This month's subject matter: post-apocalypse dramas, fairy tale romances, outer-space survival, 1960s espionage, and the usual dose of superheroes. This month's unfortunate theme: imperilled women.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Knowing that the Hulu television series was just around the corner, I sat down with Atwood's vision of a dystopian nightmare, which (among other things) has recently turned the image of a red-shrouded woman with a white bonnet into a potent symbol of a woman's autonomy.
Set in an unspecified future after a fertility crisis has decimated the population, we're introduced to Offred (that is: "of Fred") a handmaid assigned to a household in which she's expected to bear the child of the family patriarch in the place of his barren wife. Occasionally falling into recollections of her previous life with her husband and daughter, as well as her indoctrination at the hands of the new regime, Offred goes about her daily existence... and that's it really.
Perhaps the surprising thing about Atwood's novel is that Offred is not a particularly proactive protagonist. There's no attempt to escape, no bouts of defiance – this is just her life, and though she desperately longs for the freedom and independence she enjoyed before she was forced into the role of handmaid, she's entirely without the knowledge and resources needed to reclaim that life.
But it's this narrowness of perspective that is the book's strength. Told in first-person, we know everything that Offred does and nothing more. What may or may not be happening in "the real world" is completely unknown to her, with information scarce and reading forbidden.
It's obviously not a pleasant or an easy read, but definitely a memorable one – not just for the harrowing portrayal of the future Atwood creates, but the way in which it's conveyed. Offred's life is both dull and terrifying, yet it's through Atwood's incredible talent that I was on the edge of my seat throughout, dreading what the next page mind hold.
Ashling by Isobelle Carmody
This is the third book in Isobelle Carmody's The Obernewtyn Chronicles, marking the point where the series takes on a truly epic quality. Seriously, this instalment is twice the size of the first volume, and the next one is even longer.
Working with the interesting blend of post-apocalyptic society and youngsters with preternatural abilities, the series focuses on Elspeth Gordie, a young woman not only with prestigious talent but who is the subject of several strange prophecies. It's standard YA stuff, but Carmody writes with a sense of realism and clarity that elevates the usual stock tropes into something a little more innovative.
"Ashling" is more episodic than usual, dealing with a) Elspeth's attempts to return an injured gypsy woman to her people, b) outmanoeuvring a mysterious slave-dealer, and c) participating in a gladiatorial-like competition to prove her people's worth in joining a rebel alliance that plans to overthrow the totalitarian government. There are some nice nuances to Carmody's world building: a lot of this book is devoted to the Misfits trying to ally with rebels in the hopes of: however, in many ways the superstitious rebels are even more of a threat then the Council.
But despite the solid world-building and a strong supporting cast, I can't say I'm emotionally invested in Elspeth or any of her people. I'm certainly fond of them, but I've yet to really love them – good thing there's still five more books.
The Crystal Heart by Sophie Masson
I've always enjoyed Sophie Masson's books; there's something very simple and pure about them. Perhaps it's to do with the fact that most of them are standalone; just sweet self-contained stories of fantasy, mystery or adventure. It would appear that she's recently written an unofficial trilogy based on well-known fairy tales: The Crystal Heart (Rapunzel), Scarlet in the Snow (Beauty and the Beast) and Moonlight and Ashes (Cinderella).
The first two were on display at the library I work at, and looked too enticing to pass up. Both are based on familiar fairy tales, but both take the opportunity to flesh out the characters and expand the stories into fully-fledged adventures. That said, it's easy to forget that The Crystal Heart is based on Rapunzel, as after establishing the existence of a girl trapped in a tower, the story goes in a drastically different direction.
Kasper Bator is a member of an elite guard that watches over a political prisoner, believed to be a witch from the underground realm of Night. But when he finds out that this witch is actually a young woman scheduled for execution, he decides to betray his country and rescue her. Naturally the two fall in love, and the adventure that follows is their attempt to broker peace between their nations.
It's a cute little story, moving between the first person narration of Kasper and Izolda (that seems to be a common aspect of this month's books) but not particularly memorable.
