By Peg Aloi
Jamestown is a vividly timely reminder that anyone who calls themselves an “American” is actually descended from immigrants.
As television turns toward the cinematic, with bigger budgets and more ambitious producers, the heritage drama, customarily filled with period details and elaborate costumes, is racing to match the competition and win over streaming audiences. Of course, PBS has been known for this kind of storytelling for decades (Masterpiece Theatre is the iconic measuring stick). It has been the official home for heritage TV drama ever since the days of Upstairs, Downstairs. Downton Abbey drew the sweeping accolades it did in part because the series drew on social media’s burgeoning love of class-driven TV drama with meme-worthy characters like Maggie Smith’s dowager countess.
Now in its third season, the series Jamestown (from the producers of Downton Abbey) borrows from the glossier and, dare I say it, sexier, historical series that have come along in recent years, most notably WGN’s Salem (which became popular enough, via word of mouth, that people who had never heard of WGN sought out the network). Indeed, though there isn’t much in the way of special effects intimating magic or witchcraft in Jamestown, the timeline and setting are similar enough to merit drawing parallels.
With immigration on the minds of Americans these days, Jamestown is a vividly timely reminder that anyone who calls themselves an “American” is actually descended from immigrants. Unless, of course, their ancestors were indigenous inhabitants of North America. Jamestown traces the journey of the first settlers in what later came to be known as Virginia. The series begins in 1619 and revolves around a group of men who have been living in the eponymous settlement for twelve years. The arrival of a boat load of women slated to become companions, wives, and objectified chattel shakes things up, considerably. The set-up is not only historically accurate; it is particularly relevant to be looking at America’s history of the subjugation of women, alongside its colonization of the sovereign lands of its native people.
Other elements of the experience are not so accurate. For example, the danger of wolves attacking humans is treated seriously here. But such a trope is patently false; at that time, wolves would have had no shortage of other food sources, and are known to be generally non-aggressive towards humans. The first settlers were dreaming of finding gold; they befriended the original inhabitants, hoping they’d be led to it. But there’s no gold in Virginia, so the notion of getting rich quick fell through. Surrounded by an abundance of natural resources, the settlers had to find other ways to survive. Growing tobacco, already in use by the indigenous Americans, was a natural starter crop — and that became the basis of the agricultural economy in the Colonies. The mid-Atlantic region offered a far less harsh environment than the coast of New England where other settlers landed. Acquiring land in Virginia was challenging, but Jamestown indicates that a fairly democratic system was put in place that allowed everyone to have a small plot of land to farm.
The series places several female characters front and center, more or less seeing the story through their eyes. There is Alice (Sophie Rundle) who falls in love with Silas (Stuart Martin) and has his child. Silas, however, has a falling out with the settlement’s authoritarian and sadistic governor (played by Jason Flemyng). He decides to reject his Christian upbringing and become a member of the indigenous tribe, known as the Pamunkey, leaving his wife and baby behind. At the beginning of season three, Alice has not given up hope that Silas might yet decide to return home. Her friend Verity (Niamh Walsh) was sentenced to prison for stealing back in Ireland, but had her sentence commuted when Jamestown’s tavern-keeper Meredith (Dean Lennox Kelly) pays for her release and then transport to Virginia so that he can marry her. Despite Meredith’s alcoholism, and Verity’s distaste at being a kept woman, they grow to respect and care for each other.
Jocelyn (Naomi Battrick) arrives with the other women (including one who is not allowed to marry and becomes a maidservant to the governor’s wife ). She is determined to be single and live an independent life. She immediately decides she wants to own property. Jocelyn acquires land and successfully grows a crop of tobacco that is subsequently destroyed by a malicious act of arson. She handles this loss and has a new thriving crop the following year. The character is well-dressed, often in fine fabrics and subtle colors that are not seen on most of the other women, who are dressed in dark shades of homespun cloth. Jocelyn tries to insert herself into matters of local government by introducing plans for a windmill as a source of power, but the sexist governor ostracizes her, saying he cannot discuss business “in a cloud of perfume.” Still, she manages to gain the support of the other women when she decides to deliver an ultimatum: a tongue-in-cheek reference to today’s resistance movement and Trumpian sexism.
Jocelyn is the blonde to Verity’s redhead and Alice’s brunette. Jamestown is mostly focused on the white settlers. There are some plot developments that deal with Winganuske, the Native American wife given as a “gift” in marriage to Silas’ brother Henry (Max Beesley) by Pamunkey leader Chacrow (Kalani Queypo), or the African slave Maria (Abiola Ogunbiyi), who has visions of atrocities that come to pass (a harbinger of Salem Village’s demonization of Tituba?). But these threads come off as self-conscious attempts to come up with a ‘diverse’ storyline rather than genuine explorations of minor figures. However, Maria’s intriguing dream/vision of a trio of African women in ceremonial garb (reminiscent of a scene from the film Ganga and Hess) hints that there will be a more complicated character arc for her this season.
The local indigenous tribe is portrayed as forest dwellers who give thanks to the spirits of the animals and plants as they consume them for survival; in contrast, the settlers are clear-cutting trees and contaminating water. The gorgeous and unspoiled landscape (the series is shot on location in Hungary) makes it another protagonist in the series. The limitless riches of America are there for the taking, subject to scheming and greed, not to mention tyrannical land-grabbing schemes. Overall, Jamestown is glossier (boasting a very fine international cast and lush cinematography) than it is deep, a watchable — though not provocative — foray into dramatizing our nation’s troubled beginnings.
Jamestown is also streaming on PBS’s MASTERPIECE Prime Video Channel.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes regularly for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.