After a prologue describing the tumultuous state of existence in Middle America in 1890, “The English” pits its two protagonists against each other in a long scene of fateful twists and turns. Lady Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt) arrives in the United States to avenge his son’s death, but is immediately threatened by greedy, violent criminals wonderfully played by Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds. As she is thrown from the carriage at Hinds’ feet, she sees the figure of a beaten man hanging at the edge of the property. It’s Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a Pawnee excavalry scout who now intends to get his promised land from the government he fought for, although he knows in his heart that he will hardly have it easy. These are both people pushing back against a broken system, a system that rewards the greedy and unjust, and they will essentially end up together on the road to a small town called Hoxem, Wyoming.
This mini-Deadwood in Wyoming is led (hardly) by a sheriff named Robert Marshall (Stephen Rea), which is affected by a series of local murders that may involve a young widow named Martha Myers (Valerie Pachner). As everything builds towards a series of revelations and showdowns in Hoxem, familiar faces appear, including memorable turns by Rafe Spall and Gary Farmer (so good on “Reservation Dogs”). Much of “The English” consists of long dialogue exchanges characterized by extreme violence. It’s a fascinating equation, as this is essentially a show about people who think they can only get what they want by force, and yet it’s also remarkably rich in dialogue and character interaction. The opening episode’s conversation between Hinds and Blunt over a dinner table that includes prairie oysters (look it up) isn’t as self-aware as Quentin Tarantino but recalls similar exchanges in his films such as “Django Unchained” and “Inglourious Basterds” scenes where you know all the witty back-and-forths are likely to end in bloodshed.
Blick sometimes indulges a little too much in these lengthy exchanges, especially in episodes three and four, and he allows the storytelling to get bogged down in flashbacks when the season needs to build momentum after its explosive opening episode. But through it all, the show remains a visually engaging experience. Blick and his team are very interested in iconic Western images—silhouettes against a big blue sky, close-ups of hidden eyes, etc.—but also in digging beneath the images for the truth of a land of broken promises, both those made for the people said , that they could start a new life there and those whose land was stolen. At the end of the season, someone talks about the difference between traveling with hope vs. just traveling without fear, and it feels like a show about a time in America when hope was in very short supply. Some travelers to new societies like Hoxem may have traveled without fear, but it wasn’t because they hoped for a bright future so much as they had no other choice.