July 17, 2018

Me Vs Popular Opinions: Seasons 2 of “Westworld” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:47 pm by chavalah

Warning: Spoilers–and Controversial Opinions on Beloved Television Shows–to Follow

The last year of American prestige (and other certain genres) of television recently lined up for consideration for the 2018 Emmys Awards. Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale both raked up a fair few nominations…but I gotta say, I think my favorite show of the year has been The Expanse. Had a rocky start in the first season, perhaps, but it’s something great now. Too bad the Emmys don’t award classic science fiction *dramatic sigh*

One might infer from that last paragraph that I didn’t like Westworld or The Handmaid’s Tale, but you’d only be half right. 😛 The Handmaid’s Tale has its flaws, particularly it’s tight focus on just a few characters that detracts from worldbuilding and leaves the narrative chasing its own tail a bit of the time. But it also probes so many deep and meaningful questions about the nuances of human nature. As for Westworld, once you read creator Jonathan Nolan’s facile view of humanity, you realize that there’s nothing substantial there. I’m a cynic myself, and I have a message for Nolan and his co-creator Lisa Joy: take a chill pill.

Tl;dr–my ratings go as follows: The Expanse: A, The Handmaid’s Tale: B, and Westworld: D (the acting and production values save it from a complete fail.)

Westworld: “You’re Saying That Humans Can’t Change At All?”

The Logan computer program (Ben Barnes) shows Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) how humans are too simple for robot brains

So, quick recap: brutalized robots gaining sentience means gory retribution for humans. But what’s next for the mechanical folks? Can they escape their island prison? Maybe–through a twisty, turny, multi-timeline game where they try and find “the door.” Why multiple timelines? Well, every bad show needs its gimmick. 😛

I disliked both seasons of Westworld, because shocker moments (The Man in Black and William are the same person in different timelines! Non-glasses Bernard faked his confusion all season in order to mask that he knew that Charlotte was actually a Delores-bot!) don’t a narrative make. I suppose it’s unsurprising that Westworld eschews traditional narrative, with that season two finale image of simplistic human stories being “reduced” to books in a library. It’s a shame, really, this anti-literary take which doesn’t realize that just because stories have a beginning, middle and end means that they’re lacking in complexity.

I could also tell you, from the moment that Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) picked up that gun and started shooting people at the end of last season, that she’d turn into a villainous vigilante. She was basically William (Ed Harris/Jimmi Simpson) in robot form (“I want to dominate this world,” “real life comes from suffering”), which, topically, I could maybe excuse. Delores had been beaten, raped and killed by that man on and off for 30 years. It’s somewhat natural for victims to start taking on the behaviors of their abusers. But at the end of the day her character is too bombastic for nuance.

William’s characterization is the most ridiculous. Like with Delores, his personality drives are too archetypal to be human. This season, the penultimate episode found him wandering around like a Shakespeare villain, bemoaning “the stain” that darkened his psyche, but that’s not how real people view themselves. Granted, Josephine Livingstone wrote this intriguing article about how Ford (Anthony Hopkins), Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and Delores map to characters in “The Tempest.” So maybe Westworld would work if the production were a lot smaller and more fantastical in tone. (Meanwhile, since the showrunners are so fond of overwrought Shakespearean references, I’m curious about why they’ve avoided the most obvious parallel–to “Titus Andronicus,” the Bard’s most bloody and cynical of plays, about the fall of the Roman Empire. The Julie Taymor adaptation even stars Anthony Hopkins! :P)

One comparison that I definitely think is overstated is that between Westworld and Game of Thrones. Yes, HBO’s flagship show contains sudden reversals of fate, as is the purview of war and backstabbing. But everyone’s motivations are completely on the level. The primary mystery of the show, Jon Snow’s parentage and what that means in the broader arena, largely takes a backseat to his learning to deal with that chip on his shoulder, his journeys with “the wildlings” changing his perceptions on geopolitical conflict, and how that influences his rise (and fall) as Lord Commander and King of the North. If Jon were a Westworld character, all he’d do is bemoan his bastard status and quote “Hamlet,” I assume, while we get whiplash from jumping between twelve vaguely defined timelines until the writers get tired of it and reveal his mother inside of a well known robot. 😛 Sorry, I just don’t have much faith here.

