It’s very early in the morning and a woman, Elizabeth (played by MyAnna Buring, who was so great as Susan in Ripper Street and so awful as Ethel in Downton Abbey), wakes screaming from a nightmare involving a noose. She’s in a men’s dormitory, and her lover tries to quiet her, but it’s too late. Her shouts bring soldiers running. She runs for it, pursued by one of them, and gets to the beach (which is also, unwisely, the graveyard by the look of things). She hides behind some grass but is found. The soldier rather aggressively tries to get her to have sex with him in exchange for him letting her go, but she refuses, so she’s tossed in a cell.
Meanwhile, everyone’s day begins. Meager rations are doled out. One of the men, James, tries to flirt with a new woman. She’s not all that receptive but introduces herself as Anne. When she walks away, an asshole steals her food. She begs for him to give it back, and then for someone to help her, and James steps up and asks the guy to give it back. He asks the man how he could enjoy food stolen from a woman. The guy hands Anne her food back and steals James’s instead, smacking him for good measure and asking how he dares show off in front of a woman like Anne. He notices Elizabeth’s lover, Tommy, eyeing him, and dares him to go toe-to-toe. James tries to go get more food but is denied. The soldier guarding the barracks asks him to name who stole the food, but James stays quiet.
The men are taken off to work cutting and sawing wood.
Elizabeth is taken to the governor, Philip, who asks what she was doing in the men’s hut. She straight up tells him she was sleeping with the man she loves. She says she intended to be gone before everyone woke, but nightmares got in the way. The soldier who found her confirms the story. She adds that if she had slept with him he’d have let her go, but she’d never sleep with a soldier. Philip asks who she was sleeping with. She correctly guesses he’ll be hanged, so she refuses to name him. Philip tells her she’ll be flogged if she doesn’t speak and asks if the man will stand aside and let her take such a punishment. Philip asks Reverend Johnson to set the number of lashes the woman is to receive: 25-200. Kind of dickish there, Philip. Johnson votes 25, reluctantly. His wife agrees. Major Ross goes for 50. He’s a douche. Captain Collins agrees with 25 and doesn’t seem too happy to even be part of this discussion. Twenty-five it is. She’ll be the first woman flogged in New South Wales, at noon that very day.
James sees her being led back to her cell. She gestures for him to stay silent. She’s let into the cell and tells the soldier accompanying her she needs to speak to James. He asks what she’ll do in return. She offers a handjob. Not enough. He wants the full treatment. She agrees. So much for never sleeping with a soldier. She tells him she’ll cut his throat if he renegs on this deal.
Anne walks past some soldiers with another girl. Hang on, is that…Joanna Vanderham? Denise from The Paradise? Oh, wow, it is. Ross stares at the two women as they pass.
Ross summons a sergeant and tells him he’s to flog a woman that day, and he wants the guy to really lay it on. Sergeant salutes and departs.
James is brought to Elizabeth and they’re actually given time alone. She tells him that he mustn’t let Tommy step forward when she’s flogged. It’ll only be 25 lashes, and she can manage that. She can’t manage losing Tommy, though.
Outside, James tells the soldier, Buckley, that he knows the man slept with Elizabeth, but luckily for him, she didn’t notice. Oooh, burn! Buckley goes in and asks if there’s anything else Elizabeth can do for him. No. ‘I’ve served my purpose, then?’ he asks. Yes, you have. He calls her a slut and spits at her feet.
The sergeant, Timmons, fetches Buckley and takes him to Ross, explaining that he can’t beat a woman, so Buckley will do it instead. He tells Ross he won’t be able to lay it on as he wants. Ross asks Buckley if this is personal. Buckley says it isn’t. Ross doesn’t seem to believe him and orders Buckley out. He tells Timmons that he won’t have to give the full 25, because after two or three the man involved will certainly step forward. So, he can manage just a couple of lashes, right? Timmons reluctantly agrees. He, by the way, is played by the same actor who played Thackeray in Mr Selfridge. This show’s turning into a parade of ‘hey, it’s that guy!’ moments.
The men are summoned to the flogging. James positions himself next to Tommy and enlists a few other guys to help hold Tommy back. Elizabeth is brought out and Ross tells her to strip to the waist, because the cloth will get in the wounds and they’ll take longer to heal. You’re all heart, Ross. I haven’t forgotten you wanted to give her 50 lashes. He orders someone to rip it off of her, when she refuses to strip. Tommy lurches forward but is held back. James tells him it’ll be 25 lashes, and she can take it. She’s chained in place and Timmons is ordered to begin. He gives her one lash. Ross reminds everyone that convict women belong to the soldiers, and the men are not to go near a convict woman unless she’s his wife. Another lash. Ross taunts the men, asking what sort of man stands by and lets his woman be flogged. Timmons hesitates to take the third lash. Ross pulls his pistol and puts it to Timmons’s head, threatening to kill him if he doesn’t flog ‘this whore.’ Third lash, and she screams in pain. Fourth lash. Tommy’s about to explode. James says that he loves her too, and if he can take it, so can Tommy. The lashes continue. James and Tommy are both crying.
