Jamestown and the dynamics of power

Jamestown and the dynamics of power (Sky One)
Jamestown and the dynamics of power (Sky One)

If Jamestown can be said to be about one thing, it’s power. The central drive of Sky’s drama, set in one of the first American colonies, is an interrogation of power structures – how they’re wielded over others, the guises they embody, and how it informs interactions between the settlers.

Focusing, as the series does, primarily on three female characters, it’s interesting to note how the series examines gendered portrayals of power. When the series debuted last year, a common critique of Jamestown was that it’s depiction of women was ahistorical – that, largely speaking, portraying the female characters exercising their own agency was inaccurate. Fealty to history aside, it’s worth noting that that’s not really the point; as with any historical drama, Jamestown is much more about the present than it is the past, depicting as it does still relevant concerns about patriarchal power structures. This examination of power and gender is most obvious through the character Jocelyn (Naomi Battrick), a widow who refuses to remarry, and gets increasingly involved with the political machinations of the colony. Marriage, in Jamestown, is an explicit microcosm of the wider confines of the patriarchy; Jocelyn refuses to be “owned, possessed, confined, or determined by wedlock”, in turn arguably exercising the most agency of any character on the programme. Notably, the opening of the final episode draws an implicit parallel between Jocelyn and Governor Yeardley (Jason Flemyng), the ultimate authority at the colony – both dressed in shades of blue, atop their horses, at this point the pair are near equals.

It’s notable, though, that Jocelyn achieves this power by working within the confines of the system as it exists – hence the parallels drawn between Jocelyn and Yeardley, as she becomes not just a foil to him but a clear counterpart. While she is, comparatively, a kinder authority – signified by the lighter shades of blue that she wears, and observable through her attitude to those working for her – it’s still the same type of power wielded by men like Yeardley. Ultimately, to survive, Jocelyn has to exist within the system; while she can subvert it in places, she’s unable to reject it entirely.

Jason Flemyng as Governor Yeardley and Abubakar Salim as Pedro (Sky One)
Jason Flemyng as Governor Yeardley and Abubakar Salim as Pedro (Sky One)

It’s difficult to view this as a victory on Jocelyn’s part, exactly, given what it means to wield power within Jamestown. Fundamentally, it’s almost always a case of exercising power over another – which is directly tied to the moral failing at the heart of the colony.

The first series closed with the introduction of slavery; the second opens with these slaves at work in the plantations. Jamestown focuses on two such slaves in particular, Pedro (Abubakar Salim) and Maria (Abiola Ogunbiyi), and their contrasting experiences within the colony are illustrative of another hierarchical delineation inherent to the power structures of Jamestown. Where Pedro is afforded an apparent level of respect by some, in particular Governor Yeardley, Maria is consistently mistreated – because he is a man and she is a woman. Arguably it’s this that sees Pedro become disillusioned with Jamestown, realising it’s impossible that “each man shall have his rightful share”; in short, there’s no way for Pedro or Maria to succeed within the system as Jocelyn did.

Again, then, Jamestown emphasises the failings of the power structures expressed by the colony. Any attempt to gain power, to wield it for personal gain, will result in the exploitation of another. It’s clear at every level: Pedro’s brief attempts to gain favour with Yeardley see him betray Maria, the Sharrows use slaves on their farm, and Jocelyn makes use of indentured labour. In some, there’s something almost hedonistic about these expressions of power, with Marshall Redwick professing that he exercises his authority “because it pleases [him]”. Invariably, those with most power are white men, but Jamestown also examines how authority manifests along lines of class and sexuality. Secretary Farlow is amongst the ruling triumvirate with Yeardley and Redwick, but in a private moment fears his homosexuality will lead to his downfall; Doctor Priestley, a qualified physician and academic, holds more authority in the town than the working-class blacksmith James Read. Authority and agency in Jamestown can be exercised only by a few; power structures are inherently narrow and exclusionary.

A moral judgement is passed in the final episode, as Henry Sharrow pronounces it “impossible to live here without being tainted”. This is particularly notable coming from Henry Sharrow, a character always depicted as brutal and violent, and in the first episode raped a woman; that it is he who makes this statement arguably offers a certain clarity to it, the worst of the town able to see it for what it is. Henry Sharrow’s response is to “be as open as [he wishes] to be”, but that’s not the solution posited by the programme itself. Indeed, Jamestown doesn’t really offer one at all; the series ends with the town on the precipice of war, an illegitimate war started by Yeardley as a way to increase his power. It’s another illustration of the eschatological damages of Jamestown’s power structures, but there’s no panacea to this remedy these excesses.

Arguably, though, that’s another reminder of the fact that Jamestown isn’t about the past but the present – how can it posit a solution to institutional inequalities and disparities in social power when these issues still exist today?


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