Speaking of a lack of faith, now we get to the meat of the showrunners’ philosophical argument–that humans are facile and incapable of change. I’ll let Matt Goldberg explain why that’s droll:

Even if you agree with the fact that humans are relatively simple creatures, the notion that people don’t change is utterly ridiculous. There are some people who do, and some people who don’t. As people grow older, they become more fixed in their ways, and others change drastically. Broad generalizations make for easy drama, but Westworld never makes its case, simply taking the view of a snotty Sociology 101 student. But the fact that people change is a core facet of humanity, and one of the reasons we have conflicts and our relationships change. Additionally, some aspects of us change and others remain the same. To view it as binary is to miss the nuances of humanity.

Their argument is further derailed by their own storytelling in season two, where Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) gets involved in a relationship with Maeve (Thandie Newton.) Now, for all of season one and part of season two, he was exactly like all of the other Delos employees–basically a toddler with tourtette’s syndrome. But do the showrunners really expect me to believe that he hasn’t changed when he’s sitting at Maeve’s bedside, and choking out the words, “I don’t know if you can hear me. I never meant for any of this to happen. You don’t deserve this…I’m sorry.” And yet he still turned her in because of the threat the robots posed to humans. Later, cowed by the torture he helped to inflict, he sacrifices himself for her. It seems like despite themselves, the showrunners proved that real, developed humans are complex.

Maeve’s basic storyline–the search for her daughter–was one of the only strong parts of the season. She also uttered my favorite, and most poignant line: “revenge is just another tool in their arsenal, darling.” I wasn’t thrilled by her superpower mind control, but even I have to admit that it fits into the parameters of Westworld worldbuilding. I was far less impressed by Shogun World–partly because watered down replicas in a gory setting don’t do it for me–but also because, like so much else on the Westworld, they were a tease. They didn’t really submit anything substantial to the show. Unpopular opinion time, but I also wasn’t taken with the episode “Kiksuya” (even my fellow haters seemed to love that. :P) But for all of the beautiful execution, it was exposition-heavy and the character beats felt unearned. I bet few of us even remembered Akecheta’s (Zahn McClarnon) wife’s name after the hour was over.

And my final few nitpicks. I know that I’m supposed to be quaking in my boots at the comparison between Delos spying on guests and Facebook cataloging our digital information, but Westworld still feels too ridiculous to me. Yes, Delos can steal intel about you–if a)you’re a billionaire and b)you spend your time raping and killing robots. But more egregious is how the show teased us that William’s secret plans were OH SO ORIGINAL. Uh…he wanted robots to gain sentience and humans to live forever. Those ideas have been around longer than any of us have been alive. Westworld…I think you’ve been inside your murder park for too long. It’s time to check in with reality.

The Handmaid’s Tale: “In another life, maybe we could have been colleagues. In this one, we’re heretics.”

Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and June’s (Elizabeth Moss) relationship took a surprisingly congenial turn for part of the season

The Handmaid’s Tale is not a perfect show. The tight focus on June (Elizabeth Moss) leaves the broader Gilead worldbuilding a little hazy. Critics have rightly pointed out the blind spots, particularly with regards to how race is categorized in this fundamentalist world. I have a feeling that the showrunners focus on LGBTQ+ issues more because they can draw a stark line in the sand–Gilead is homophobic in a way that it can’t be racist and yet sustain a diverse cast. It’s a lazy cop out, but so much of their energy is spent on close character drama.

And as we move away from Offred’s journey in the Margaret Atwood book, we come across another problem as well–how can we keep June at the center of the story while maintaining dramatic tension? Season two, which mapped her pregnancy, contained three separate escape attempts on her part. Personally, I like the idea that there’s no magical cakewalk to Canada–it makes the totalitarian threat more real. But we also can’t see the same push and pull happen over and over again. The ending leaves things…ambiguous.