Scarlet in the Snow by Sophie Masson
I much preferred this take on Beauty and the Beast, which adheres closer to the familiar story whilst widening its scope (in other words, it's like no Beauty and the Beast retelling you've ever read, and yet never drifts so far away from the original fairy tale that you forget what it's based on).
Consider this: what if Beauty's father was dead and it was instead her mother who was struggling to make ends meet? What if Beauty actually investigated the Beast's identity, in an attempt to find out who he was before the spell was cast? What the Beast had a companion, an old feya woman who was as cryptic as she was helpful? And what if halfway through the love story, Beauty had to leave the enchanted castle and go out into the world on a quest of her own?
With nods to Baba Yaga and East O' the Sun and West O' the Moon, the story takes several fun turns in a fantasy version of Russia, with the usual motif of a red rose existing alongside werewolves, witches, art galleries and glass rooms. Like The Crystal Heart, the love story isn't particularly convincing (romance is just not Masson's strong suit) but the rest is just what you want from a retold fairy tale: familiarity and innovation.
Point Blanc by Anthony Horowitz
I read the first book in the Alex Rider series years ago, and have only just gotten around to checking out the sequel. I probably wouldn't have bothered had I not found most of them at a book sale (especially since the "kid spy" genre has more or less died out) but I wanted a quick, entertaining read and this fit the bill.
Best described as "James Bond for kids", Horowitz introduces Alex Rider as a fourteen year old boy recruited by MI6 for missions specifically suited for someone his age. In this case, it's infiltrating a boarding school called Point Blanc whose students are the children of immensely rich and powerful magnates from around the world. Since two of these magnates have recently been found dead, Alex's skills are required to investigate the place.
Some aspects have definitely dated in just over a decade (Alex carries around CDs, has a Sony Discman and watches MTV) but it's still a pretty fun caper – once he actually gets to Point Blanc. There's a lot of filler before the ball gets rolling.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
I haven't watched a huge amount of Wes Anderson films, but I get the distinct feeling that this is the most Wes Andersonish one of all. There's a fine line between whimsy and pretentiousness, and Anderson skirts it in this story of two adolescent runaways who leave their respective homes in order to make a life for themselves in the wilderness. A search party comprised of concerned adults and khaki scouts head out to find them, but the biggest storm in living memory is also on its way...
It's every character's blunt honesty and a sharp edge of danger that keeps the story from becoming saccharine – and it's interesting to consider how style has so much power in shaping the feel of a movie. In the hands of another director, this exact same script could have been a profoundly different film.
For what it's worth, I enjoyed it. The humour is droll and the characters quirky, and though every actor is (presumably) directed to speak in a monotone, it becomes an intriguing choice when contrasted to the sincerity of what they're saying. Everyone says exactly what they're thinking at any given moment. It's beautiful to watch, with a bright colour palette and Anderson's distinctive visual style.
The Man from UNCLE (2015)
GIF sets of this movie kept popping up on my Tumblr dash, and I'm glad I tracked down their source. The Man from UNCLE isn't the greatest movie ever by any means, but it's stylish, well-cast, reasonably clever, and has since become the film I play whenever I need some background noise.
I'll admit I know next to nothing about the television show upon which it's based, but it captures the 1960s aesthetic to perfection (which is to say, it may not be entirely accurate, but it certainly looks like our idealized version of the glamourous 1960s, which is all anyone wanted). Throw in some espionage, gadgetry, vehicles and an appropriate soundtrack, and it's good to go.
It's also a lot of fun to have a female villainess who is ... well, a villain. There's no tragic childhood, no sympathetic backstory – just a cold-hearted bitch who calmly executes her plan and eventually gets her comeuppance. It's refreshing in its simplicity.
Being so clearly based on the true-life cases of kidnapped women being forced to deliver and raise the children of their captors from within the confines of locked rooms where they're trapped for years at a time, I was a little queasy about watching this film. As compelling a story as its premise makes, you can never quite forget the sobering fact that its success is built on the suffering of so many real women and children.
