There is a lot of tension in Strange Empire’s Janestown. Plenty of it comes from the show’s first episode—and the now-rarely touched upon mass murder of a group of men that left the women traveling with them stranded and in danger. And while the fate of the women has been the predominant feature of the series (likely to their detriment considering how things keep getting worse), Janestown’s troubles are much older than that horrific debut.
Monday’s “The Resistance” delved into that as it finally dedicated itself to an examination of the race relations at play as Canada tried to connect itself from coast to coast. While it might be significant improvement that Briggs acknowledged that Kat’s people probably had a right to some of the land, the same can’t be said for her attitudes about the Chinese workers who put their life on the line to build her precious mine for the scant pay they received as Ling’s indentured servants.
Though while Briggs might be the most obvious villain of the piece—her near-incessant racist observations putting her on almost equal footing with Slotter—she was hardly alone as nearly everyone, including Neal, got drawn into the vicious attacks on the other half of the town. And while scabs still might not be a welcome sight at picket lines, the conflation of that with race turned it from a labour dispute that Kat was trying to mediate into a deadly quest for revenge that saw Ling’s men repeatedly come out on the losing end.
The treatment of Ling’s workers is slowly coming out as the series moves them from being background noise to the foreground, and it’s fascinating to watch the show reveal another blemish on Canadian history as blatantly as they are doing — making me wish they’d committed a bit more time to this discussion instead of replaying the same threats against the women over and over. Last week’s revelation, that Ling could only negotiate a fraction of the pay for his workers under the same dangerous conditions that saw Caze instigate a strike, was telling—and he didn’t have much more power this week as his position as partner was easily dismissed and revoked.
Making it worse for the workers was Ling’s own dreams of a capitalist venture, taking them on as indentured servants and pocketing what little they were paid — though whether that was meant to damn Ling or justify Slotter could be another, far more political debate about how far the series is really willing to go as it paints a less-than-rosy picture of Canada’s debut. And yet, if it weren’t for those underpaid and endangered men, neither Slotter nor his father would stand a chance at profit, nor would the country have the railway that so defined it.
It was obvious Kat was feeling how hopeless the situation was, well-aware of how it would end for Ling and his men and knowing how little she, also an outsider, could do despite her badge. I don’t even think she needed Briggs’ reminder about who paid her to know that there would be no justice for Lao or Momma Ling and the brief exchanges between Kat and Ling said more with their resigned looks than their brave words.
As with most Strange Empire episodes of late, it looked liked the status quo was set to live on with Slotter back as the sole boss and the rest left to struggle, however fruitlessly, against a system that has a long way to go before it begins to treat them fairly. It was a reality Ling acknowledged as he told Isabelle, “the world you are meant to rule is not yet built.” Though with that final act of vengeful brutality maybe Ling was also saying he was tired of waiting.
Did Ling go too far attacking the mine or was he bound to snap? What do you think of the series’ focus on the worker’s plight? Sound off in the comments below!
Strange Empire airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on CBC.