Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Strange Empire indeed

I am not a big television viewer, and in fact we cancelled our cable/digital subscription some years ago on the grounds that we rarely watched anything (or found anything worthwhile to watch), and certainly not $70/month's worth.
But I do see some TV from time to time, either online or via the free-to-air digital signal afforded us by our DIY rabbit-ears-on-the-chimney arrangement, and I must admit to being quite taken currently with the CBC series Strange Empire.
Set in the wild and lawless west of 19th Century Canada, just north of the Montana border, the "strange empire" of the title is a remote mining outpost and associated whorehouse, and the series follows the struggles, tribulations and rare victories of some of the idiosyncratic individuals, and particularly the women, who chose (or in some cases not) that hard-scrabble, hand-to-mouth life.
It is replete with instances of the moral ambiguity and compromise forced on people by hard circumstances, and it showcases some of the violence, sexism, racism and sheer unadulterated greed that underpinned much of the development of our modern country. But, for me, it is the individual character studies that provide much of the program's appeal, including (but not limited to):
  • The young doctor's wife (actually the old English doctor's adopted ward, whom he "married" after his own wife's death as the best way of keeping her safe), who herself takes on the role of doctor after her husband's death. She is fiercely intelligent and committed to the pursuit of science in a milieu where such things are frowned upon and unappreciated. She is also extremely socially awkward and naïve in the ways of the world, and perhaps slightly autistic in a high-functioning way, as well as clearly reigning in, and struggling with, a boiling cauldron of repressed emotion.
  • The hard-baked but deeply moral Métis woman, who takes on the thankless but necessary job of law-maker in a lawless community constantly teetering on the edge of chaos and turmoil. She also adopts and ferociously protects two young orphan girls, who were otherwise destined for a life of whoring and worse, and struggles to come to terms with the death of her own beloved husband and soul-mate.
  • The two above-mentioned adolescent girls, rough and tomboyish on the outside, but clearly very much young women underneath, with all the desires, frailties and hormonal imbalances that come with that time of life. The seething mixture of resentment, reliance and unconditional love they reveal towards their new "mother" and towards each other is a fascinating study in coming of age in difficult circumstances.
  • The quiet and unassuming young buck, who follows the young lady doctor around like a puppy, clearly smitten despite the doctor's (albeit ambiguously) married state, and who actually turns out to be a woman in disguise.
  • The beautiful ex-whore, now married to the mine owner, who exhibits a cruel and cynical drive for self-preservation and self-aggrandisement, but whose hard exterior briefly slips from time to time to reveal the confused and needy woman within, so that we are always tantalisingly suspicious of the existence of a hidden good heart, even though she never quite justifies our suspicions.
  • The mine owner himself, one of the only male characters developed to any great extent, to all appearances an unreconstructed, smarmy, self-centred and cruel lothario, hell-bent on money-making and dynasty-building. But even he lets slip the occasional pang of regret and doubt, so that we never quite write him off completely.
The series is a tour-de-force of characterization, well-acted, well-filmed and meticulously envisioned, a great example of what the CBC can produce. Unfortunately, of course, the CBC is in the process of being financially and culturally gutted, pared down to just another sports-and-syndication network, and such dramas are unlikely to survive in the new Zeitgeist. Which is a crying shame.

No comments: