Strange Empire

I remember learning that Cara Gee from The Expanse (a.k.a. Drummer, Fred Johnson’s lieutenant) was in the Western TV show Strange Empire and was intrigued.

Well, I watched the first episode on the CBC site and can say that it’s a bit slow. It’s basically what one would expect from the phrase “CBC Western”, which is to say self-consciously mythologizing in a Canadian multicultural way (I’d say “politically correct” except the term is basically only a pejorative nowadays). As a government channel it’s no surprise CBC would project Canada’s multicultural political ideology into the past, and it’s not like they’re being especially historically revisionist about it – women and minorities were there during the settling of the West and had agency and goals and sorrows lived within the possibilities and limits of their society. This is how Canadian propaganda works.

Anyway, the show is about a bunch of women on the Canadian frontier whose menfolk have been slaughtered and who have been taken in hand by a violent brothel owner. It’s not awful, and in fact I can see something worthwhile that might fully come forward later in the show. It’s interesting watching a Western through the eyes of the hookers who only have bit parts in the traditional violently masculine cowboy story. But like I said, it can be slow, and I have to say for the first half of the episode I was afraid that it would turn into a typically boring Canadian historical piece about immigrants and the downtrodden settling the Prairies. I was never so relieved for a massacre as immediately after that point.

But let’s speak of the show’s politics. Cara Gee plays a Metis (half-Native) woman who is the gunslinging cowgirl one would expect from a female Western (though she isn’t a superhuman like a Calamity Jane or whoever Sharon Stone’s character was in The Quick and the Dead). Terry Chen (Praxideke Meng to you Expanse peeps) doesn’t play an opium-smoking Fu Manchu stereotype. There’s a female doctor whose husband thinks her intelligence is a freakish biological quirk. There’s a wagon train full of widows afraid of how their lives will turn out now. And there’s the brothel owner/railroad developer and his gang of thugs who wants them all under his thumb.

It’s clear that the central conflict of the show will be between the Metis woman and the brothel owner, which is to say that the show is an intersectional feminist Western about resisting the dictates of a patriarchal society. Which does make it sound rather dull in a programmatic kind of way.

However, there was another Western TV show that interrogated at length the mythology of the frontier which I think may be compared to this one if you feel like being generous. Yes, I’m saying this could be a Canadian Deadwood. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Strange Empire will prove to be as iconic or even as good as Deadwood, but to me it seems to be working in the same space.

So do I recommend this show? I’m not sure. I didn’t watch past the first episode and I don’t feel like I really missed anything. I guess it’s fine? I’ve got a ton of shows on my queue and I gave it one episode, which I think is fair. It didn’t really catch me so I’ll try other things instead.

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