The Pinkertons is a new Western crime TV series that first launched October 2014 in the United States. With stories based upon the case files of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, founded by Allan Pinkerton in 1850, the first season of the US-set series takes place in post-Civil War 1865. The show stars Jacob Blair as William Pinkerton, Martha MacIssac as Kate Warne, and Angus Macfadyen as Allan Pinkerton. The series had its Canadian debut in January 2015 and is set to premiere in the UK and Ireland this August 30th.
WHO ARE THOSE GUYS (AND GIRL)? – Allan Pinkerton (1819-1884) was a Scottish emigrant to the US who, in addition to creating his Chicago-based agency, also provided security for President Abraham Lincoln and intelligence for the Union army during the US Civil War (1861-65). William Pinkerton (1846-1923), son of Allan, became head of the agency upon his father’s death. Kate Warne (1833-1868) is acknowledged as the first female detective in the United States, beginning work for the Pinkertons in 1856 at age 23. With the ability for accents and disguises, she was a key agent in discovering and circumventing an 1861 plot to assassinate Lincoln prior to his inauguration as President. The Pinkertons are known for having given the world the term “private eye”, drawn from a logo proclaiming that the Pinkertons “never sleep”.
Lto R: Kate Warne (MacIssac), Allan Pinkerton (Macfadyen), William Pinkerton (Blair) / Image – pbs.com
EPISODE ONE – THE SET-UP – The first episode, entitled “Kansas City”, opens with one of the iconic set-pieces of the Western genre – a train robbery. An explosion of the tracks stops the train, allowing a group of outlaws to rob passengers and a safe. The use of foreboding and repeating piano chords during the scene mirrors the menace of the bandits and quick editing works well to match the pace of the event. As the robbers complete their task, echoes of the Civil War emerge. The group’s leader recognizes a Union sharpshooter and pulls him from the train – it is now evident that, in combination with this move and their words, that the outlaws are former Confederates. The sharpshooter is defiant about his past actions and in fact goes to pull a gun against the men, who already have their weapons drawn. At the point of shots fired by the outlaws, the camera cleverly cuts away and avoids showing the result – a viewer’s imagination can often visualize more powerfully than a given depiction.
The scene cuts to a rearward view of Allan Pinkerton (Macfadyen) arriving in Kansas City, Missouri. Dressed in black, he walks with purpose from a train platform, an arm imperially-pressed against his back, toward a saloon. At this point, we are introduced to William Pinkerton (Blair), who appears slightly drunk at a card table with other men. His father enters the bar and sees his son, who rises to meet him. When William is slow to respond to Allan’s first command to come outside, Allan slaps him and matter-of-factly says “now”. Once outside, it is revealed that Allan struck his son in order to create the public impression of antagonism between them and that William is not drunk, but merely acting such to gain information about local bank robbers. Tenseness between father and son is immediately established in this scene, although it is broken with some comic paternalism by Allan.
The senior Pinkerton has arrived from Chicago to inform William that they have been hired by Missouri’s governor to immediately solve the train robbery of the opening and that he has brought along his “best man” to assist. That “man” is in fact Kate Warne (MacIssac), alighting from the train to the consternation of William, who is immediately admonished by his father and told “behave yourself!” Looking toward the two men, no words have yet been spoken by Warne and the episode, now at the 6 minute mark, moves into the up-tempo opening credits. The first words said by MacIssac, after the credits at the scene of train robbery, will be symbolic of the Warne character – they are “I found something.” Is it the first clue toward apprehending the gang? Here is the 2014 trailer for the first episode:
POST-WAR POLITICS -The show’s first episode does a good job of framing its story within the context of politics in the immediate post-Civil War period. Missouri was a state torn apart both prior to and during the Civil War, with allegiances to the Northern and Southern causes varying between neighbors. Grievances from the war and resentment by Confederates toward the Union application of victory combined into the kind of tension articulated by African-American farm hand, John Bell (Ray Strachan). Bell is the hand for the farm house that Kate Warne rents while in Missouri and he cautions her about the lingering bitterness by declaring that the War “….may be over, but the embers are still burning red hot.”
The driving narrative thread for the episode is a plan that the train robbers, revealed as former Confederate guerrillas, or “bushwhackers”, have for revenge against the Union. To ride with the bushwhackers during the Civil War was to take part in irregular military action outside of the official Southern army. Using the guerrilla techniques of ambush and lightning raids, the bushwhackers could be held accountable by the Union government for criminal actions. Within the episode, the bushwhackers remain as Southern rebels for two reasons – they seek retribution and also know that they could be hung if they were to surrender.
Lastly, the show makes a young Jesse James part of the outlaw band (born in 1847, he is about 18 in the episode). At the age of 16, the historical Jesse had joined his older brother Frank to fight with Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War. It has been argued that during his bandit career James chose some of his targets due to their political affiliations with the North. Assassinated by a fellow gang member in 1882 at the age of 34, an image of the historical Jesse James flashes briefly at the end of the opening credits. This is significant – James would be pursued but never captured by the Pinkertons. In the series, James is played by John MacDonald.
PERFORMANCES – The three lead actors are quite effective at establishing the approach of their characters within this first episode. Macfadyen, as a Scotsman, is able to employ his own accent and combines both a strong physical pressure with a subdued levity, particularly in moments with Blair as his son. Blair throws himself physically into the role and was natural in the outdoor scenes, particularly when he climbs a rock terrace to get at bushwhackers attempting an ambush. Blair did not look like an actor who had never spent time outside before. Whereas William may be knocked off-center emotionally by his father and Kate, Blair demonstrates that his character is self-assured in moments of action. MacIssac gives Kate Warne a believable bearing of competence and intelligence, a likely necessity for the historical Kate in pushing against the “glass ceiling” the way she did.
DETAILS – The Pinkertons is filmed in the Canadian province of Manitoba, specifically in the Gross Isle area, a rural community some 30 minutes north-west of Winnipeg. Serving as western Missouri, the location provides a variety of landscapes – dense tree groves, rolling plains, rock and gravel – that add to the feel of the show. Gross Isle also offers a vintage steam train, operated by the Prairie Dog Central Railway, which is put to good use in the first episode.
In terms of cinematic details, the interiors are well-done with appointed detail and effective lighting. The smokiness and dark is well-mapped within the saloon and the natural light of the farm house rented by Kate adds to the rural feel of her accommodation. The bushwhacker camp, highlighted by hanging pots and pans, odd bits of rough furniture, and layered by campfire smoke, gives a sense of what it would be like to live on the run, hidden among the trees. It is also worth noting the use of costume, as the heavy wool outdoor clothing, mostly of earthen tones, matches well with the apparel choices of the era.
CLOSING THOUGHTS – The first episode of any new TV series is a daunting task. In addition to stand-alone entertainment, the cast and crew need to give enough context to new characters and a sense of upcoming story-lines for the show. The goal is also to leave enough curiosity for a return to a second episode. The Pinkertons, created by Kevin Abrams and Adam Moore for a broad audience, does accomplish that goal.
The first season of The Pinkertons runs 22 episodes and Westernsreboot.com will be tracking developments for a second season.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)