After it’s all over, Elizabeth comes to in bed in a cell, with Tommy beside her. Timmons comes in and reassures them both he won’t give them away before recommending willow bark for the pain. He recommends swapping some food for it with Private MacDonald. He hands over some towels and Elizabeth thanks him.
James tries to get some lunch, only to have Asshole steal it again, James protests, asking the guy to at least spread his bullying around a little, but that’s not how bullies operate, is it? Anne looks the teensiest bit guilty. James begs her for some of her food but she refuses to give it to him. Kinda bitchy, Anne. But, survival of the fittest, I guess.
Tommy bathes Elizabeth’s wounds while Timmons keeps watch for them. James comes in and sees her eating the willow bark. She explains how they got it. Tommy asks what he wants and James says ‘nothing’ and leaves. Tommy takes the chance to ask Elizabeth to marry him.
They go to Philip and ask for permission to get married. She denies he was the man she was with that morning but Philip assumes that’s not true and just moves on with things. He reminds Elizabeth that the man stood by and watched her flogged. Collins (played by the actor who played Best in Ripper Street) chimes in that both the interested parties are already married to people back in England. Philip suggests they have their previous marriages declared annulled but Collins asks what grounds they would have for that. Philip asks Rev Johnson if there’s any way these two can marry. Johnson says no. Bigamy is, after all, illegal, even amongst convicts. Tommy tells them he’ll lie with the woman he loves that night and every night, because he’s an innocent man and won’t be treated this way. Yeah, yeah, every man in Shawshank is innocent, right? He leaves and Elizabeth asks Philip for permission to go after him. It’s granted. She chases him down and desperately pleads with him. Philip watches them through the window and looks like he feels kind of badly about this.
He goes for a walk along the beach and is joined by Ross. He tells Ross he doesn’t want Tommy to die over something like this. Ross points out that his death will mean one less mouth to feed, which is clearly an issue. Philip wonders if it’s right for the soldiers to keep the women for themselves. Ross thinks it is, because his men are all volunteers who have come to a godforsaken quarter of the world and have little food or spirit. Take the women away as well and you’ll have a lovely rebellion on your hands. I can’t help but wonder why anyone would volunteer for this detail. It sounds miserable, and I seriously doubt that the chance of free sex was enough to entice enough soldiers out there to keep the peace. Were they really well paid or something?
Poor James seems to be on the heaviest duty today, hauling logs and the like. Philip passes him as he goes to see Collins. Collins immediately guesses that Philip wants him to annul the two marriages, and he refuses to do so. Philip asks if he can do so, as governor. He can, but he can’t perform the marriage, only Johnson can. So, Philip goes back to his hut, where Johnson is waiting. Johnson immediately says that he can’t marry them. Philip says that their spouses are as good as dead, since they’ll never see them again. Johnson says he can’t know that,because who knows God’s will? He reminds Philip that you take an oath until death do you part. Actual death, not ‘they might be dead’ death. Philip sighs that Tommy will hang, then. He confirms that Johnson feels strongly about this point and asks if he feels strongly enough to do the hanging himself, if it comes to that. Johnson hesitantly agrees, clearly realizing he’s been backed into a corner. Philip tells him he’ll be hanging Tommy at dawn, then, because he surely won’t stay away from Elizabeth.
The day comes to an end and the men line up to get their food. Asshole gets in line behind James and James humbles himself, apologizing for showing off. Asshole won’t let him off, because apparently he enjoys starving people to death. Sure enough, he steals James’s food, right in front of everyone. Tommy tells him to steal someone else’s food. He’s not willing to offer up his own food, so Asshole tells him to shut up. James announces he’ll have to grass on Asshole, or risk starving to death.
He goes to Philip and tells him that Marston is stealing his food. Ahh, Asshole finally has a name. He says that Marston’s been stealing food since they set sail, but targeting James is more recent. Marston is fetched and denies the charges, claiming this is retribution for him having a go at James for being idle. Uh, can’t someone speak up on James’s behalf there? Can’t one of the soldiers on duty be brought in to say that James does not, in fact, slack off? James says that Marston is the liar and he’s taking a huge risk here, tattling. Why would he make himself a social leper if this wasn’t true? Marston says that his family has been blacksmiths for several generations, whereas James is illegitimate or something, so…that makes Marston more believable? I’m not sure I follow his logic at all. Collins, who has been taking notes, suggests they call in Anne. She’s brought and asked, in front of everyone, whether Marston tried to steal her food. She denies it. Of course she denies it. Philip, for heaven’s sake, question her in private! James tries to convince her to tell the truth but it’s useless. Philip sends everyone outside and confers with Ross and Collins. Outside, Anne eyes Marston. ‘What are you looking at?’ he asks her. ‘A dead man,’ she creepily responds. Inside, Ross points out that Marston’s their only blacksmith. He admits the man is stealing food, which is a hanging offense, but the deaths of non-essentials isn’t that big a deal. Collins adds that the only independent witness, Anne, denies everything so there’s no evidence against Marston. Could you at least keep a closer eye on him? Philip goes outside and bluntly informs James that they don’t believe a word he says. James incredulously aks if Philip really thinks he’d take Marston on just for kicks. He points out that Tommy could be hanged for sleeping with a woman, but Marston is allowed to just steal food whenever he likes. Philip says they don’t believe any food is being stolen. James tearfully tells him that he’s finished.
