As I prepared to watch FX and Hulu’s new show relatedI kept thinking about Hulu’s other great literary adaptation from a few seasons ago, The Handmaid’s Tale. I was concerned about that relatedwhose eight-episode first season is now streaming on Hulu would be too close The Handmaid’s Talein a bad way.
Both shows are based on famously gripping novels about violent oppression. related comes from Octavia Butler’s deep-rooted, haunting story of a black woman who travels back to a plantation in the antebellum South in the 1970s, while The Handmaid’s Tale is based on Margaret Atwood’s vision of a white woman trapped in prolific slavery under a dystopian theocracy in 1980s America. These books are disturbing books that delve deeply into the violence and horror of their worlds, but when The Handmaid’s Tale found its way to screens, it did so to diminishing returns.
The first three episodes were brilliant bits of television, so unsettling that they felt like watching a frozen scream. But by the end of the first season The Handmaid’s Tale already felt like it had little new to say about the violence it portrayed. It started to feel like it was just lavish in the atrocities it brought to the screen, that it had become nothing but trauma porn. Subsequent seasons have not changed that story.
How, I wondered, could related avoid the same trap? related‘s story is based on the violence on a black woman’s body, as well as the violence she witnesses and is an accomplice to. Once all those horrors were put on screen, what could stop related of pulling one The Handmaid’s Tale?
A lot, it turns out. Under showrunner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Guardians), FX and Hulus related seems like something to have learned the lesson from The Handmaid’s Tale credit. The eight-episode first season, which covers the first third of Butler’s novel, is limited to one error. The result is nowhere near the brilliance of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s first three episodes – but it also feels much better equipped for a long and riveting run than its predecessor.
Jacob Jenkins related revolves around Dana (Mallori Johnson), an aspiring TV writer who just moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2016. Orphaned Dana worries about navigating her fraught relationship with her overprotective aunt (Eisa Davis) and a burgeoning romantic connection with mild-mannered white Kevin (Micah Stock), but the world isn’t willing to let her focus on these mundane issues. . Instead, every few hours Dana is shocked back to a huge plantation in 19th century Virginia, surrounded by people who think they have the right to treat her like property.
Soon Dana realizes she is being pulled into the past by Rufus Weylin (David Alexander Kaplan), the white child of the plantation owners. Rufus is one of Dana’s ancestors and whenever his life is in danger, Dana is dragged into the past to save him. To end the time travel, she realizes, she will have to make sure Rufus lives long enough for her next ancestor to be born.
Central to the horror of Butler’s novel is the sickening, unsettling realization that Rufus will father that child with a black woman whom he will most likely enslave. In other words, Dana has been forced to be an accomplice to her ancestors’ rape in order to secure her own existence.
Meanwhile, in order to survive, Dana must live as a slave on the Weylin Plantation. With no control over her comings and goings from the past, she watches as the people enslaved by the Weylins are beaten, robbed of food, and forced into humiliating processions. What, she wonders, will protect her from the same fate as long as she dwells in the past?
This is disturbing, but Jacob-Jenkins paints it lightly; probably, in most cases, too light. Butler’s portrayal of the Weylin Plantation was disturbingly visceral, but on television we get so little detail that the plantation doesn’t feel inhabited. It instead becomes the stage for a morality play, a cardboard backdrop inhabited by cartoonish figures of evil.
Dana also feels supported in this version of the story. Johnson plays the part with a great steely hardness that masks a quivering chin vulnerability, but the writing is so vague that we get little sense of Dana as an individual human being outside of her extraordinary circumstances. What makes her characterization even murkier is the fact that her most emotional moments come in a messy, strange subplot that Jacob-Jenkins added to the story rather bafflingly. Dana now finds her long-lost mother in the past, in a storyline central to Dana’s emotional arc, despite appearing to exist mainly to streamline the exposition of the rules of Dana’s time travel.
More compelling is Dana’s surprisingly tender love story with Kevin, who is dragged into the past with her. While Butler’s version of the story sees Kevin and Dana as a married couple, Jacob-Jenkins turns them into a new relationship. Much of the first episode basically takes the form of a Kevin and Dana rom-com, complete with meet-cute and soft banter about Dynasty repeats. It is a sweet choice that grounds the horrors that will come in a softer present.
Once they’re back in the past, related gets a lot of miles out of the way Kevin finds himself totally unequipped to navigate a world that Dana understands and can operate in minutes: he never had to think emotionally about what the antebellum South looked like or how he should behave in such a world. But no matter how bad Kevin’s impression of a 19th-century gentleman is (he took a vow of poverty, he claims at one point, to explain why he keeps showing up on their land in ragged T-shirts and no shoes), the Weylins still make him a favorite guest. Whatever the year, Kevin is always protected by his whiteness and he always feels guilty about it.
However, Kevin is not able to protect Dana that much, which is the crux of this story. Dana, it turns out, can only travel back to the present if she genuinely fears for her life. That, in turn, means that as she slowly gets used to the horrors of the past, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to put it behind her. At first, the sight of a gun sends her screaming back to the safety of her living room, but as time passes, casual threats of violence become part of her routine. They don’t scare her like they used to.
The problem that keeps Dana stuck in time is closely related to the problem that caused it The Handmaid’s Tale start good and get bad: Over time, violence loses its power to shock in a productive way. It is stripped of any meaning beyond the violence itself, it suffers for its own sake. On television, the result is dull and unpleasant; for Dana, the result is horrifying and painful and dangerous.
But the fact that related understanding this trap so well says a lot about his ability to depict violence without falling into the trap of misery porn. The spectacle of violence and danger in this show doesn’t just exist as a spectacle, but is inherent in the story that drags Dana back and forth through history. When related finally scaling up his violence to a gruesome whipping scene in the season finale, the moment can’t feel unnecessary since it so viscerally shapes the story.
related in his first season has problems, big ones. The central character is underdeveloped and the world has not yet been lived. But the problem of the pace is exactly solved: it started slowly and it builds up. With any luck, it has laid the foundations for a very good second season.