Joy Newman is one such woman, kidnapped as a teenager and trapped for going on seven years in a shed on her captor's property. She's since given birth to a boy named Jack, now five. Having realized that their time might be running out (her kidnapper, who she calls "Old Nick" has recently lost his job) Joy trains her son to play dead, wait until Nick puts him on the back of his truck, wriggle out of the carpet she's rolled him in, and seek out help.
It's harrowing stuff, and even knowing how it turned out, I was on the edge of my seat. But the story doesn't end with the mother and son's liberation – after that comes the rehabilitation process, which in many ways is much more difficult. Resentful of the life she's missed out on and conscious of the judgements being placed upon her, Joy struggles to readapt to normal life. Jack on the other hand has no concept of "normal life". Having lived his whole life in Room, he finds himself missing its safety and simplicity, and is overwhelmed by the brightness and variety of the world around him.
Although it was understandable that the story would be told through Jack's point-of-view, it's also a little frustrating considering Joy has the much more interesting story. Things like the fate of Nick (did he go to prison? Did Joy testify against him in court?) are kept entirely off-screen, as is Joy's recovery after a suicide attempt. Obviously these events were not depicted as they exist outside Jack's experiences, but for me they could have been the most interesting bits of the story.
It's a story that – given its subject matter – could have easily been sensationalist. Even with the restraint that the writer/director shows, there are some bits that caused me to grimace (a lawyer encourages Joy to accept a primetime interview in order to pay for upcoming expenses; an interview in which she's asked questions no one with grain of tact or decency would ever ask a woman in her position).
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (2016)
So, the latest Harry Potter film which serves as a prequel and is set in 1920s New York. It's...fine. As you probably know, it deals with Newt Scamander arriving at the city with a suitcase full of fantastical creatures; many of which escape after his case is mixed up with that of a Muggle. In the hunt to track down and recapture all the magical animals, Newt and Jacob are joined by witches Tina and Queenie Goldstein, who bring with them their own set of problems.
Honestly, it would take about five paragraphs to provide a synopsis that covered every aspect of the movie's plot: there's the runaway creatures, a sect of witch-hunting Muggles, the search for Grindelwald, dark monsters born out the ids of repressed magical children, the inner politics of the American wizarding world, a character who turns out to be a Hidden Villain, a love story between the four leads, and a media mogul whose presence completely escapes me.
And of course, a significant portion of events is simply set-up for the next movie in the franchise. *groans* I suppose we're stuck with this serialized form of storytelling in Hollywood films for the foreseeable future.
It's amusing and it's colourful, but it probably would have been much better had J.K. Rowling just ditched her trademark puzzle-box plot (which isn't particularly intriguing this time around) and simply focused on Newt's love and care for his creatures. Our first glimpse of the interior of his suitcase is inspired (easily the best part of the movie) and the ongoing reactions from Jacob remind us more than any of the CGI effects just how charming this world can be.
Truth be told, I felt that Jacob made for a much more interesting and sympathetic protagonist. Whereas Eddie Redmayne's ticks and idiosyncrasies got old pretty fast, Dan Fogler is easy to root for: with just a suitcase full of pastries and a hand-drawn sketch of his would-be bakery, I was completely sold on his dream.
Unfortunately the girls aren't particularly interesting: Tina's actress has very little presence, and Queenie's particular gift of mind-reading isn't utilized in any plot-relevant way. Aside from some necessary exposition on American wizardry, you could probably cut the two of them from the story without doing too much damage to the myriad of plots.
And just for the record, "No-Maj" has got to be the most irritating fantasy word since "younglings".
The Martian (2016)
From the simplest premises are the most riveting stories born: an astronaut is separated from his crewmates and left stranded on Mars after they believe him dead. With limited supplies and help literally years away, Matt Damon (don’t worry about what his character is called; he's just Matt Damon) must use all his scientific knowhow to survive. Or as he puts it: "I have to science the shit out of this."
