The English (2022) Prime Video Mini-series: My experience with the western genre had been the spaghetti westerns and, to some extent, the revisionist westerns. What has genuinely been missing in my exploration of the oeuvre is the western genre’s preference for the use of native Americans, either in narrative or in casting. Even while exploring, it is difficult to recall native American sentiment being explored in sufficient depth beyond their roles as villains (Stagecoach) or supporting characters. In the case of spaghetti westerns, it is harder to recall whether they had any presence.
From a genre literacy standpoint, The English (2022) felt hugely important to me as a viewer. Not only does it star Emily Blunt, one of the best actresses of this generation, and is one of the primary leads in this show, but it also tries to show the Western as the truly lawless area it truly was during the tail end of the 1800s. The show follows Englishwoman Lady Cornelia Locke as she comes to the West in 1890 to seek revenge against the man she believes to be responsible for her son’s death. Her path crosses with that of an ex-cavalry scout and member of the Pawnee Nation, and as she begins to embark on the journey, she realizes that they may share a common history.
Detailed recap incoming, so beware of spoilers.
The English (2022) Prime Video Mini-series Recap:
Like any fable, it begins with the phrase “Once upon a time.” The first episode opens with Lady Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt) reminiscing about her time with Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a Scout of the US Army belonging to the Pawnee Nation. Once upon a time, the two had very different goals: she was looking for the man responsible for her son’s death and exacting revenge, while Whipp was looking to earn back the land he had a legitimate claim to. But fate had different plans for the two of them.
In 1890, Eli Whipp assisted the US Army in the capture of a Pawnee leader named Running Hawk, much to the chagrin of his wife, Touching Ground, who accuses him of betraying his people. Whipp retires and plans to head off to Nebraska to claim the land that was his birthright according to the Homestead Act. Eli’s comrade Cam reasons with him that The English (2022) won’t give up their land and advises him to ride up to Wyoming, where Billy Myers, Lonnie Myers’ brother, lived. Cam wanted Eli to inform them that Lonnie’s killer had finally been caught.
A week later, Lady Cornelia Locke arrives in Kansas from Southhampton, where she is welcomed by Richard Watts (Ciaran Hinds). As Cornelia disembarks from the carriage and looks around, complaining about the carriage being driven too fast, Seobold Cusk (Toby Jones) explains the presence of Indians as a defining factor. To that effect, Watts shows Cornelia, an Indian, being strung up because he had walked into their bar and asked for a drink.
The skin color was enough for the Indian (revealed to be Eli) to be marked for being strung up. As Cornelia tries to pay Richard off for cutting Eli down, she is punched in the jaw and knocked unconscious. Richard sends Eli to Ellsworth with Sebold to frame him for the murder of the English woman. However, Eli and Sebold are waylaid by a group of outlaws hoping to rob them. Eli returns to Richard’s hotel after successfully killing them, with Sebold also dying in the crossfire. There he finds Cornelia, decked out in a red dress, sitting across from Richard.
Cornelia is shocked to know that the man she had been searching for already knew she was coming. Richard reveals to her that he had intervened several times on her behalf so that her demise occurred right there. Eventually, as Richard shows his plan to rape her, Eli shoots and kills him from behind. Eli then ties up Drew upside down, with the rope tied to his legs on one end and the other tied to a horse. Intending to let the horse decide on his fate, Eli is surprised to see Cornelia push the horse backward so that Drew would be submerged face down in the bucket of water and choke while dying. As the two finally begin to part their separate ways, Eli advises Cornelia only to carry the items she can on horseback. Cornelia begs for Eli’s help, suggesting that magic has bound them together. Eli agrees to accompany her to Kearney but warns her that the journey will be rough.
Meanwhile, in Caine County, Wyoming, Thomas Trafford informs Sheriff Robert Marshall that all his pregnant cattle have been slaughtered, with Trafford showing a dead, 13-week-gestation prized Longhorn Hereford Cross. He unequivocally blames the new homesteaders for this massacre, citing that they are trying to drive Trafford off the land even after he had opened it up for everyone.