I’ve been debating what I think about curtain call of season two ever since it streamed. I know I hate that June referred to her baby as “Nicole” rather than “Holly;” not only does it diminish her own agency, but it’s a stupid move because the authorities would know this baby as “Nicole,” too. I’m more mixed on June’s decision to let Emily (Alexis Bledel) take the baby, and stay in Gilead herself to save her older daughter. The impetus makes perfect sense. In fact, they foreshadowed it in her first escape attempt when she felt so guilty about leaving the girl. But it carries the possibility of turning June into a superhero who can beat impossible odds and save the day. A couple of episodes ago, I cheered when Moss pointed out that June’s second escape attempt failed because “she isn’t Wonder Woman.” Last year I cheered when Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) was pulled back from playing Rambo and dashing back into the dangerous fray after his wife and daughter. I’m probably treating this development more optimistically than I should, because so far I’ve been moved by this show.

A lot of critics project the issues brought up in The Handmaid’s Tale to those afflicting America right now. I try and stay away from making direct comparisons unless the situation demands it–like the week when June was reunited with Hannah (Jordana Blake) and the U.S. was reeling from a new governmental policy of separating the children of undocumented immigrants from their parents. But sometimes, I find the comparisons to be unfortunate. The insistence of seeing the show as a straight up allegory for the United States under the current administration means that you’re not judging it on its own, artistic merits. And then we get think pieces like this one, where the author demands if the show wants us to feel sorry for “Ivanka Trump.” But Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) isn’t Ivanka Trump; you’ve just made yourself an excuse to not engage with the fictional character created for the story.

When the season began, critics complained about how the only violence we saw was woman-on-woman. But by the end of the shebang, when Fred (Joseph Fiennes) proved himself the top abuser in the Waterford household, more criticism came about making Serena “sympathetic.” I find this similar to how writers like the one above dismissed how liberals throw around the word “Nazi” for any conservative thinker. If you want a black and white world, like Westworld, where all villains are irredeemable, then watch William bemoaning his stained soul. The Handmaid’s Tale embraces complexity–meaning that no “side” is always in the right, and no villain is always in the wrong. Serena didn’t singlehandedly create Gilead, though she bears some culpability. And her motives weren’t sadism, but (however misguided) concern for the future of humanity.

Most importantly, however, seeing people like Serena and Eden (Sydney Sweeney) as the victims of Gilead proves the cruelty of the system. Patriarchy doesn’t just hurt the outsiders, it hurts everyone. And Serena’s (amazingly acted) journey is obviously about this semi-fundamentalist woman getting the wool lifted off of her eyes. I can’t wait to see her again in season three, wherever the road leads.

I brought up Eden, the shortlived wife of June’s lover, Nick (Max Minghella) for a reason. For the most part, the critics of this show are heavily “woke” to issues of prejudice against women. Therefore I was surprised by how much they distrusted this teenage girl. Granted, there were a couple of instances where the show set up situations to make her seem dangerous (though the “how” is a little more murky. Complain to Serena? Serena wouldn’t let Eden publicly air dirty laundry–too dangerous to all of them). But those are the only times when I doubted Eden; meanwhile, other critics were constantly predicting that she’d betray “the good guys” in a dozen melodramatic ways.

At the end of the day, however, Eden was proved to be a simple, kindhearted girl just looking for love. After her tragic end, writer Emma Gray grappled with the meaning of this:

In both Gilead and our world, teen girls are alternately dismissed and feared. They are silly fangirls, lovestruck fools, narcissistic selfie takers too young to be truly listened to. And yet, despite the fact that teen girls are constantly belittled and condescended to, they are still considered a threat. Their knees and shoulders can destroy entire school days for their male peers. They can take down behemoth brands with their fickle preferences. They can tempt older men into falling in love with and assaulting them. And if one deigns to explore her sexuality, she is labeled, as the commander labels Eden, a “slut,” a woman “swept up in her own selfish lust.”