Back on Earth, NASA quickly realize via satellite pictures that he's still alive, and begins making plans for how to bring him home. It's easier said than done, especially once the decision is made to keep his survival from his crewmates, knowing it will only distract them from their ongoing mission.
In many ways it's a remarkably chipper film given its subject matter: Damon never seems to experience any sort of depression or trauma during his lengthy period of isolation on Mars, but then – that's not what the film is about. It's a survival story, focusing more on the feel-good quality of individuals on both Earth and in space who sink a lot of time and effort into saving the life of one good man.
The Flash: Season 3 (2016 – 2017)
Although it seems to be the general consensus that season three of The Flash wasn't very good, I have to say I mostly enjoyed it. It helps that I'm only a casual viewer, but I also watched the third season right on the heels of the second, so it came across as one long serial to me. That said, it's really weird catching up on a show that others have been watching over the course of two years, especially if you skim the message boards while you're marathoning.
There's more whacky time-travel/interdimensional-hopping, with a brief sojourn into Flashpoint (a different timeline in which Barry saves his mother from Eobard Thawne) and a season that deals with the subsequent consequences of meddling in the past. However, the ultimate reveal of the evil Savitar as a time remnant of Barry that only exists because he created it to destroy Savitar after Iris was murdered at the hands of a time-travelling Savitar is ... well, it's difficult to get one's head around.
I've pretty much given up on trying to make heads or tails of this show's use of time-travelling; mostly I'm just here for the characters, which comprise my favourite cast of all the CW shows. That's quite ironic considering this is definitely the worst show in regards to its female characters: Iris gets almost no agency in a story that revolves around her (at least not till the final episode), and Caitlin spends most of the season as a villain for reasons that make very little sense.
The irritating thing about the Caitlin/Killer Frost arc is that it didn't have to be nonsensical. The show tries to sell the idea that the manifestation of Caitlin's powers also brings forth a completely new personality – something that's never been seen on any other meta-human in the entire show. Yet they could have tied the emergence of her powers to her repressed trauma of the past two seasons, hypothesizing that her inability to process her grief/anger over Ronnie and Zoom has resulted in the coping mechanism of a new destructive persona.
A little hokey? Sure. But it's better than nothing, and right from the start Caitlin was characterized as a figurative Ice Queen who internalized all her pain. Making her cryogenic powers a literal manifestation of this inability to confront her emotions would have made a comic-booky kind of sense.
Tom Cavanaugh continues to impress, this time as the third Harrison Wells (technically fourth, though he wasn't Earth-1 Wells for very long), or "HR." This time he's a wisecracking trickster-type character – but you can tell from his body language and vocal inflections that he's a completely different man from Harry and Eobard. Well done, sir. Wally and Jesse continue to be pretty cute (this is actually the first time I've seen a female speedster) and Tom Felton joins the cast in a guest starring capacity that turns out to be a subversion of his usual dickish prat role.
That is to say, he's still playing a dickish prat, but he ends up being one of the good guys. In fact, it was interesting to compare Julian Albert to Rip Hunter over on Legends of Tomorrow. Both are arrogant Brits with abrasive personalities, but while Rip stays genuinely unlikeable, there's a pomposity to Julian that ends up being quite endearing. It also helps that he possesses an integrity Rip lacks, and has a reasonably good reason to distrust Barry when they first met (at least from his point of view).
The much-touted musical cross-over episode ends up being a bit of a let-down, with only three original songs and a couple of dance numbers (though it was amusing how they called in John Barrowman despite him not being a Flashor a Supergirl character – obviously you just don't do a musical without him) but The Flash also boasts some really good guest stars: Grodd, Kadabra, Gypsy, Mirror Master, Top – they're all played by solid actors, bringing a sense of weight to some rather outlandish comic book characters.
Supergirl: Season 2 (2016 – 2017)
I hate to say it, but I'm just not into this show. It's not that I actively dislike it, but it just doesn't engage me on any deep level. Not a single character is dear to me. If I had to pick a favourite rapport it would be the sisterly relationship between Kara and Alex, but everything else? I just don't care that much.