Meanwhile, Cornelia and Eli continue their ride, where their conversations highlight the difference in their cultures, with Eli describing how the members of his family had all taken “The Path of the Dead” and pointing upwards at the Milky Way in the night sky, which Cornelia marvels at. They come across three men: Captain Clegg, Trooper Charlie White (an Indian), whom Whipp had fought with before, and another guy. Clegg invites Eli to join them for bushwhacking, which Eli staunchly refuses. The men then asked aggressively for Cornelia’s bags, and the shooting began as Eli tried to calm down the situation diplomatically. Eli manages to shoot two men while Charlie hobbles away due to Cornelia’s rifle locking up.
As Charlie tries to escape, he is killed by a bow and arrow straight to the heart, courtesy of Cornelia. They then come across a Mennonite couple, who had been previously revealed at the beginning of Episode 2 to have been slaughtered by the three men. Eli realizes that the pregnant woman in one of the wagons is dead, but he can save the child, so he instructs Cornelia to fetch him some sugar. As Cornelia searches for sugar, she finds a child hiding in the storage area of the wagon. Eli successfully manages to save the baby and asks Cornelia to feed her. Cornelia refuses to feed the baby her milk, but the two of them acknowledge the existence of a makeshift family unit with the baby involved if they want it. As they head back to ensure that the children are given shelter, they meet John and Katie Clarke, a Kickapoo man and a Cherokee woman. As they begin to reveal the details of their journey, Eli warns Cornelia not to disclose the money she has been carrying. John explains to Eli how the land is so rough that they must dig 20 feet before hitting any soil.
As they continue talking, the young girl enters the room and speaks in German, which reminds Katie of the Mennonite group that had passed through on one wagon and was supposed to return to Oklahoma for another land run. Cornelia agrees to go for the children, but Eli is reluctant, citing that they have gone back far enough. He had come through this area when the government had forced him and his family out of Nebraska, and the journey took away his wife, while the child died of a fever two years later. Thus, Cornelia decides to go to Oklahoma with the children. She leaves the money behind while swapping carriages. Eli gifts her with a compass he borrowed from the Clarkes, saying he will stay here and work to pay it off before leaving for Oklahoma.
We see a woman running for her life, trying to jump over a barbed wire fence before being shot in the back, the bullet blowing out through her chest. A man holding a pistol sobs while sticking the gun under his temple and blowing his head off near Billy Myers’ house. It is revealed that the man who shot himself was Timothy Flynn, Myers’ partner. Myers, upset, asks the sheriff to check if she has any markings on her, which the sheriff realizes are in the affirmative (a branded B) after digging her up. Myers and Flynn are the cattle owners, but since they are not branded, they are open season for Trafford, who rounds them up and keeps them for himself. Myers’ wife, Martha (Valerie Pachner), tries to threaten Trafford to give them back but is denied because, according to the law, unmarked cattle are up for grabs. When Martha gets home, she tells his son to look for Myers, who hasn’t returned home since late at night. His son finds Myers dead, with his hands and legs bound with barbed wire and his intestines spilling out of his stomach.
Meanwhile, Eli starts to wonder how the Clarkes’ make their living if the land is so barren. His suspicion is deepened when he finds a holster for the compass he had gifted to Cornelia, realizing that the Clarkes had stolen it from the Mennonites. More accurately, the Clarkes are “hucksters,” a cleanup crew for the bushwhackers, who also take care of the bodies. Clegg’s death had opened an opportunity for other bushwhackers to expand, but with Black Eyed Mog as their competition, they are hesitant. John, however, plans to hire Eli to take Black-Eyed Mog out. Eli plans to take Cornelia’s money and catch up to her as he confronts John about their occupation and realizes how circumstances forced the Clarkes to take up this profession.
On the other hand, Katie had other plans and managed to knock Eli out with her blow dart. As Cornelia travels through the lush landscapes of the wild west, she finds herself being chased by the Mennonites. She stops her carriage and realizes these are the same Mennonites looking for the children and have been retracing their steps back. As she converses with the Mennonites, she discovers some discrepancies between the narratives of the Mennonites and Clarkes, and fearful for Eli’s safety, she rushes back to the farm. She finds Katie, who informs her that Eli left with the money. Cornelia has her suspicions confirmed when she sees Katie digging a grave too large for an animal, and as she inquires in detail, Katie tries to take the rifle from her.