He returns to the barracks and notes that everyone’s giving him the cold shoulder. He tells them all that Marston has stolen from all of them, and are they really going to take this?
Mrs Johnson learns that her husband has been named as a hangman and tells him he mustn’t do it. Her husband doubts it’ll come to that, because a convict won’t die for a principle. She’s clearly not so sure.
James goes out to the beach and, I think, fills a sock or something with some stones. Tommy joins him and unnecessarily tells him that to grass and not be believed is disaster. I think he gets it, Tommy. James tells him to get lost. Tommy notes what he’s doing and asks if he intends to kill Marston. James does. Tommy seems cool with that and even offers to help. James says Tommy will be too busy getting hanged.
Elizabeth sits anxiously in the women’s dorm while ladies chatter in the background. Tommy appears, of course, and everyone shuts up immediately. Elizabeth gets an, ‘oh, I really hoped you wouldn’t do this,’ look on her face but goes to him. They embrace tenderly, and then soldiers come in to take him away.
Johnson gets the word that Tommy has been arrested and will be hanged after all. He reports to his wife. Johnson says he’ll offer a reprieve at the last moment, so long as he agrees to live without Elizabeth. She asks what he’ll do if Tommy doesn’t take it. Johnson idiotically still thinks he will, because Elizabeth and Tommy are bound by solemn vows. Yes, Johnson, solemn vows that clearly mean nothing to either one of them. Heavens, man! Mrs J, being smarter than her husband, knows that this is unlikely and goes to Philip to beg him not to make her husband do this. She tells Philip that the law keeping convict men and women apart is unnatural and stupid and begs him to do away with it. He sits her down and informs her that they rely on the soldiers for their safety, and if the soldiers are unhappy, safety’ll be the first thing to go. She thanks him and departs. Once she’s gone, Philip’s housekeeper starts to clear up.
Mrs Johnson cries as she watches the gallows being built. She returns home to the tent she and her husband share and sits beside him on the bed, taking his hand. They pray together.
In his prison cell, Tommy tries composing a letter to his mother, explaining that he’s being hanged. The man doing the writing suggests he soften the blow somewhat and say he’s dying of a fever. Tommy agrees and restarts his letter.
In bed, James watches a tarantula cross the floor. While he’s staring at it, Marston gets up to go out and pee. James follows him out, but can’t seem to bring himself to bash the man’s skull in.
Tommy next composes a letter for Elizabeth to read after he’s dead, explaining to her that he refused the hood so her face could be the last thing he saw. Timmons, on watch in the jail, overhears.
James goes to visit Tommy in jail and tells him that someone came along so he couldn’t kill Marston. He asks who’ll look after Elizabeth when Tommy’s gone and puts his own name forward. Tommy confirms that James loves her and always has. James asks for his friend’s blessing and Tommy gives it. James promises to be there for his friend, at the end, and they shake through the bars. James dashes the tears away and leaves, thanking Timmons for allowing the visit. Tommy offers Timmons a hand to shake and Timmons takes it.
The letter writer sings a folk song back in the men’s barracks as James lies down and goes to sleep.
Dawn. Tommy is taken from his cell, while Elizabeth pleads frantically with Johnson not to go thorough with the hanging. She offers up her own body for Johnson to do with as he pleases. Johnson flinches but ignores her as he climbs the scaffold, where Tommy waits, noose around his neck. Tommy refuses the hood. Mrs Johnson comes out and joins Elizabeth. Johnson basically begs Tommy to promise he’ll stay away from Elizabeth, but he won’t do it. James is there as well. Mrs J rather hysterically tells her husband this is a crucifixion and he hesitates, then gets down from the scaffold and goes out onto the beach/graveyard to collect himself. He looks down at his wedding ring.
Back at the scaffold, Buckley gets ready to hang Tommy. Elizabeth calls Mrs J’s attention to his movement and Mrs J says that if Buckley hangs Tommy, she’ll see to it Buckley is hanged as well. He backs down. Elizabeth thanks him. Johnson returns with Philip, who asks Tommy if he accepts that he’s essentially a dead man as far as England is concerned and that his banishment is for the rest of his life, not just 14 years. Tommy agrees. Philip asks Elizabeth the same questions and she agrees. So, Johnson goes ahead and marries them (after they take the noose from around Tommy’s neck, thankfully). They are declared man and wife and kiss. Mrs J weeps joyfully. James nods. This is the right thing. Tommy throws his laughing wife over his shoulder and cheers. Everyone departs except for James, who eyes the now vacant noose.