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Editor's Note: We don't reveal too much plot detail, but there are a few references to things that happen in the second seasons of "Westworld" and "Handmaid's Tale" below.
The women of "The Handmaid's Tale" and female hosts of "Westworld" have something in common. They live in ominous, futuristic worlds under the rule of men. They aren't allowed to make their own decisions. They are disproportionately victims of sexual and partner violence. They are given uniforms or costumes that either completely hide or flaunt their sexual availability.
The first seasons of both series established just how bad it was for women and, as the seasons came to a close, the women started rising up. With those cliffhangers in mind, plus four Emmy wins for "Handmaid's Tale" and the heightened sensitivity that has come with #MeToo, anticipation for Season Two of both shows is running high. "Westworld" premieres Sunday, April 22 on HBO, and "Handmaid's Tale" premieres Wednesday, April 25 on Hulu.
In Season One, “Westworld” is introduced as a playground for unchecked masculine fantasy. Extremely wealthy guests pay $40,000 a day to ply, bed, maim and shoot up real-looking, non-human hosts within an array of canned Western movie storylines. Most of the season unfolds like a conventional "man fights man for control of the world" narrative. In this case, it's Westworld’s architect, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), against its most extreme player, The Man in Black (Ed Harris), or William.
But that's not all that happens.
As the season progresses, the monotonous, repeated scenes of say, a bar brawl gone bloody, begin to veer off script (thank goodness because enough already). The malfunctioning, or possibly programmed, hosts start to assemble memories that some would call a consciousness. With that comes a rumbling but opaque desire. Some would call that being human.
If it sounds simple, it isn’t.
Maeve, a brothel madam (Thandie Newton), remembers having her daughter abducted. Dolores, a farmer’s daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and one of the oldest hosts at 30 years (though of course she never ages), remembers beatings, sexual assaults and an unfulfilled dream to make a life with fellow host Teddy (James Marsden). At the end of Season One, both women (hosts?) are in fuming, murderous rages. Ford dies at Dolores’ hand.
A chaotic revolution — hosts versus humans — ends Season One and opens Season Two.
Perhaps what's most striking about the first half of Season Two (five episodes) is the potency of "Westworld's" ensemble cast. Their overlapping arcs start hopping time and place, to the detriment of comprehension. Remember how characters in "Lost" started asking, "When are we?" Well, "Westworld" makes "Lost" look like Sudoku for beginners (they were both popular in 2005). And while its creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy must likewise envy “Game of Thrones’” ability to interweave warring factions with women at the helm, “Westworld’s” parties are not as neatly delineated by castle, clothing or climate. In other words, character motivations are at best mysterious, at times not compelling, and at worst, a nonsensical mess.
There are moments a few episodes in when I wondered: Is this worth sorting out?
I’m leaning closer to yes than no. Here’s why: I was ready to check out after Season One because of “Westworld’s” false sheen of being something new. The show purported to be about big questions: What makes us human? Should we embrace or fear artificial intelligence? But last season dallied on the surface while checking off the requisite HBO body count — and by that I mean naked, dead, often both.
Season Two has pivoted just enough to start poking around in deeper terrain. As we learn that William may have had more hand in Westworld’s creation than we realized, that there are many other parks (like Shogun World), and that mortality may be a key motivator for humans and hosts, the show can and does ask: What is freedom? Is God a reflection or a projection? Will technology precipitate or save us from the world’s end?
Some writing can stand the weight. “There is beauty in who we are if we too should try to survive,” Dolores tells a bedraggled Bernard (Jeffrey Wright, waiting patiently to resume a prominent role). But she also delivers lines from horseback like, “I’ve evolved into something new. And I’ve one last role to play: myself.” It’s as if this series is trying to find its footing between the first season of “True Detective” and Michael Bay’s “Armageddon.”
Through it all, the show can’t shake its need to forward plot with endless, often downright boring gun battle scenes. The reality of mass shootings make it hard to stomach so many bullet-ridden, unarmed corpses. That they’re dressed like present-day humans in evening gowns and black tie suggests class warfare, or an all-out AI uprising. Those are interesting concepts that most of us could grasp with less excessive imagery. Plus, there's a lot of aimless running to and fro. I've seen better episodes of "Survivor."