I became “woke” to the widespread derisiveness towards feminine, domestic girls with Sansa Stark in ASOIAF/Game of Thrones. I can only hope that Eden’s story shines the light for more people.

This season is roughly divided into two parts, with an suicide bombing exploding down the middle. (Another thing I love about The Handmaid’s Tale–the showrunners don’t just let the suicide bombing be a “good” thing. They spend ample time thinking about the handmaids who lost their lives, and their relations in Gilead and Canada who grieved them. Anywho.) At first I thought that Fred might die in said bombing. It seemed to map to Atwood’s vision, where he was accused by higher ranking commanders of being too “liberal,” and then being “purged” early from the system. Instead, his main antagonist, Commander Pryce (Robert Curtis Brown) died and Fred became more powerful. Now it was the women in his household who challenged Fred by acting with their own agency. Fiennes had a great season himself, as he let Fred’s true colors rise to the surface.

Fred is the sort of villain that William might have been if he was more human. Both men live in fantasy worlds, but Fred uses his privilege to pretend that he’s a good man. He’s not a rapist; he’s making a moral society! He offers “Offred” pictures–and visits!–with her daughter! Until mid-season, he’s more soft-spoken and less temperamental than his wife. But that’s only when things are going his way. When he feels threatened, he resorts to violence and outwardly expressed misogyny.

Gilead is built on excuses and fantasy. When June works with Serena to protect herself within the patriarchy’s confines, she wonders if more vengeful and unbending Emily would forgive her for it. (Sidenote: I’m really hoping that Emily makes it to Canada, and we get to see more of her and underutilized Moira (Samira Wiley) battle their PTSD. Anywho.) I was struck by the scene where Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) got into June’s head by pointing out that she’d inadvertently killed a man by asking for his help to escape. On an ethical level, of course it’s not June’s fault that she reached out for help to escape tyranny. But the world is not a simple place with simple choices. June does bear some responsibility for his death and that’s the psychological power of Gilead. It makes you culpable. Or else it makes you a martyr. Maybe a terrorist.

Is The Handmaid’s Tale as bleak as people say? I dunno, as a cynic I’m used to finding light in the darkness. One of the bullshit philosophies that Westworld espouses is that suffering makes one human. The Handmaid’s Tale knows the truth. When we were in the colonies, we saw just how dehumanized people were by their suffering. But they could reclaim their humanity–by daring to focus on love, and fostering relationships. One of the middle episodes focuses on a marriage between two women–officiated by a rabbi! 😮 Finally, a clue as to what happened to Jews in the show’s Gilead. :/ Even bitter, defeated Emily ultimately understood the power in that.

Sooner or later we may have to expand beyond Gilead to get a fuller picture of how the world is responding to this totalitarian regime. Personally, I harbor a fantasy where the final season is given over to something akin to the Nuremberg Trials. All I know is that I trust the message of this show–the themes and the characters–in a way that I’ve never trusted Westworld. It’s never given me any incentive to, after all. I’ll be back on Hulu next year to watch season three of The Handmaid’s Tale. Dunno about the other one.

Some parting notes–Kudos, again, to the show for depicting the reality of female experiences–that birth looked arduous and painful! Anywho. I really felt for Nick, with Eden, though it was stupid of him to keep her at an emotional distance. But what was his alternative? Lie–play mind games–with this child bride? Would that even be fair to him, let alone to her?

I still have that scene from the second episode stuck in my head when June finds out how “The Boston Globe” employees were executed. Amazing editing there. On a victorious note, I got some foreshadowing vibes from the flashback scene where young June and her mom watched women burn the names of their rapists. The show followed through in the finale when June hit Fred with the message on her wall. GUH. June’s mother, Holly (Cherry Jones) was also in my favorite scene of season two. It’s when June is remembering driving with her mother and singing along to Gwen Stefani…really has little to do with the show itself, and more to do with my feelings towards my own mother. But that’s the strength of the narrative, really. It’s about a dystopian society–but it’s also about the complicated people who lived before and during it. That’s what makes this show worth a return trip.

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