"Out there, it didn't matter where we came from" may be a little on the nose when it comes to a voiceover that kicks off your odd-couple revenge Western, but in many ways it's a good encapsulation of what Prime Video's The English aims for across six episodes. While revenge is the dish being served here, the limited series' true focus is on a happenstance relationship, an unusual bond fused by violence, oppression, and betrayal. But is that enough to carry The English to the promised land? Well, yes and no.
The English is set in 1890 in a Wild West that's slowly shifting toward something more ordered and civilized. At least that's the American line of thinking, though there's nothing civilized about our introduction to this world, as the U.S. Army seeks revenge on a Native American they consider to have wronged them. The English is quick to establish the harsh, unforgiving nature of this world, and it's absolutely compelling in the premiere episode. Before long we meet Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a Pawnee Scout for the U.S. Army who's often done battle with other Indigenous soldiers, and Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt), a well-born English woman who's come to the States in order to kill the man who murdered her son.
Eli and Cornelia are thrown together by coincidence in the series premiere when Cornelia arrives in Oklahoma. There's not much to see: just a hotel, a guy playing the concertina, and Eli tied up and beaten. The atmosphere is dark and foreboding despite the clear blue skies and the gorgeous landscape. Richard M. Watts, played by Ciarán Hinds with his usual menacing presence, welcomes Cornelia to the town with a slap to the face before forcing her to eat a dinner of "prairie oysters" with him, all while he details how he's going to kill her.
The English is very good in moments like these, when the tension is high and the character motivations are clear. We don't know much about Watts, but we know he's been sent here to kill Cornelia, and that she was purposely drawn to this town (presumably by the man who killed her son) in order to be trapped and killed. The stakes are high, and the wonderful cinematography does a great job of conveying the mood and atmosphere. Unfortunately, these moments are too few and far between to really keep the show compelling across just six episodes.
The problem is that The English doesn't seem to understand its own strengths and is too often messing with what works. It's clear the show has found its hook when Cornelia eventually escapes from her brutal introduction to America and hitches her ride to Eli, as they both share a specific journey (Eli is looking to secure land for himself in the North, while Cornelia is looking for revenge). This odd-couple pairing is delightful throughout the entire season, as Blunt and Spencer expertly play off each other. Their rapport is the heart and soul of the show, which makes it all the more disappointing that The English often stuffs its episodes with characters and subplots that seem to have little bearing on the central story.
I love a show that keeps you guessing, and I don't mind not having all the answers to a story right away, but The English is way too cute when it comes to jumping around in time and introducing new characters without immediately revealing how they may be connected to Eli or Cornelia. In fact, the show is often so obtuse about characters' motivations and their stories that it's genuinely confusing to follow at times, which isn't great when you only have six episodes to tell your story. Add in plenty of melodramatic scenes, where slow motion and a swelling score are used far too often for dramatic effect, and you have a show that's indulging in excess rather than refining what works.
Still, Blunt and Spencer are almost enough to keep you invested. While the show certainly loses some steam nearly every time it meanders into another subplot, it does manage to include some interesting characters along the way. There are plenty of bizarre, over-the-top side characters, tense showdowns, and a fine bit of chemistry between Blunt and Spencer, but the overall story is disjointed and convoluted. This is a revisionist Western that may scratch a specific itch while never really turning into the bolder show it aims to be.
Premieres: Friday, Nov. 11 on Prime Video
Who's in it: Emily Blunt, Chaske Spencer, Rafe Spall, Ciarán Hinds, Stephen Rea, Tom Hughes, Toby Jones
Who's behind it: Hugo Blick (creator)
For fans of: Godless, Wynonna Earp, Longmire
How many episodes we watched: 6 of 6