In its last episode (December 8) before breaking until January, the new CBC Western series Strange Empire picked up with the tensions of the previous week – conflict between fired white workers and newly-hired Chinese workers as to who would work in the Slotter coal mine. Within that theme of disunity, which extended from the miners to the personal relationships of characters, the viewer was left with a question – does anyone really win when you divide to conquer? This ninth episode was entitled “The Resistance”.
DIVIDE#1 – The show, set in the 1869 Alberta-Montana border region, opened the episode with Janestown-appointed sheriff, the Métis Kat Loving (Cara Gee), riding thru the neighboring Chinese community. Ling (Terry Chen), leader of the Chinese workers, asks Kat if the white workers realize that they have now been beaten, thus alluding to the outcome of the fight that ended the previous installment. Replying simply that the fired workers will be back, she rides to the Slotter mansion to tell John Slotter (Aaron Poole) that the conflict between the miners must be resolved or the town will not survive. Slotter dismisses Kat and the idea of a divided community itself, declaring, “There is no town….there is me.” Slotter’s goal is to mine the coal with whichever set of workers allows him least expense and resistance to his current use of weak timber supports in the mine.
An ambush of a Chinese worker carrying TNT dynamite to expand the coal seam, involving Franklyn Caze (Teach Grant) and Kat’s adopted son, Neill (Mitch Duffield), sets in motion divisions within Janestown itself. Neill, in defense of his two accomplices, shoots the worker in the stomach. The three will take Slotter’s dynamite and leave the wounded man along the road. The shot, however, has been heard by both Kat and Ling at a distance.
DIVIDE#2 – The worker is found and brought by Ling to Janestown doctor, Rebecca Blithely (Melissa Farman). Ling warns Rebecca that her aid to the Chinese worker could bring scorn from her own community. Rebecca doesn’t care, as her guiding intellectual principle is to extend medical assistance to anyone in need. Kat arrives to ask Mrs. Briggs (Anne Marie DeLuise) who shot the worker. Briggs, who stands to lose saloon income if the white miners are not reinstated, declares that what is happening is in fact a fight to the death. Briggs tells Kat to prevent Rebecca from giving aid to the worker, reminding Kat that it is their “side” that pays her wage as sheriff. Kat does not stop Rebecca and the divisions within Janestown grow.
DIVIDE #3 – When Ling pulls his workers from the mine, with the excuse of safety but with the real motive of pressuring Slotter toward giving up more of his ownership, Slotter sends his wife, Isabelle (Tattiawna Jones), to persuade Ling to bring his miners back. In that meeting, the romantic and physical connection between Ling and Isabelle is resumed. Slotter, in his desire to conquer Ling’s resistance, has effectively created further division within his own marital relationship.
Shortly after Isabelle’s visit, and after Rebecca has returned the wounded worker to Ling (under the Janestown threat of the worker’s death), Caze and a white worker detonate the stolen TNT under Ling’s house. Ling, Rebecca and the worker survive, but Ling’s mother (Grace Fatkin), who had lived with him and guided his actions, is killed. This event will have major repercussions at the episode’s conclusion.
Neill confesses to Kat that it was he who shot the worker and Kat says the worker will live and that she will resolve the community divisions once and for all. Exploding the retrieved TNT with her rifle in Slotter’s front yard, she declares to Slotter that he will speak with Ling and Caze or else his mansion itself will be destroyed. At this point, Kat is more “shooter” than sheriff in defense of community. Kat, Mrs. Briggs, and Isabelle, listen to the men talk in the yard, while acknowledging their individual influence upon Ling and Caze. The result will be Caze accepting Slotter’s promised improvements, with Ling and his Chinese workers sent back to work on the railway spur line to the US. When Ling argues that he is a 25% owner in Slotter’s mine, Slotter dismisses the claim, stating that Ling failed to meet the conditions of the contract (when his workers quit).
DIVIDE#4 – The episode concludes with Briggs and Caze acknowledging their budding romance, as he gets set to enter the mine with his workers. A massive explosion soon shakes the entirety of Janestown. Ling has detonated TNT within mine. Horrified, Briggs and others run to the mine as Ling, hidden in the woods, invokes his dead mother and the episode ends. Ling has set to conquer Slotter by dividing him from his mine and his workers, with the ripple effect of having divided personal connections within Janestown. The question of who now survives waits until the show’s January return.
TECHNICAL NOTES & ACTING KUDOS – The use of background sound was well-done in the episode. With a proper stereo set-up, in a scene where Rebecca tends to the injured worker, the voices of the Janestown residents can be heard in the background chattering about the issues. The sounds add an immersive quality to the scene.
Kudos should also go to the acting of Marci T. House, who plays Ruby Slotter, housekeeper at the Slotter mansion. Ruby is a very important character, as she is a link between Janestown and the mansion and is highly-informed about both. Within the December 8th episode, a smaller narrative thread was the intended murder of the real birth mother of the Slotter son. House demonstrated both strength and passion when first making the case to Slotter’s henchman as to why the girl should be spared, and then expressing believable emotion when it appears that deed has been committed.
With the effective set-up of a “cliffhanger”, Strange Empire returns Monday, January 12th with four episodes remaining in its first season. Previous episodes can be streamed at Strange Empire. Beginning with Episode 1, Westernsreboot has reviewed each episode to date.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)