Hwushoo, pya-ya-ya-yang! Oh, what, that? It’s nothing. It’s – it’s a perfect bullet shot from a rifle 700 yards away. Straight into my — yep, it’s torn straight through my torso. Little bloom of blood on the front of my shirt, look. Going dark quickly, isn’t it? Actually I think it might be monologuing time for Ol’ JG. Think I’ll take a few steps out beneath the perfect starscape above us, you know. See that star? No? Oh I really am losing a … Ah. I can see my own corpse collapsed blue in the dust. That’s not ideal.
We’re in the Old West, then, which was hell. There is no account of the Old West that does not touch upon this. It was just constant wooden-toothed men drinking liquor and dying over a card game, or families who traveled across the world for the promise of fortune and succumbed to wagon accidents along the way. Or it’s thousands of animals slain in a concerted effort to starve out the indigenous Americans, or it’s viciousness and inexplicable wasting illnesses and everyone is always spitting. The only people who seemed to have any sort of good time in the Old West were the guys selling bullets and shovels, and it’s never really made sense that we so romanticise an era of backstabbing and hucksterism and people with bad breath wearing the same pair of long johns for six months straight. Still: cool, isn’t it.
Are the rivers of the western not thoroughly seated, though? The English – the new Emily Blunt-led six-episode miniseries (Thursday, 9pm, BBC Two), a collaboration between the BBC and Prime Video – proves that, in fact, we may have barely scratched the surface. The elevator pitch is: Blunt’s Cornelia Locke, an English lady newly landed in America and looking for revenge, teams up with Chaske Spencer’s Eli Whipp, a just-retired cavalry scout and member of the Pawnee Nation who just wants to ride up north and claim a few acres of homestead. Obviously, it’s not going to be as easy as that, and, obviously, they’re going to fall in love along the way. But The English is so, so much better than any quick explanation of it is ever going to be.
First: it looks absolutely gorgeous – rich skies, lingering wide shots, ominous shadows on distant hills, brand new towns being built in the middle of nowhere. One of the many things The English does particularly well is capture all the eccentric offshoots of the western genre that makes it such a rich vista to spend an hour or two in: weird little guys playing accordions, well-I-say gentlemen with strange motivations Old eerie widows with no eyelids, verbal standoffs and physical ones, too. The two leads are acting at an elite level – Blunt, who also produced, plays a really interesting new flavor of damsel without the distress, hardened but not hard, smart but with room to grow – while Spencer does an amazing job of making Whipp ( Skill level 100, Nerve level 100, Luck level 100, Heart level 100, Speaking in Long Sentences level 0) feel like a person who could exist and not an unkillable superhero.
Created by Hugo Blick (Marion & Geoff, The Shadow Line, The Honorable Woman), it has dialogue undercut with just the right level of oil-dark humour to stop the whole thing from turning too earn (do you hear me, Westworld?! ) and drama that feels “actually dramatic”, rather than constantly trying to overreach towards being epic. I am not going to ruin it, but: you are going to want to stick around until Rafe Spall turns up. You are really, really going to want to do that.
There is a lot of visceral violence, though, and The English may well raise the question: how do you harness the brutality of the Old West and tell a textured story without in any way glorifying (or – possibly worse – diluting) the reality of the violence of the time? It was sort of fine for House of the Dragon, because Matt Smith can’t actually ride dragons and I think people vaguely know that now, so seeing someone get their head chopped in half felt detached. I think the short answer is going to be: The English is, simply, not going to be for everyone. But anyone who can endure “a cool execution” is going to find an awful lot to love about this surprisingly brilliant – and funny and tender and interesting and cinematic – show.