The challenge of Season Two — and I will keep watching — will be whether or not Dolores and Maeve fall in line with or truly break free from the masculine narrative that potentially underpins “Westworld.” If it turns out this is just a realm concocted entirely around William’s needs, it’ll be as lost as “Lost.” Sorry, Jack.
Alternatively, the women of “The Handmaid’s Tale” don’t have to wrestle the narrative away from men because it has always been told from their point of view. Granted, it’s from a subjugated and controlled existence. But that’s how Margaret Atwood envisioned an extrapolation of male dominance when she wrote the novel in 1986. All these decades later, “The Handmaid’s Tale” has become some of the most terrifying television ever made. (Incidentally, the opera comes to Boston in 2019.)
Season One is a nightmarish depiction of a world, much like our present day — and in fact, the adaptation is set in Boston — where the democratic government has been overthrown and authoritarian rule takes hold. Public executions are commonplace. Women who can successfully reproduce are corralled and doled out as handmaids to bear the children of ruling class families. The story follows one such handmaid, Offred (Elisabeth Moss), and a few others in a group led by the saccharine yet ruthless Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd).
We learn that Offred’s name is June and that her daughter was ripped from her arms as they were trying to flee to Canada (June’s husband made it, they didn’t). June’s best friend (Samira Wiley) escapes being a handmaid and eventually crosses into Canada, too. Out of sheer desperation, Offred embarks on a risky affair with a driver (Max Minghella) and must bend to the man of her house (Joseph Fiennes). Season One ends with the handmaids’ collective refusal to stone one of their own to death. (A friend of mine told me that scene made her shake with hope.) And Offred is pregnant, which gives her a fleeting power.
As Season Two opens, the handmaids must pay for their disobedience. Offred is shown in the back of a police van with shards of light across her face. Her voiceover is like a diary being read aloud. It is one of the many head-on close-ups of her featured in the series. These exaggerated camera stare-downs underscore, "This story is mine! And it’s about my mind as much as my body."
In developing the backstories of June and her resistant comrade Emily (Alexis Bledel), the second season shows an eerily recognizable atmosphere where the rights of women and LGBTQ people are incrementally downsized. At first, it doesn’t seem like much. June must have her husband sign for her to pick up her birth control from the pharmacy. Emily is warned not to show anyone pictures of her with her wife and child. These are the moments that set the jaw and knot the stomach — not the scenes of graphic violence used to keep the handmaids in line, because those scenes are everywhere in "quality television" today.
Having a nurse grill you about why you chose working over bringing your feverish child into the emergency room? That’s the slippery slope that feels both plausible and gut-wrenching, especially considering most watchers will not have lived in a time when, for example, women couldn’t open a checking account without a co-signee let alone get a legal abortion.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” brews fear the way “The Walking Dead” did early on. Its scene of a traffic jam outside of Atlanta caught the texture of how the apocalypse might really look. June’s husband says it’s ridiculous he should sign for her prescription but what are they going to do? He shrugs, he signs, they go on with their lives.
As convincing, and as frightening, as this world can be, at times it can be too much. “Friends don’t stone their friends to death,” Offred/June scoffs at Aunt Lydia. It’s an impossible line to deliver well. All of it — the blood smeared walls within, yes, the Boston Globe's now former headquarters, and the reporter’s shoe that June finds under a desk and then, yup, the other shoe by the firing squad’s wall — can be too much. Then again, she’s inside the Boston Globe, and a weed-ridden Fenway Park, and in an abandoned T station … these are my streets, our streets.
In the best of the first three episodes I watched, we meet June’s mother (the force, Cherry Jones). She’s an outspoken feminist who warns June against marrying. “You really want to take all that energy and passion and give it to a man?” she implores. But June isn’t fired up like her mother, who is constantly protesting. “This country’s going down the f---ing tubes. It’s time to get out in the streets and fight, not f---ing play house,” she admonishes.
As “The Handmaid’s Tale” evolves we learn that though June wasn’t compelled to rally alongside her mother then, her resistance may spark a much bigger revolution.
The more I consider these two shows together, the more curious it is that they're adaptations from prior generations. The original Michael Crighton movie, "Westworld," dates back to 1973 and Atwood's novel is 30 years old. Clearly, anxieties felt then have resurfaced today. The difference is that "Westworld" plays off the romantic allure of the Wild West. There is no such rosy past or place for women's rights advocates. I doubt a feminist would want to go to Westworld unless her plan was to smash it to pieces. And maybe that's exactly what's going to happen.
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