Just finished binging The English on? Western brought home its moving story of Lady Cornelia Locke (Emily Blunt), a mother running the gauntlet to enact revenge on the man who caused her son’s death. It also turned out to be a great love story with ex-Pawnee Scout Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), set in the most highly saturated desert landscape imaginable.
Amid the sweeping romantic music and gorgeous cinematography, some of the harder details about what rival businessmen David Melmont (Rafe Spall) and Thomas Trafford (Tom Hughes) were up to might have been lost across the show’s two timelines. Let’s clear up our understanding of everything that happened in the stunning action-packed, tension-laden limited series.
Spoilers ahead and a content warning: sexual violence, suicide
Who killed Lady Cornelia Locke’s son?
It’s clear from the outset that Cornelia, a fancily dressed Englishwoman with bags of money, has traveled to Kansas in 1890 on a revenge mission over her son’s killer. We don’t discover the actual identity of the man until midway through the series, when we meet the gnarly, immoral and lower class David Melmont, a business companion of Thomas Trafford, Cornelia’s lover in England who had proposed to marry her.
What were Melmont and Trafford doing in Wyoming?
In 1875, 15 years before Cornelia arrives in Kansas, Trafford and his men land in Chalk River, Wyoming, with hopes of starting a cattle rearing business. In the Wild West, where just about anything goes, the party begins to turn against itself as Melmont acts out against his class superior. Melmont finds himself more at home among a cruel, independent splinter group of the American army: Corporal Jerome McClintock and cousins Billy Myers and Timothy Flynn. The group is going rogue in its search for Running Hawk, a prominent fighter from the Cheyenne Native American tribe, who had killed and mutilated Myers’ brother Lonnie for trespassing on their lands.
What happened at the Massacre at Chalk River?
Against Trafford’s wishes, Melmont informs the army of the whereabouts of the Cheyenne settlement and joins them in slaughtering all the men, women and children in what becomes known as the Massacre at Chalk River. Days later, the four men are arrested over engaging prostitutes at a brothel, a serious crime at the time. Yet Melmont and McClintock escape and travel to England. There, Melmont attempts to scam Cornelia into giving him money by claiming it was Trafford who had committed the heinous crimes and a huge bounty had been issued in exchange for his life.
How did Melmont kill Cornelia’s son?
Cornelia’s doubts about Melmont’s claims are confirmed in a letter from Trafford that reveals it was Melmont who was behind the abhorrent acts in America. When Melmont visits Cornelia’s house again, she confronts him with the truth. Undeterred, Melmont rapes Cornelia and steals her money before returning to America with McClintock.
Cornelia’s horror is compounded by several components: Trafford’s letter also informs her that he’s decided to stay in America, bringing their relationship to an end. At the brothel in America, Melmont and the army group contracted syphilis from a worker named Stella Shriver, who later became part of a “human freaks and oddities” business after the infection ravaged her appearance.
Melmont’s act of sexual violence not only infects Cornelia with syphilis, but leaves her pregnant. Tragically, the sexually transmitted infection passes onto their son. In the picture Cornelia keeps of him in the locket around her neck, we see the boy’s appearance shows signs of “erosion of the soft tissues and bone, particularly of the face,” Cornelia says in episode 6. The other phase 4 effects of syphilis she describes are “blindness, deafness, heart defects, stroke, mental insanity, finally death.” Cornelia raised her boy with unconditional love until he died at 14.
The events in Chalk River led to Melmont infecting his biological son with deadly syphilis. In a nutshell, Melmont’s cold-blooded actions resulted in Cornelia’s son’s death. After many years, this led to Cornelia’s rage-filled mission to confront Melmont with his crimes against her and her boy.
What happened to Thomas Trafford?
In the past timeline, we see the difficulties Cornelia’s lover goes through to set up a cattle breeding farm over the 15 years he spends in Wyoming. Companion Melmont abandoned Trafford and ended up striking gold in Colorado, using his business savvy to create a successful trading business. He built a new town called Hoxom on the very same land the Massacre at Chalk River took place. His success not enough, Melmont still sought to bring Trafford to failure and arranged the slaughters of his cows and calves.
After the massacre, army men Billy Myers and Timothy Flynn asked Trafford if they could join his cattle breeding outfit. Despising them and their crimes, Trafford refused and marked the men with his branding iron. Melmont later bought Myers and Flynn plots of land, and the pair formed a rival cattle rearing business to Trafford.
When Trafford tries to enlist the assistance of local Sheriff Robert Marshall in protecting his cattle from Melmont, Marshall becomes distracted by the deaths of Myers, Flynn and Flynn’s wife. Like Melmont, Myers and Flynn also contracted syphilis. Fearing the effects of the infection, Myers hanged himself. Flynn shot his wife, who also exhibited marks of the infection, before turning the gun on himself.
Despite successfully opening a cattle rearing business in Caine County, near Chalk River, Trafford believes the land to bring bad luck. In episode 6, during the 1890 timeline, Trafford’s manager, Clay Jackson, reports to Cornelia, Eli and the sheriff that Trafford drowned in a flash flood. The party attempted to save Trafford by throwing him a rope, but presumably realizing his herd and life’s work was about to be destroyed, Trafford cut himself free and allowed himself to drown. Jackson says that this is what Trafford wants, to become a part of the place he opened.
Why can’t Eli and Cornelia be together?
Despite forming a close bond and sharing a kiss, Cornelia’s infection prevents her from becoming too close to Eli. Eli must also go into hiding after fully taking the blame for Melmont’s death, protecting Cornelia and Martha Myers. The sheriff releases Eli, who will surely be killed by the Hoxom townspeople if he becomes known as Melmont’s murderer, on the condition he leaves and never returns. In departing, Eli might one day return home to Nebraska, where he was born, and reclaim “just a few acres” of land the government took from his Pawnee tribe. Thanks to the “Homestead Act,” there’s a chance the government will give Eli the land for his services to the army. Before he rides off, Cornelia gives Eli a phial of “the best” wheat seed, which he can potentially grow on his reclaimed land once he’s safely out of hiding. Cornelia, meanwhile, must return to England and see out her next journey.
What happens to Cornelia and the boy White Moon?
Cornelia inadvertently ends up saving a young boy named White Moon from bandit Black-Eyed Mog’s camp. Eli recognizes the boy as the son of Running Hawk; in the opening scene of the show, on his last day in the American army, Eli witnessed soldiers kill Running Hawk, but didn’t stop them. He did however play some part in preventing the army from shooting Running Hawk’s wife and son, although the pair still feel betrayed by Eli, even though they originate from different tribes. When Eli takes Cornelia to a doctor, Cornelia convinces the doctor to take care of White Moon, handing over the last of her money. He accepts her money as backing into a new venture, “Flathead Jackson’s Wild West Show: True Tales of America! Beyond the realistic.”
In 1903, 13 years after her journey in America and Melmont’s death, Cornelia is exhibiting the phase 4 effects of syphilis on her face, a “shame” she hides beneath a black veil. Before her imminent death, she visits the doctor’s Wild West show when it travels to Berkshire, England. She meets with an older White Moon, who remembers her and knows that her “shame” isn’t hers, but Melmont’s. White Moon appreciates seeing the world and making a living in the “circus” by telling more authentic stories of Native Americans. He keeps the memories of Cornelia’s beloved Eli alive by playing Major North and First Sergeant Eli Whipp who saved a “white woman.”