You probably already know about this season's major misstep: after spending an entire first season setting up the romance between Kara and James, the first episode abruptly brings it to a halt and introduces a brand new love interest for her. I don't think I need to spell out the dodgy implications of this; suffice to say that James is underutilized throughout the entire season and his replacement is a spoiled and shallow princeling that Kara has to "redeem" despite his consistently awful behaviour. Gawd, it's just awful.
Worse is the fact that Mon-El is put front-and-centre of just about everything. Too many episodes revolve around his not-particularly-compelling interest in Kara, his mother ends up being the Big Bad of the season, and – most egregiously – when Kara and Alex's long-lost father returns alive (but not entirely well) Mon-El is inexplicably put right in the middle of the reunion and subsequent fallout.
Yet other things that should have been a homerun didn't quite ping with me either. Alex makes friends with a cop called Maggie that turns romantic? Katie McGrath as the ambiguous Lena Luthor, adopted sister of Lex? Guest starring roles from Lynda Carter and Terri Hatcher? They sound fantastic on paper, but for some reason just didn't grab me when put on-screen.
But I think I've finally put my finger on why superhero shows are starting to bore me (though I can't explain why I'm still watching them!) Because they're all based on comic books and the various story-arcs therein, it means there are only so many stories that can be told; so despite a few variations here and there, the writers are working with a template that doesn't allow them to be unpredictable.
The superhero genre is built on audience intertexuality (see this) which not only means that the cast have a set of characteristics that can't be deviated from, but that all plots are inevitably resolved with a bit of high tech and a few punches. After a certain point, you realize you're just watching the same story beats over and over again.
To put it another way: when was the last time you were truly shocked by a superhero show/film? Not delighted by a joke or surprised by a plot twist – I mean truly and utterly gobsmacked by what was happening on a narrative/character level? That's an honest question; if you can think of an example, I'd love to hear it.
So in light of all that, perhaps the reason I enjoy The Flashmost of all the CW superhero shows is that I'm least familiar with his particular storylines. Likewise, I was riveted by Jessica Jones, which forewent the usual bombast of a superhero slug-fest and focused instead on a very personal, intimate manhunt.
(On a final note, Alex and Kara's father is called Jeremiah, a name I couldn't hear without mentally adding: "WAS A BULLFROG.")
Into the Badlands: Season 2 (2017)
I can't say I was ever fully invested in Into the Badlands: despite the fun premise (a take on Journey to the West) and some incredible visuals, not a lot of effort was put into character development. That's not necessarily a deal-breaker, as I was more than happy to feast my eyes on the wuxia-style fights and eye-popping spectrum of colours, but this season had two major problems with it: a) a cast of perpetual back-stabbers, in which there was little point becoming invested in any given dynamic considering one of them was bound to screw over their partner sooner or later, and b) fridging the female lead.
Yup, just a few days after making Veil my Women of the Month for May, she gets killed off in a remarkably stupid manner, after an entire season of being threatened, brutalized and nearly raped. It reminded me of two widely-spread (and on-point) Tumblr posts: first that authors can write about literally anything, but always end up at the sadman deadwife well, and secondly that there's nothing less entertaining than watching a character within arm's reach of happiness, only to get it ripped away at the last second.
Such is the second season finale of Into the Badlands: as cruel as it is pointless. In fact, it's astonishing how much it resembled the finale of the BBC's Robin Hood back in 2007 (exactly ten years ago). Both feature the show's emotional centre/female lead/love interest stabbed to death in the last seconds of the second season finale at the hands of an obsessive would-be lover, moments after a joyful reunion with the man she loves. Different decade, same old shit.
Sense8: Season 2 (2017)
The only problem with Netflix releasing the entire season of Sense8 in one go was that I couldn't stop myself splurging on it. I could have paced myself; I could have drawn out the suspense, but I just don't have that level of self-discipline.
