashion to take control of his own demise. He does so by goading Kat Loving (Cara Gee) toward killing him. After feigning surrender to her at early point of the episode, and rendering her unconscious with the butt of his pistol, he whispers to her, “….murder me, Kat Loving, you must enter your darkness, I will be your companion”.
Slotter’s attempt to draw Kat into that darkness – each viewer will decide whether he succeeded – reaches its conclusion when he is brought by a group of American ranchers to Station House in Montana Territory to stand trial for the murder of a US bounty hunter (in the previous episode). This follows Slotter being chased by Kat thru the woods, as he yells disparaging remarks about Indigenous people, so as to push her toward killing him. That chase is resumed in Montana when Slotter escapes his rope bonds and is given two pistols by Isabelle, who arrives as a distraught wife – is her concern genuine? Jumping on horseback, he calls for Kat to chase him again and they arrive to face off in the same spot as the massacre of the first episode. It is clear that Slotter wishes to die, as he shoots toward Kat and then points his pistol off to the side – Kat pauses and then fires an arrow into Slotter. As he lies dying, looking up at Kat, he exhales the words, “…so to meet my redeemer, it’s you, Kat Loving, my redeemer”. Did Slotter, while believing death was the only way to atone for his sins, also, in a final power-play move, draw Kat into the dark path of taking his life without trial? Or, was Kat justified in killing him for not only his role in the massacre but also in self-defense? Viewers can ponder.
PIVOT POINT#2 – No Man Necessary. As John Slotter prepared himself – at least subconsciously – for death, he summoned a lawyer to rewrite his last will & testament. Calling the beneficiaries together, he states that Isabelle, though estranged from him, will still legally inherit his estate and 49% of the coal mine IF she remarries. Thus, the apparent choices would be for her to marry the other partners in the mine – either Cornelius (with 26% share) or Ling (Terry Chen), who has a quarter-share. Both men desire Isabelle but she doesn’t want to move into the “sugar daddy” situation that Cornelius presents and, noting the racial prejudices of the era, rebuffs Ling, stating that a business led by a Chinese man and a black woman will not receive investment.
Isabelle cleverly circumvents – at least for the time being – John’s will after his passing. With Kat dressed as a man and taking an assumed name, Isabelle and her/him are married by the none-too-clever lawyer. Isabelle’s plan is to say, when asked where her husband has gone, that he is travelling on business. With Isabelle now able to inherit John’s estate and 49% of the mine, Kat will be rewarded for her role in the charade with a share of profits, thus financing the start-up of her ranch. Both women are now set to move forward independently in the business world.
PIVOT POINT#3 – Back to the Future. As the episode concludes, and Kat shares the news of start-up money for the ranch with her two adopted daughters, what appears to an apparition of Jeremiah (Richard de Klerk), Kat’s thought-dead husband, staggers into Janestown. It is, in fact, him, dazed and staring. Kat, incredibly shocked, calls out his full name as he approaches but as he draws near two Indigenous men on horseback come sweeping around the corner and lift Jeremiah from the ground and ride away with him. Has he been kidnapped the entire time? What advantage does his presence provide to the Indigenous riders and their people? His return will undoubtedly prompt Kat to restart her search for him; a search that now takes place in the context of her having recently said yes to a marriage proposal from US Marshal Caleb Mecredi (Tahmoh Penikett).
TECHNICAL NOTES & ACTING KUDOS – During the final chase scene with Kat and Slotter, a camera point-of-view was effectively used at one instance to give viewers a sense of Kat’s perspective and the almost-disorienting nature of close-quarter trees. As with episodes throughout the series, James Jandrisch’s compositions of moody yet complementary music for scenes were well-suited.
As a final review note, much praise has to go to the acting of Aaron Poole as Captain John Slotter. His character marks a singular contribution to the Western genre; a brooding, dark, and reflectively – but not reflexively – violent individual that was not cartoon-like and at different times evoked pathos (at least from this viewer). Poole created an interesting figure that when pressed, expressed incredulity with a grimaced smile or contained laugh, noting with gloomy humor how events turned. Rebecca wondered in the final episode whether Slotter had not been pushed by circumstances, as she and Kat had, toward acts of regret. While clearly Slotter committed crimes deserving punishment, it is a testament to Poole’s characterization that a viewer could ponder, if for a moment, if there was not some innocence lost in the man. The Western, despite the naysaying of genre critics who get hung up on earlier stereotypical forms, has great potential for universality and we can reflect, via the character of John Slotter, on our own paths of decision-making and regret and what it takes to reach redemption.
CBC continues to offer each episode of the Strange Empire for streaming online at Strange Empire. Beginning with Episode One, Westernsreboot.com has reviewed each installment of the series. This writer is hopeful that he will be able to do so again soon with a second season.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)