Redefining the queerness of “Strange Empire”

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Canadian drama Strange Empire seeks to invert everything we think we know about the both the Wild West and the Western genre. In the hands of the female-fronted cast and production team, the familiar black and white hats have been cast aside in favor of ethereal shades of gray, and every character is a compelling mix of light and dark that resists easy classification as hero or villain. 

So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise (“shouldn’t,” but still does) that the show’s handling of gender and sexuality exists in the same gray area as its morality. I’m referring, of course, to the relationship between Rebecca and Morgan. What I originally thought of and described as a lesbian romance may, in fact, be something else.         

To review: The romance in question takes place on the Canadian frontier in the 1869 at a time when the road was muddy, the whiskey flowed like water, and life was altogether nasty, brutish, and short. Rebecca (Melissa Farman) is a gifted but green physician still finding her identity and learning her value. Viewers might classify Rebecca as having an Autism Spectrum Disorder, but to her fellow pioneers she is merely an educated eccentric. Farman herself is the great joy of the series so far, flitting about the action like a jewel-bright robin in a dull, gray world.

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She brings a remarkable wide-openness to Rebecca, whose unique brain allows her to circumvent the moral constraints of her peers and go straight to the heart of any matter. Though she is cerebral by nature, Rebecca is far from immune to desires of the flesh. Rebecca feels desire as electricity, and her most powerful conductor is Morgan. Morgan recently came out to Rebecca as a cowboy trapped in a female body, to which Rebecca reacted with some confusion but no alarm. In a recent interview, Farman said of her character “She is experiencing sexual desire for the first time in her life and she has no sense of a gender cage. She has no sense of, ‘What could possibly be wrong with it?’ It’s an experiment for her, like any other. I think it is very interesting to play a character like that, but it is also very exciting to play a character who is completely unburdened by prejudice and just sees desire and attraction as a positive thing no matter what way you look at it.”  (Follow the link to the interview at your own risk, since Farman is appallingly articulate and thoughtful and you will walk away from it with a painful crush on her.)

The other star-crossed lover is Morgan Finn (Joanne Boland), who has chosen to live as a man.

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Today, Morgan might self-identify as trans* or genderqueer, but those words mean as much to her as Aspergers would to Rebecca. Like most politically sensitive people, I would rather walk on glass than misgender somebody (even an imaginary somebody) so I struggled with how to write about Morgan, until I read this edifying interview with Boland herself, in which she says, “It’s interesting because I worked with the writers in terms of the notion of being ‘two spirited.’ It was in an earlier script, Pike (my uncle that teaches me how to grease my hair and teaches me to be the man I felt I am) was married to a woman who was a Black Foot. For Morgan, it’s the idea of two spirited people, really looking at the fact I felt I was born in the wrong body or that there was a piece of me that felt to be a man that this was a gift rather than something looked badly upon. I think in terms of Morgan’s confidence, I think it comes from there being an acceptance early on from my uncle. I actually didn’t know the idea of being two spirited before the show and it is such an amazing idea because this is before what we now know in prior colonization the existence of cross-gender roles. It’s amazing to look back on the acceptance of that. It isn’t considered a negative. It was considered a gift because you are carrying two spirits. I thought it was just fascinating!”

It’s pretty fucking rad that Morgan has carved an identity out of the tools available in their time, and that the show has made the exploration of their identity a priority, even with all the challenges it presents.  (I’m using “their” as Morgan’s pronoun based mostly on how they wince every time Rebecca says “Miss Finn.”)  Historical queerness is my favorite kind to see depicted, because it is so vital to remember that queers have always existed and found ways to thrive. Since the beginning of time, people of every conceivable stamp have been falling in love with each other. But Strange Empire would be nothing more than a good-intentioned history lesson were it not for the blistering chemistry between Boland and Farman, which cuts through labels and simply exists as a fact that neither character can deny. As I wrote before, Strange Empire is a show with a great deal of growing to do, but its determination to depict Morgan as more than a question mark and Rebecca as more than a diagnosis, makes it, as much as its characters, a pioneer.

It’s unclear where the relationship between these two people is headed; it’s unclear whether they will survive from one moment to the next in a world where death lurks around every corner. But we know that Joanne Boland is appearing in the entire first season, so hopefully there is still time to delve more deeply into their feelings. We’re in the midst of a big moment for trans* characters on television, but there is still a shortage of those characters experiencing romantic love. I hope AfterEllen’s readers can continue to embrace this show and storyline.

Strange Empire returns Jan. 12 to CBC and if you don’t watch it, it will be cancelled and it will be all your fault.

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