As I prepared to watch the new show from FX and Hulu KinshipI kept thinking about Hulu’s other great literary adaptation from a few seasons ago, The Handmaid’s Tale. I was worried that Kinshipwhose eight-episode first season is now streaming on Hulu, was going to be too close to Handmaid’s Talein the wrong way.
Both shows are based on famous and heartbreaking novels about violent oppression. Kinship comes from Octavia Butler’s visceral and haunting story of a black woman in the 1970s traveling to a plantation in the antebellum South, while The Handmaid’s Tale is based on Margaret Atwood’s vision of a white woman trapped in reproductive slavery under a dystopian theocracy in 1980s America. their worlds, but when The Handmaid’s Tale made its way to screens, it did so at diminishing returns.
The first three episodes were brilliant bits of television, so disturbing they felt like watching a frozen scream. But at the end of the first season, Handmaid’s Tale already felt like he had nothing new to say about the violence he was describing. He started to feel like he was simply reveling in the atrocities he put on screen, that it had become nothing but traumatic porn. Later seasons did not change this narrative.
How, I wondered, could Kinship avoid the same trap? KinshipThe story of is built on the violence exerted on the body of a black woman, as well as the violence she witnesses and is complicit in. Once all these horrors have passed on the screen, what could stop Kinship to shoot a Handmaid’s Tale?
A lot, as it turns out. Under the direction of showrunner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (watchmen), FX and Hulu Kinship seems to have learned the lesson of The Handmaid’s Tale Very good. The eight-episode first season, which covers the first third of Butler’s novel, is limited to one fault. The result is far from the brilliance of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s first three episodes – but it also feels much more equipped for a long and compelling run than its predecessor.
by Jacob Jenkins Kinship centers on Dana (Mallori Johnson), an aspiring television writer who just moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2016. White Kevin (Micah Stock), but the world won’t let her focus on these day-to-day issues. Instead, every few hours, Dana finds herself sent back to a sprawling plantation in 19th-century Virginia, surrounded by people who think they have a right to treat it like property.
Quickly, Dana realizes that she is being pulled back in time 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 transported to the past to save him. In order to put an end to time travel, she realizes that she will have to make sure that Rufus lives long enough for his next ancestor to be born.
Central to the horror of Butler’s novel is the unsettling and disturbing realization that Rufus will father this child on a black woman whom he will most likely enslave. Dana, in other words, found herself forced to be an accomplice to her grandmother’s rape in order to secure her own existence.
Meanwhile, to survive, Dana must live as a slave on Weylin’s plantation. With no control over her whereabouts from the past, she watches the people enslaved by the Weylins being beaten, deprived of food, and forced into degrading performances. What, she wonders, will protect her from the same fate as long as she remains stuck in the past?
It’s heartbreaking, but Jacob-Jenkins sketches it lightly; probably, in most cases, too lightly. Butler’s depiction of the Weylin Plantation was viscerally moving, but on TV we get so few details that the plantation doesn’t feel lived in. Rather, it becomes the scene of a morality play, a cardboard backdrop inhabited by cartoonish characters of evil.
Dana also feels guaranteed in this version of the story. Johnson plays the part with tremendous steely strength masking a quivering chin vulnerability, but the writing is so vague that we get little sense of Dana as an individual human being beyond her extraordinary circumstances. Adding to the nebulosity of his characterization is the fact that his most emotional moments come in a messy and alien subplot that Jacob-Jenkins rather disconcertingly added to the story. Dana is now reunited with her long-lost mother in the past, in a storyline that positions itself at the center of Dana’s emotional arc though it seems to exist primarily to streamline the exposition on Dana’s time travel rules.
More compelling is Dana’s surprisingly tender love affair with Kevin, who finds himself drawn into the past with her. While Butler’s version of the story sees Kevin and Dana as a married couple, Jacob-Jenkins makes their relationship a new one. Much of the first episode, in fact, takes the form of a Kevin and Dana rom-com, with cute, sweet banter about Dynasty reruns. It’s a sweet choice that grounds future terrors in a sweeter present.
Once back in the past, Kinship gets a lot of mileage out of how Kevin finds himself totally unequipped to navigate a world that Dana grasps and is able to operate within minutes: he never had to emotionally consider what the South was like before -war or how he should behave in such a world. Yet whatever bad impression Kevin has of a 19th-century gentleman (he took a vow of poverty, he claims at one point, to explain why he keeps showing up on their land in T-shirts seedy and shoeless), the Weylins still make him a special house guest. Regardless of the year, Kevin is still protected by his whiteness and he still feels guilty about it.
Kevin isn’t able to protect Dana that much though, which is the heart of this story. Dana, he elaborates, can only return to the present when she genuinely fears for her life. In turn, this means that as she slowly gets used to the horrors of the past, it becomes harder and harder for her to leave it behind. At first, the sight of a gun sends her screaming back to the safety of her living room, but over time, occasional threats of violence become part of her routine. They fail to scare him like they used to.
The problem that leaves Dana stuck in time is a close cousin of the problem that made The Handmaid’s Tale start out good and go bad: over time, violence loses its power to shock in a productive way. It empties of all meaning beyond the violence itself, suffered for its own sake. On television, the result is boring and unpleasant; for Dana, the result is horrible, painful and dangerous.
But the fact that Kinship understands this trap so well says a lot about its ability to portray violence without falling into the trap of porn misery. The spectacle of violence and danger in this show doesn’t just exist as spectacle, but inherently drives the story, driving Dana back and forth through the story. When Kinship finally escalates its violence in the season finale into a gruesome whipping scene, the moment can’t seem gratuitous because it shapes the story so viscerally.
Kinship in its first season has problems, big ones. Its central character is underdeveloped and its world is not yet inhabited. But he precisely solved the problem of rhythm: he started slowly and he builds. With luck, he laid the foundations for a very good second season.
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