Cornelia takes out a knife in that scuffle and stabs her in the gut. She then confronts John while he is gathering all the money. In a movement resembling Clint Eastwood’s Bunny in Unforgiven, she points the gun at John and asks him in a steely voice where Eli is. As the final scene reveals, Eli is sold off to someone John knew “was looking for him.” He is currently at the bootleg compound of a man named “Kills On Water,” who informs Eli that he has been looking for him for a long time and orders him to reveal everything about the Chalk River Massacre of 1875.
This is the backstory episode, where we learn the origins of how Trafford, Billy Myers, and Timothy Flynn came to be the big players in this narrative as cattle ranchers. Trafford, with two of his associates, has big plans to buy up land in Wyoming and utilize it as cattle land, and he requires 120 miles more of it. As the man considers selling the land and his cattle, one of Trafford’s associates, David Melmont (Rafe Spall at his swaggering best), threatens to kill the man’s wife and reminds him that his wife and family are under his protection.
We learn that Melmont had been sent by Trafford’s father to manage his finances, as Trafford had mismanaged his fortunes a lot better. But even being under his direct employment doesn’t stop Melmont from disrespecting Trafford. Trafford and his men are later confronted by an army execution squad led by Jerome McClintock and his cohorts Billy Myers and Timothy Flynn. McClintock reveals that they are out looking for Running Hawk, the man responsible for killing Billy Myers’ brother. This makes Melmont more excited and, due to copious amounts of drinking, also loose-lipped.
As a result, Melmont reveals that their group had come across a Cheyenne settlement. Trafford orders him to shut up, but McClintock punches him and knocks him out. Melmont then joins the squad to massacre that settlement with the help of a 58 caliber Gatling gun, much to the horror of Trafford and his associate Thin Kelly, who are powerless to stop him. We also see Eli waiting at the top of the road, and while he realizes what McClintock has done, he reiterates that it isn’t his business. The war is over, and he is going home. Back in the Bootleg Compound in the present timeline, Kills on Water reveals that the Cheyenne Settlement that had been massacred was his family and then throws the question back in Eli’s face: is it still not his business anymore?
Back in 1875, we follow Melmont to London, where he had come to visit Cornelia. We learn that Trafford is in jail, but Melmont also twists the story so that Trafford was responsible for the massacre at Chalk River. And now Trafford is in jail ( a well, to be exact) for having unsolicited sex with a prostitute and awaiting the payment of a fine. Melmont had thus been sent to talk to Cornelia, Trafford’s fiance, which Cornelia corrects, reminding him that they weren’t engaged as she didn’t accept his proposal. However, her father did bankroll Trafford’s venture.
She gathers the money, and we see Melmont return (presumably time has passed), only to find Cornelia holding a letter from Trafford, confronting him about all the events that had occurred, and realizing that he was responsible. Without missing a beat, Melmont reveals that he needs the money to buy a significant stake at a gold mine in Colorado. As Cornelia threatens to scream, Melmont calmly shuts the door. Later, we see Melmont cheerfully walk out of the house, with McClintock waiting for him, presumably having joined him in his venture. Back in the room, we see Cornelia curled up into a ball on the floor, and we later see Thomas lying open, recounting to her the horrors of the Wild West, how this country is affecting him, and how he had no choice but to stay. It also warns her never to come here but to live in London “in perfect safety.” The episode ends with a couple of months passed and a pregnant Cornelia gazing at a painting of the wild west.
Kills on Water reveals to Eli that his belief that he would be paid back his claim because of his loyalty to the US army was folly, as The English would never pay. He then assigns Eli a task: assassinating Black-Eyed Mog and her sons so they do not take over Captain Clegg’s bushwhacking line and satisfy her bloodlust for killing Indians. He reveals that he has Eli’s bird skull, which he will only return once Mog is killed.
We then see Cornelia sitting across from Black-Eyed Mog and having a chat. Cornelia wonders aloud to Mog whether the score was even as she examines the scalps hanging on the walls. Black-Eyed Mog shows why she hates the Indians by revealing how they had taken her scalp and her eyelids. 50 Indians is a lot of retaliation, but it’s still not enough. Even Mog is confused by Cornelia’s presence, having been privy to Kills on Water’s plan to send Eli Whipp to kill her, considering he was holding Whipp hostage. Then Cornelia reveals she wasn’t warning her but just getting a jump on her to prevent Eli from getting killed. She then shoots her with the gun she was holding beneath the table, killing her and burning her thigh.
