Canada's Strange Empire - A Western from the Female Perspective

On TV, the western genre has been depicted in many forms, from the traditional heyday of Mavrick, Bonanza, Little House on The Prairie, The High Chaparral to the 1980s/90s updates of Matt Houston, Walker Texas Ranger, Lonesome Dove, Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman and Young Riders (yes that is a deep cut, but I loved it as a teenager). Deadwood is the line in the sand when it comes to modern depictions of the genre with the move towards realism with a high dash of Shakespearean-like story telling and dialogue structure. This show moved the western from the white-washed, family friendly early evening westerns to a post-watershed drama that depicts violence, sex and some of the harsh realities of the historical period that they set in.  All of this in nothing new to a TV viewer who likes the western genre. We have been spoilt for choice with shows from the gritty end of the spectrum such as Hell On Wheels, to western/crime shows such as Longmire and Justified from the USA, to some more family friendly shows from Australia and Canada such as McLeod's Daughters, Heartland and Murdoch Mysteries.  

Here is another show to add to your viewing list.  Strange Empire has just finished its first season in Canada on its public service channel, CBS. It is set on the border of Montana (USA) and Alberta (Canada) around 1869. Canada was a new nation (established 1867 when the British North American Act was passed by the British Parliament and given royal assent by Queen Victoria. The Act joined the colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in one federal union.) A bit of a wild time in Canada's history with the Cree,Peigan, Gros Ventre and Blackfoot people being moved off their land across the prairie and in some cases wiped out by the growth of the fur trade, the establishment of towns, farms and the railroad. Minerals deposits were mined, fortunes built, lawlessness ensued and many traders from the USA crossed the border to offer 'whiskey' made up of dyes, poisons, alcohol and medicine for goods from the local aboriginal people. So more Deadwood than Little House on the Prairie.

Strange Empire explores this era from the perspective of three women, Kat Loving (Cara Gee) who is a mix of Cree and white heritage and is married to a Scotman, Dr Rebecca Blithely (Melissa Farman) who is on the autism spectrum and is a doctor travelling with her much older husband (also a doctor) who adopted her as a child, and after his first wife's death, married Rebecca to protect her, and Isabelle Slotter (Tattiawana Jones) the wife of the richest and most powerful man in the area, John Slotter (Aaron Poole), and the madame of whorehouse that is owned by Slotter. There is a big cast with many women who have more than the traditional, be seen and not heard role of women in a western. The show also gives voice to the stories of the Chinese immigrants, the Indian nations and other people of colour, who are not usually focused on in westerns unless it is a plot point to be solved by the white make protagonist. 

This is a bold show told with a mixture of gritty realism and lyrical wonder. It was created by writer/producer Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik, who created Durham County and has written for many Canadian shows. I don't want to go into too much detail about themes and plot points as it would spoil the joy of discovery with this show. If you like your westerns with a strong 'this is how it most probably was like' streak, give it a go. It is quite a ride.