“This is Canada. There’s no law but our own.”
If the new series Strange Empire were a comedy set in current times, those words could be used for laughs in a wide array of situations.
But when it’s 1869 and a young orphan girl says something like that, huddled and scared near the Alberta-Montana border, there’s nothing particularly amusing about it. Accepted as a statement of fact, it speaks to the danger that exists in all directions.
That’s the world of Strange Empire, a new Western drama that debuts Monday, Oct. 6 on CBC.
If you watch the first episode of Strange Empire, I think you’ll agree that it’s a bit hard to describe it. Just when you think it’s going to be one thing, it goes in a different direction, and that happens more than once.
But this much is certain: While traditionally the Western genre has been male-focused – probably in terms of audience as well as characters – Strange Empire has three women at its core.
Starring Cara Gee (pictured above centre) as Kat Loving, Melissa Farman (above right) as Dr. Rebecca Blithely and Tattiawna Jones (above left) as Isabelle Slotter, Strange Empire takes mere seconds to let you know that these are trying times. Through a series of tragic circumstances – some of which may have been engineered by the menacing John Slotter, played by Aaron Poole – Kat, Rebecca and Isabelle must work together to protect themselves and others in this cutthroat environment.
“And that’s part of CBC’s transition this year, we want darker shows, edgier shows and serialized formats,” Jones said. “These women are not looking cool. They’re struggling to survive. These are the ‘anonymous Janes’ of history.
“But it’s not just a show about women. It’s a show about the disenfranchised, the forgotten, who have to come together and build a community to survive in no-man’s land. It doesn’t look cool. It looks hard.
“A lot of Western stories are about building civilization, but the road to that civilization is paved with bloodshed.”
Is there a gunslinger in Strange Empire, so to speak?
“We’re the Clint Eastwoods of this show,” Farman said. “But I’m not so good with the gun, since I’m playing a doctor.”
So who gets to stare people down with icy eyes?
“I do,” said Gee, flatly and seriously, a la Clint Eastwood, and then all three laughed.
“It’s just the truth,” Farman added. “That’s the Kat character, for sure.”
Certainly Kat falls into the situation of being a protector, especially to two young orphan girls who are about to be delivered into prostitution.
“You do a million auditions, but every now and then you do one that you really, really, really want to get,” Gee said. “And this was one of those. It was like, ‘I have to, have to, have to get this role.’
“I’m sure for a lot of the people who really were living back in these times, their lives could be tedious, because of the tremendous amount of hard work. But women didn’t have fewer thoughts back then. They just weren’t as heard.”
All three of the main female characters in Strange Empire have to be deft and daring, albeit in completely different ways.
“What’s groundbreaking about this show is that it’s taking a very beloved genre, the Western, and shifting the representational politics,” Jones observed. “We’re seeing and hearing the voices of people we don’t usually get, the other half. Not just the forefathers, but the ‘foremothers.’
“You say that sometimes we rewrite history to make heroes, but these women aren’t heroes. They’re survivors. They have to make really tough choices. Sometimes you have to compromise what you thought your morality was. They’re heroes at times, but sometimes they have to be anti-heroes as well.
“And our audience, I think, will identify with that, because it’s the struggle of outsiders trying to become insiders.”
Call it the ins and outs of Canada’s Wild West. Strange Empire breaks laws in a lawless land.