CBC aired the third episode of its new Western series Strange Empire on Monday, October 20th. Set in the Alberta-Montana border region of 1869, this third installment, entitled “Other Powers”, demonstrated the levels of control that individual characters seek to exercise upon those around them.
One of the leading examples of control dynamics came with the arrival of Cornelius Slotter (Duncan Ollerenshaw), capitalist father to John (Aaron Poole). In the previous episode, John’s wife, Isabelle (Tattiawana Jones), had telegraphed Cornelius the news of an heir; a baby boy Isabelle had taken from a prostitute under their employ. John and Isabelle hope the extension of a fraudulent family line will be incentive for Cornelius to provide a payroll for John’s struggling coal mine. An infant is the lever of emotional control that the couple presses toward Cornelius, who in turn presses back with not an outright grant but the offer of a loan. Further, Cornelius will only give that payroll loan if he has 70% ownership of the enterprise. For John, who seeks his own independent financial path, this level of control is too much and he rejects the offer. Later, Isabelle exercises her own emotional and physical power over the father to secretly take the loan; she offers herself up to him as the son, her husband, sleeps.
Several of the women who have taken refuge in “Janestown”, the collection of shacks adjacent to the Slotter mansion, exert their available level of agency to survive following the massacre of their male family members (Episode One). The widowed Mrs. Briggs (Anne Marie DeLuise) envisions a town rising as the coal mine and a railroad spur line to the US develops, and she thinks money could be made in such a community. Believing that she and her daughter could make a living with a saloon and selling food to the workers, Briggs, her daughter, Fiona (Ali Liebert), and Miss Logan (Christie Burke) ambush a supply wagon on its way to the Slotters. With the help of Kat Loving (Cara Gee), who believes her missing husband could still be alive, the two wagon men are held at gunpoint and forced to give up not only the goods Briggs wants but also their guns and pants. The women, who have been abused and embarrassed by Slotter and his men, exact some retribution that leaves the men standing bare-legged and shamed.
There were a number of strong moments in the episode, which was directed by Amanda Tapping. Aaron Poole’s portrayal of John Slotter is multi-faceted; there is an element of the tragic to the character as he deals with the combined pressure of his father’s financial control, the challenges of opening his mine and dealing with the women he views as “squatters” on his land, his relationship with Isabelle, and the consequences of his decisions. While doing so, Slotter grounds his actions in the material and dismisses his wife’s talk of spiritualism. When Kat returns to Janestown, after John believes his father has carelessly shot her while the two men were game hunting, a level of exasperation is well-acted by Poole. Looking at Kat, he asks if she had been just “playing dead….or you some spirit resurrected?” Slotter looks away from Kat, up to the sky, and sighs, and then shakes his head at the whole scene.
A second highlight was the directorial framing of Kat in the door of a Janestown shack, as she watches a revival minister (and elixir salesman) being attended to after being shot by one of Slotter’s men for his stand against the mine and railroad. With a moody undercurrent of music, Kat’s dark-clothed silhouette in the doorframe, with hat and long coat, is brought into focus as she observes then turns and leaves.
The first season of Strange Empire will run 13 episodes and fans of another Canadian-filmed Western, AMC’s Hell on Wheels, will note the Western acting reappearance of Ollerenshaw and April Telek (as Constance Fogg in the CBC series), each having played in the first two seasons of that AMC drama. Westernsreboot.com has also reviewed the previous episodes of the series at E1 and E2 . Production of the first season wrapped this week.
For further information about Strange Empire, which airs Monday nights at 9E, and to stream previous episodes, visit Strange Empire.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)