"My father found me strange," young Rebecca Blithely (Melissa Farman) tells her would-be surrogate mother figure, Kat Loving (Cara Gee), midway through the first hour of the strange, female-driven period western Strange Empire.
Blithely was committed to a mental institution as a child before being rescued by a kindly, benevolent couple who raised her as their own. Now, living an uncertain life in a small mountain town that straddles the Alberta-Montana border in the late 1860s, she’s decided to become a surgeon. It’s a time and place where men rule the roost – good men and bad men alike – and girls are married off at a young age before they become women.
Strange Empire – shot in Aldergrove at the former Arctic Air site – hails from Durham County co-creator and writer Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik, and it shares that series’ sense of menace and lurking dread, despite its period setting.
When the two women, talking quietly in a forest glade, hear the sound of what sounds like gunshots in the distance, Blithely brightens and says the town must be celebrating an occasion with fireworks. Loving, who has just stared down a marauding band of varmints with her trusty revolver, knows better. A hunting party has gone missing, and it’s only a matter of time before bad men start killing good men. The women are caught in the middle.
Strange Empire has the misfortune, too, to come along at the same time AMC’s glossy, high-end period western Hell on Wheels, now is in its fourth year. Hell on Wheels is sprawling, loud and charged with an almost pyrotechnic energy, where Strange Empire strives to be intimate and low-key, by necessity as much as choice.
There are echoes of the Clint Eastwood western Unforgiven in the way Strange Empire’s women vow to balance the scales of injustice. The main characters are not cookie-cutter versions of the others but are clearly defined, individual characters, each with her own strengths and flaws. The show is not perfect, but there are moments of real promise.