Get ready everybody, our new period drama obsession is here. Welcome to Jamestown.
For those of you who don’t know, Jamestown is a period drama from the producers of Downton Abbey. It’s set in the 17th century Virginia colony of the same name, and follows the story of three independent and very different women seeking a new life in the New World. The series, at the moment, is currently only available to stream online in the U.S. and, despite being a Masterpiece program, won’t actually air on television. You can see all eight episodes now on the PBS Passport service, an online member benefit that provides users with access to an online library of public television programming. Jamestown will also be streaming weekly on the Amazon PBS Masterpiece channel, but if you don’t want to wait to get your binge on, your best option is activating Passport right now.
Now, with all that technical business behind us, let’s get down to the fun part. Talking about the show. Jamestown, for what it’s worth, seems like a hilariously addictive drama so far. Sure, it’s not what I’d call terribly interested in minor things such as “historical accuracy” or “correct period representation”. If that’s going to bother you, you probably ought to tap out right now, because the many things this show gets wrong will drive you crazy. But if you can look past all that – and I grew up about half an hour from the real Jamestown, so I totally get it if you can’t – there’s something quite enjoyable here, a soapy, historical story that’s first and foremost goal is to entertain you in the most outlandish way possible. The characters are larger than life, the twists are over-the-top, and I can’t wait to see where Jamestown goes in its second episode, now all the narrative set-up is done.
The story begins at sea, in 1619, on a fairly disgusting boat on its way to the colonies. Jamestown, the settlement they’re all headed toward, was actually founded in 1607, but those early settlers were all men, due to the uncertain and rough living conditions in the New World. A decade or so has now passed, things have settled down, and the colonists have generally stopped cannibalizing one another, if that’s a thing you believe they did in the first place. These rough and tumble masculine types eventually decided they needed some wives, and pretty much established a mail order service to ferry willing women from England to Virginia – for a price. The women were bound to marry men they’d never met, all for the chance for an escape from dangerous circumstances or get a shot at a better life. Honestly, I guess in 1619, there are maybe worse gambles to make, but given that it appears several of these women die during the crossing, I’m not sure what they are. Betting control-hungry men won’t accuse you of witchcraft at the drop of a hat, I guess. Anyway.
Though there appear to be over a dozen of these mail order brides on the ship, the story of Jamestown centers around three: Alice, a farm girl, Jocelyn, an upper class girl, and Verity, who is…it’s not quite clear where Verity fits on the social scale, but she’s sassy and smart-mouthed enough for us all to guess that she’s some flavor of spunky struggler with no prospects. Since the women arrive together, and serve as the audience’s window into the world of the settlement, their stories are aligned from the start. This is ultimately a good thing, however. For even though Jamestown is filled with ridiculous and unbelievable moments, the strange kinship between these women, formed in the crucible of a shared experience feels genuine and legitimate. And despite all the craziness around them, that feels worth something, in the end.
Alice, initially thrilled by the total hottie who shows up to collect her from the dock, is disheartened to learn that Silas isn’t her husband and is only there to pick her up for his brother, Henry. Henry, as it turns out, is not only the less attractive Sharrow brother, but a complete monster who can’t even make it a full evening without raping the woman he’s supposed to marry. Distraught, Alice insists to Hottie Silas that she can’t possibly fulfill her bargain with Henry, as he is a rapist. Silas, for his part, seems rather uncomfortably torn – between the brother he insists saved his life by keeping him fed during the colony’s rough years, and the woman he immediately says he loves. (I have so many questions, and most of them involve Silas’ apparent inability to feed himself, and the fact that he’s known Alice for what appears to be 36 hours. At most.)
Sassy Verity experiences some difficulty tracking down her intended, as it turns out that her husband-to-be is the generally undependable town drunk. Her first interaction with Meredith involves watching him get his ear nailed to a post for blaspheming, and their relationship basically goes downhill from there. (At one point he wagers her on a bet he’s sure he’ll win, and Verity dons boys clothes to try and run away to…somewhere.) However, the pair turn out to be oddly fitting together, as it’s clear both Verity and her new man are both accustomed to living by their wits, and the accompanying social stigma that sort of lifestyle can often bring.
Posh Jocelyn definitely represents a different social group than the bulk of the women in her new, strange sisterhood. She appears relatively well off, and came to Virginia to marry a man (the drippy, but kind Samuel) that she’s at least met before. That’s not enough of a life for her however, and within five minutes of her feet hitting the shore, she’s scheming and scrambling to move up in the world. In stories like this, women are not often allowed to be openly ambitious without the narrative judging them for it, but Jamestown seems to realize that Jocelyn is more interesting precisely because she wants a bigger life for herself than society’s told her she can have. (She also may or may not have murdered a dude back in England, but that’s a story for another episode, apparently.)
Most of the Jamestown premiere focuses on Jocelyn’s attempts to gain power in the settlement, largely by forcing her mostly nice, but not exactly ambitious in his own right husband to suck up to Jamestown’s new governor. She’s not entirely successful in her endeavors – though we do get to watch her fake an illness to make Samuel dump his BFF ask Sir George to be the best man at his wedding instead – but the fact that she’s willing to lie, manipulate, fail and still try again makes her a tremendously interesting character to watch. Once she’s got the proper lay of the land in town, I don’t doubt that she’ll be a force to be reckoned with. Just look at the ease with which she told competing lies to both Sir George and Farlowe, the company secretary, in service of her own ends. And sure, this time “her own ends” actually equaled helping out her friend Alice’s new family keep the hundreds of acres they earned as part of Jamestown’s original settlement. But while this maneuver proves that Jocelyn is capable of kindness, it seems very unlikely that her scheming will be to the benefit of others forever.
However, the biggest story twist this week has to be the convenient – and let’s face it, kind of hilarious – removal of Alice’s rapist husband-to-be. Silas, who let’s be honest is quite lucky he’s hot because he’s an idiot, waffles for the better part of the episode but eventually decides that he’ll take Alice’s part against Henry. However, instead of just having a conversation about boundaries and the clear illegality of sexual assault, Silas opts to watch his brother burn to death after he accidentally falls asleep in a canoe with a lit pipe. (Don’t think too hard about the logistics of Henry and Silas’ trip upiver to trade with Indians and also maybe search for gold, because it kind of makes no sense.) What you need to know is that Repulsive Henry manages to light himself on fire, Silas watches and does nothing, and the boat eventually explodes, because for some reason there’s gunpowder in it.
Basically: This sequence is precisely why Jamestown is kind of amazing.
Because, of course, Silas is the worst actor ever when trying to pretend like he’s sad his brother died back in town. And, of course, said brother really isn’t dead, but just badly burned, lying in some conveniently placed mud and surrounded by Native Americans. Where can Jamestown possibly go from here? I can’t wait to find out, because it’s going to be so much fun.
What did you think of the first episode of Jamestown? Are you excited to see what’s next? Let’s discuss the good and the bad in the comments!