The brainchild of Lana Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski, Sense8 deals with eight individuals living around the world who discover they have a deep mental connection with one another. Turns out they're not entirely unique: there are other "clusters" made up of eight "sensates", and along with exploring each other's lives (their careers, families, sexualities, hopes and dreams) they find themselves the centre of a sinister global conspiracy to wipe them out.
There is a lot of plot in this show, most of which feels as utterly incomprehensible as it is deeply intriguing, but it deserves no end of credit for crafting eight compelling and fascinating main characters (plus several supporting ones). Some shows don't even manage to deliver one such character let alone eight, and the moments in which they flit in and out of each other's lives, lending support and admiration and tenderness is like a balm for the soul.
And when the show starts to play around with its premise, there's no end to the innovation and excitement. If you've seen the episode in question (or even just the trailer) you'll already have felt the rush of adrenaline and excitement when Wolfgang's cluster fans out behind him in a crowded restaurant, only for his opponent's cluster (not fully seen until that very moment) to do the same directly opposite him. I find the best ideas are the simplest ones that are put into effect in a variety of creative ways – in this, Sense8 excels. Now it's just another long wait until next season.
I still miss the old Capheus though. Sorry.
Versailles: Season 2 (2017)
I likened season one of Versailles to ITV's Victoria, and that comparison still holds up: both focus on a young monarch testing both the limits of their power and the loyalties of those around them – though on a Doylist level, each show is hamstrung by the fact the writer wants you on said monarch's side, which necessitates buying into the worldview that God has appointed a single individual as the rightful ruler of a country.
And it's hard to really sympathise with any main characters that keeps falling back on: "I am your king/queen!" as a reason why they should be respected or obeyed. It's even more confusing with Versailles, as the show can't seem to figure out what to make of Louis XIV. He consistently drives away friends and allies who are truly loyal to him, whilst blindly trusting traitors and infiltrators. In his confrontation with William of Orange, it's his opponent that dominates the room from start to finish – yet I can't help but feel this wasn't the show's intention. At one stage he's forced to confront his hypocritical philandering when a nun holds a knife to his throat and identifies herself as a noblewoman whose reputation he ruined – only for her to forgive him the very next day and submit to her fate in a nunnery.
There are plenty of other strange creative decisions. The first season ended with the cliff-hanger of the dauphin's kidnapping and the reveal of the traitor in Louis's court – but by the end of the second season's first episode, the dauphin has been rescued and the perpetrator executed. Whelp, so much for that storyline.
It goes further off the rails with the introduction of a satanic plot to overthrow Louis (yes really) that culminates in his scorned mistress partaking in a blood ritual that involves the sacrifice of a newborn baby to win back her lover's affection. I'm sure you'll be as unsurprised as I was that to learn the Catholic priest that's introduced as a kindly and generous philanthropist is the cult's ringleader. (Seriously, it's such a cliché at this point, and obvious from the exact moment he appears. Churchmen just aren't permitted to be good guys in period dramas).
And to top it off, my two favourite characters are unceremoniously killed off: the wise gruff gardener, and the clever female physician (yeah, Into the Badlands isn't the only show this month that pulls off a tedious fridging for the sake of manpain – just like Marian and Veil before her, Claudine dies in the arms of her distraught lover).
So is there anything worthwhile to recommend itself? Well, it does introduce the delightful Princess Elizabeth Charlotte of Palatine, who is first glimpsed relieving herself by the roadside. Caught in an arranged marriage with the King's openly gay brother (whose lover makes no secret of his resentment) she clumsily tries to integrate herself at court, knowing she stands firmly in the shadow of her predecessor. Yet for all this she's never self-pitying or morose: she's described as "bouncing through life" and certainly tries to make the best of a bad situation.
Even more surprising, she was remarkably popular with the fandom. Yeah, a potential threat to white male slash ship was actually embraced by viewers. I'm as shocked as you are. It probably helps that she makes overtures of friendship to Phillipe's lover, and is ultimately more than either of them deserve. Perhaps I'll stick with the show a while longer, just to see how she's doing.