After killing one of her sons as he entered the room on hearing the commotion, she cornered the next son in a barn, but before she could deliver the kill shot, he was stabbed by an Indian boy hiding behind the barn door. Cornelia then retrieves Eli by returning Mog’s sunglasses to Kills on Water. He takes her hand, realizing she is warm, but she insists her injury isn’t infected. Under a bed of stars, Whipp confesses his feelings for Cornelia, equating her with home. They kiss, but Cornelia pulls away, crying, and runs, tearing off her clothes. She lies on the ground and rubs dirt all over herself as if trying to rub away the guilt of considering living her life even after her son’s death.
A gunshot wakes her up the following day. She rushes back to find men from the Western Magnet Cable Company kidnapping the boy accompanying them. They accompany the men to their camp, where their leader, Major Mackay, reveals he is doing this as a part of social service by kidnapping young Native Americans and schooling them to become more “American.” For example, he points to the native American woman serving them, whom Eli recognizes as the wife of Running Hawk, the war chief who had been killed in the first episode. The boy that had been accompanying them had been Running Hawk and Touching Ground’s son, whom Cornelia had affectionately named No Trouble. Touching Ground rushes to where her son had been tied up and frees him.
Eli notices that Cornelia is burning up with a fever and decides they need to leave quickly. Touching Ground asks that they take her son, White Moon, with them. As Eli and Whipp ride out with their horses, we see Mackay aiming with his rifle and shooting White Moon’s horse. The young boy falls, his leg pinned beneath the horse. Whipp and Cornelia try to pull the boy away from the dead horse while dodging the bullets from the wily Major until Touching Ground climbs up the tower behind them and shoots them point blank in the head. Realizing that reinforcements are on their way to kill Touching Ground, Eli returns to an unconscious White Moon and Cornelia, who eventually passes out from fever.
The episode begins with Melmont in the present day, who has returned to Wyoming after striking gold in Colorado. Meanwhile, Trafford has been planning to carry all his herd and the food for the cattle to Alberta, as he had had enough of Melmont. When the sheriff finally discovers the branding on both Billy Myers and Timothy Flynn’s bodies and realizes it resembles Thomas Trafford’s branding, Trafford comes clean about the Chalk River Massacre, even revealing that Melmont is building an entire town over the massacre location.
Meanwhile, via a beautiful dissolve transition between the “black widow,” an entertainer at a wild west show, and the sick Cornelia, along with the sores in her arm, it is revealed that she has syphilis. Her conversation with a doctor whom Eli had located revealed that her son had been born with syphilis and had died of it. This also finally illuminates the moment between Melmont and Cornelia. Melmont had raped Cornelia that day when they were alone. The entire group responsible for the massacre had contracted syphilis after enjoying a grand old time with a prostitute, whom we believe to be “The Black Widow.”
In the Myers home, where Trafford’s people are trapped after being shot by a mysterious shooter at the beginning of the episode and have come to warn them, Eli and Cornelia realize that Myers’ son is Melmont’s. However, since he had been conceived during the phase of the disease when it had disappeared, both Myers’ wife and her son had been born without being affected. The Myers’ home is attacked by a man wearing a black cloak and carrying a Gatling gun, which starts shooting at the house from the roof. As the inhabitants of the house carrying guns (Eli, the sheriff, and one of Trafford’s men who are still alive) start firing back, Eli finally rushes out of the house and shoots the cloaked man. The cloak finally comes off, and we see Jerome McClintock, still alive from syphilis but scarred. The shootout kills him, and as the group starts riding towards Melmont’s location, they come across Trafford’s men, who reveal that Trafford had died from a freak flash flood.
