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Saints & Strangers: The Horrific, Harrowing, and Real Story of the Mayflower

Not your elementary school pageant, Saints & Strangers brings the reality behind the story you only thought you knew.

National Geographic Channel

In a couple of weeks, when we fill our bellies to capacity and hat-tip those individuals who nearly 400 years ago crossed the Atlantic aboard the Mayflower, let’s remember what we should be truly thankful for: we didn’t have to do that ourselves.

The diverse group—and they weren’t all Pilgrims—were inspiring, controversial, and history-making, sure. But pleasant? Their journey and the adventure that followed was far from it.

As depicted in the two-night movie event Saints & Strangers, which premieres Sunday, November 22nd, 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel, the historic first voyage of the Mayflower, and the process of building and maintaining a settlement that followed, was unforgiving, harsh, and harrowing. The show strips the holiday pageant veneer from the story, providing instead the gritty truth your sixth grade history book never showed. Nothing is off-limits here—no matter how dark the history may be.

Saints & Strangers takes an immersive, cinematic, unapologetically realistic approach to a story that has become perhaps too sterilized over the past few centuries. Based on actual accounts written at the time by Mayflower passengers— some of whom survived and some of whom did not—the show takes a brutally truthful and in-depth look at our nation’s founding. It shows that initial Mayflower crossing for what it was: a desperate grasp for freedom by a rag-tag and bifurcated bunch of colonists whose divergent personalities and purposes would lay the seeds for the greater American identity.

On one side, there are the Puritans, more used to communing with God than raising crops or houses (the “Saints”). On the other, the sometimes scoundrels and fortune hunters who were often escaping debt or prosecution in search of building a new life on a blank slate (the “Strangers”). The show presents neither side as inherently heroic or villainous: these are complex characters maneuvering through an uncertain world, one in which they are all unimaginably vulnerable.

“Tension mounts below decks,” is how Mayflower captain Christopher Jones describes the uneasy partnership in the first episode of Saints & Strangers. “Unlike water, it can only seep up.”

In truth, the tension between the Puritans and the fortune seekers aboard the Mayflower—which, lest we forget, was a cargo ship designed not for people but for wine and woolens —was the least of their problems. Both passengers and crew of the Mayflower battled a virulent mixture of scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis that constantly thinned out their ranks.

While the commonality of unexpected and quick death makes for a horrific beginning to the New World, it is also the stuff for constantly surprising and captivating television. Indeed, not even leading characters played by the likes of Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men), Anna Camp (Vampire Diaries), and Ron Livingston (Band of Brothers) are guaranteed to last through that first winter.

These are stories of extreme resilience in unfathomable conditions. Beset not just by illness but starvation and the bitter cold of a largely unsheltered New England winter, these men and women resort to unthinkable measures and volatile alliances, all in exchange for the dubious promise of a new beginning. For example, the settlers initial solution to starving to death was pilfering a store of corn left by the Native Americans (“savages” in Mayflower parlance), a digression from Puritan principles that would cost them dearly down the road.

Perhaps the most profound peril faced by those first Mayflower colonists was also their only hope for survival. The Native Americans greeted the “white men from the ocean” with a shifting mixture of caution, aggression, and empathy. But while the Native Americans taught their unwanted new neighbors how to grow corn, squash, and beans, the potential for violence between the settlers and the land’s indigenous people remains constant, threatening to end the colonist’ dubious adventure at any moment.

The filmmakers behind Saints & Strangers afford the same devotion to detail and absolute authenticity to the lives and divergent personalities of the Native Americans as they do the colonists. For starters, Raoul Trujillo, Tatanka Means, Kalani Queypo and the other actors playing Native Americans learned the Eastern Algonquian language of Western Abenaki to accurately depict the first people colonists encountered in the New World. While the modern recounting of those first encounters tends to group the Native Americans into a homogeneous whole, Saints & Strangers shows the more complicated truth. These were competing and sometimes warring tribes with radically different strategies for dealing with these unwelcome settlers. Not unlike the characters in the show’s title, they were threatened both from within their ranks and outside of them.

This veracity is one of the many elements Saints & Strangers employs to tell perhaps the most quintessential fable of America’s complicated and ever-evolving identity, and in a way that feels like hearing it for the first time. It reminds us that beneath the well-known fable lurks a gruesome struggle for the foundations of our country, one soaked in the blood of both settlers and Native Americans. Expect to be immersed in a dynamic, richly-conceived world with characters who are woven together and in conflict in unexpected ways.

It’s safe to say that after seeing the way Saints & Strangers pulls you into the thick of the vigorous and perilous effort of establishing a “New World,” you will never look at those first days in the Plymouth Colony in the same way. It is also a good bet that you will never feel more grateful that you are able to discuss the topic over roast turkey and cranberry relish before safely retiring to your nice, warm bed.

Saints & Strangers, a two-night event, premieres Sunday, November 22 at 9/8c, on the National Geographic Channel.