There’s nothing that says Thanksgiving like watching a dramatic reenactment of the date that inspired the holiday. If you know a thing or two about American history, the story of Thanksgiving isn’t exactly one of celebration and gratitude. In fact, the pilgrims who sailed the Mayflower faced rough living conditions and conflict with the Native Americans before and after the first Thanksgiving harvest. National Geographic’s two-part miniseries, “Saints & Strangers,” provides the audience with a bleak retelling of these events. Because it uses a period drama formula, “Saints & Strangers” isn’t particularly refreshing or insightful. However, the miniseries captures the gritty realism of the battle for survival between the natives and pilgrims. Even though the show draws from textbook facts and gravitas in order to sensationalize Thanksgiving’s origins, the story is strengthened by dark visuals, fine acting and a chilling score.
Set in 1620, the first episode follows devout Englishman William Bradford (Vincent Kartheiser, “Mad Men”) and his harrowing journey on the Mayflower to the New World. Along with Bradford and his hapless wife Dorothy (Anna Camp, “True Blood”), the Plymouth pilgrims seek refuge in America from religious persecution in Europe. Once they reach a soon-to-be Cape Cod, Bradford and the rest of his crew (Ron Livingston, “Office Space”; Ray Stevenson, “Thor”; Michael Jibson, “Les Misérables”) start building a community, only to run into trouble with the Wampanoag tribe, led by the dubious Massasoit (Raoul Trujillo, “Sicario”) and his emissary Squanto (Kalani Queypo, “Slow West”). The second part, set a year later, delves deeper into the growing tensions between the tribe and the pilgrims, with hostility increasing on both sides. Despite several faults within the storytelling, “Saints & Strangers” succeeds in other aspects.
While both parts of “Saints & Strangers” are lengthy, the sequences in each are briskly paced (the ride on the Mayflower only lasts for 22 minutes of the first part). Kartheiser’s impeccable performance as Bradford stands out among the rest of the cast’s performances, embodying a real-life figure coming to terms with loss, death, faith and survival in 17th century America. The same goes for Queypo’s fierce portrayal as Squanto, who also struggles to maintain stability in his life when his land and people are colonized. Both characters carry the plot along, as they fight for themselves and their fellow kinsmen while seeking to mediate a peaceful coexistence with one another. In order to accentuate the gloomy aesthetics of “Saints & Strangers,” composers Hans Zimmer (“Inception”) and Lorne Balfe (“Terminator: Genisys”) infuse an intense score with somber strings and ominous drums. Yet even with all of its redeeming qualities, “Saints & Strangers” is missing an edge that could distinguish itself from other historical dramas.
Whether or not the events depicted in “Saints & Strangers” are inaccurate or offensive, the story is made to feel very one-sided. The two monikers in the miniseries’ title indicate a type of prejudicial separation, with the Native Americans being marked as the “strangers” and the pilgrims as the “saints.” Granted, the writers of the miniseries probably took some dramatic liberties in order to make the story more gripping for television. But instead of humanizing both perspectives of the natives and pilgrims, the miniseries plays by strictly historical means. The natives are portrayed as cunning, vengeful “savages,” whereas the pilgrims come off valiant and righteous. It seems as though the pilgrims aren’t given as harsh of a treatment as the natives, despite laying their foundation onto an already occupied land and taking away resources from the natives. Perhaps white privilege doesn’t just exist in the realm of “Saints & Strangers,” but within the writing of it as well.
Given its historical relevance though, “Saints & Strangers” does a mostly adequate job of reproducing the characters and events during the first Thanksgiving. But even with its dramatic take on an iconic American event, the miniseries could have a more compelling twist had the natives been depicted in a more sensitive light. If you’re a history buff, “Saints & Strangers” can be captivating to watch. But if you’re not, then it may read like any normal high school history textbook brought to life.