Martha Myers, Cornelia, and Eli confront Melmont, who had kidnapped the Myers boy. Cornelia reveals to Melmont the effects of his actions from years ago and how she lost their son. Melmont tries to antagonise her, even showing a sore near his lip, revealing the syphilis is coming back. Cornelia raises her gun to shoot him but is unable to do so. However, Martha shoots him in the back with a rifle, with the bullet going through him and hitting Cornelia. Her locket, which contained the picture of his son and her proclamation that it was magical, proved true as it stopped the bullet from killing her. Eli approaches Melmont’s still-bleeding and wounded body and finally delivers the killing blow with Billy Myers’ broken sword.
The English (2022) Mini-Series Ending, Explained:
The series ends with the sheriff informing Whipp that he would have to leave, preferably for Nebraska, so that he wouldn’t be found and the blame wouldn’t be placed on his head. He gives Whipp a head start. There, Whipp bade Cornelia tearful goodbyes, and she handed him the seeds from the German Mennonites while he gifted her his bird skull—a symbolic gesture of both of them acknowledging each other as home.
Thirteen years later, we see that the doctor who had treated Cornelia had finally managed to open a traveling troupe, Wild Bill’s Wild West Show. The troupe had arrived in London, and White Moon, the son of Running Hawk and Touching Ground, played the role of Eli Whipp during a reenactment of the incident thirteen years ago. He is met by a woman cloaked in black. It is Cornelia, now presumably scarred from the ravages of syphilis. She asks if he remembers her, to which he replies in the affirmative. She gifts him the bird skull and asks him to keep it, which he refuses. She asks him about his life, and after learning that he has led a far more interesting and safe one, he lifts her veil and kisses her on the forehead, acknowledging his thanks for her saving him from the unforgiving west.
The English (2022) Mini-Series Review:
In terms of revisionist westerns, you can’t go much further than altogether redefining the definition of a western protagonist as an Indian and a female lead. The genre, whose typical leads had been primarily white males, with women relegated to supporting roles or damsels in distress and Indians relegated to the same or negative roles or hindrances in the plot, finds a different but almost inevitable revision here. But what Hugo Blick also does here is managing a fine line between maintaining the romantic sensibility of a western, with its gorgeous cinematography, focusing on extremely wide shots, and keeping in mind the realism of that setting. Thus the world is dark, not necessarily gritty or visceral, but brutal and horrifying. In Blick’s version of the Western, the wild west almost has a supernatural ability to force out the evil inherent in men and make it dominant. The lawless nature of the world drowned out the empathy or humanity that civilization had inculcated. And thus, men who are already cruel, like Melmont, feel right at home, even as the darkness becomes like a virus that infects civilization.
It also manages to craft a story that almost feels dream-like, with violence and cruelty existing hand in hand with existentialism and elegiac tonality. The story is sparse, resembling an arid landscape, but also confusingly convoluted at points. It feels like Blick is very much beholden to the “show, don’t tell” perspective, but he can also not follow through on it perfectly. As a result, the first three episodes feel disjointed from a story standpoint. But as an exploration of the themes of the wild west, its consistency is remarkable. Some dialogues feel poetic or profound in their construction but are delivered with charm and sarcasm, befitting the 21st century. But perhaps because the delivery of it is with the utmost seriousness instead of a tongue-in-cheek disposition, it works.
The English ultimately works because it explores the relationship between the two lead characters, a romance like a flower struggling to break out of rocky terrain. Like all romances with a swooning feel, it ultimately ends with a befitting “au revoir,” but maybe. Even in its disjointed moments, The English doesn’t shy away from demonstrating how the tendrils of civilization are already affecting a lawless land, attempting to combat its specter. With a story solely resting on arresting monologues, it is dependent on performances, which the actors deliver in spades. Even as supporting cast members enter and exit the story like dust in the wind, the performances of Emily Blunt and Chaske Spencer anchor the show. You believe in their chemistry, you root for their survival, and finally, you root for their escape from circumstances and their shared history, which inextricably binds them together. Gloriously sweeping, the English carry you on a journey on a carriage through rocky terrain, and while the journey is taxing, the end is rewarding beyond measure.
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The English (2022) Miniseries, Official Trailer
The English (2022) Prime Video Mini-Series Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
The English (2022) Prime Video Mini-Series Cast: Emily Blunt, Chaske Spencer, Stephen Rea, Tom Hughes, Steve Wall, Valerie Pachner