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The Spring television slate was an embarrassment of riches, with a number of excellent dramas (and a comedy, in the form of Amazon’s great Catastrophe) hitting the airwaves. We were blessed with wonderful performances from Carrie Coon twice a week (in HBO’s The Leftovers, which you should watch, and FX’s Fargo, which still has one more episode left to air). There was something for everyone.
But the two big new shows came from adaptations of beloved novels: Hulu’s take on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods, Starz’s adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel. I put together spoiler-free reviews of both shows’ first several episodes (linked above), and now that both shows’ first seasons have come to a close, it’s clear that one show managed to hit their first season out of the park, while the other struggled to find a cohesive tone and arc. Before I dive in, I want to make clear that I recommend both shows, but my early reviews ended up being spot-on for how both seasons would, ultimately, succeed and fail. I should also warn that I will spoil some elements of both shows’ seasons, so if you haven’t yet watched, check out my pre-season reviews for what to expect from each series.
It was always going to be easier to adapt The Handmaid’s Tale to the screen than American Gods. That’s a fact. One is a pretty straight-forward dystopian novel, while the other is a mystical journey through the history of America and its relationship with gods of all sorts. Oh, and it’s also a story about a man learning more than he bargained for about his own personal history. And a show about an impending epic battle between the gods of old and new. And also a story of a marriage, betrayal, and reconciliation. There’s a lot going on in American Gods. And I haven’t even touched on the long interlude in the novel Shadow has without any of the gods (something that is necessary for his character to develop, but something that will probably be sped up on the series…if it ever gets there).
So, The Handmaid’s Tale had less to juggle from a story and character perspective, as adapted from its novel. But what it had to work with, it handled brilliantly. From the earliest episodes of the season, it was clear what the plot was. It was a story of an America from nightmares (well, from most people’s nightmares, as I’m sure there are some who found the ideas and practices of Gilead to be positive changes – which is one element that makes the show so terrifying). It was a story that would focus on the pain, suffering, resilience, and strength of Offred/June, played with incredible range by Elisabeth Moss (who never won an Emmy for Mad Men or Top of the Lake, but will almost certainly win this year).
But, aside from the incredible performances throughout the series (particularly those of the various women in the tale: Yvonne Strahovski (as Serena Joy, who had a much meatier role in the series than readers would expect), Alexis Bledel (Ofglen, another Emmy-worthy performance), Samira Wiley (Moira, another character more prominent in the series than in the novel), and Ann Dowd (the cruel Aunt Lydia, who I hope gets a more complex story in the next season), Handmaid’s Tale managed to balance loyalty to the source material (including using the last line from the novel as the final line of the season) and expanding the story beyond the page.
Character flashbacks worked to deepen the audience’s knowledge of characters that were largely archetypes in Margaret Atwood’s novel. Serena Joy was no longer just a tyrant who didn’t like Offred. Rather, she was a woman who helped build Gilead, foolishly thinking that she would have a place of power and prestige within the new world. We saw her love of her husband, her genuine hope that this new world would help solve the deficiencies she saw in the old America, and this allowed us to empathize with what she lost in this new world. Yes, she certainly was in a better position than a Handmaid or a Martha, but she was just as trapped in this society as the rest of the women around her. Only, she was responsible for building the cage that held her.
These additional backstories, along with periodic trips up to Canada to spend time with Luke (and, later, Moira), fleshed out the characters and helped fill in the blanks of the show’s world. When a novel is written with a first person narrator, as Handmaid’s Tale was, an adaptation must expand the view point beyond a single character to be a viable story. Here, the series managed to make Offred/June the show’s focal point and our entry into this world, while continuing to build up a strong supporting cast of complex and interesting characters around her. We discovered things as she did, but the writing also allowed us to fully understand other characters around her. We learned, through brief excursions into their points of view, what life was like for them in the old world, and saw their struggles and triumphs. It was a masterful way to construct the narrative.
It’s rare that an adaptation can improve on its source material, but Handmaid’s Tale managed to do just that. In fact, the series was so successful that I wish it was simply a one-and-done. I worry that moving beyond the source material might jumble the wonderful, yet horrific, story season one presented. After all, watching people actively fight against oppressors over several years of a show is rarely as interesting as watching the initial escape. The good guys will either win or lose; there are only two outcomes. Leaving us on the question of Offred’s fate (here, it is shaded much more toward her being rescued by Mayday rather than captured by the Eyes) is a more powerful ending than the upcoming battle might be. But, we will be getting a second season, so we shall see if the series can continue with the same vigor as it managed in season one.
Where Handmaid’s Tale took pains to balance source material and new, character driven story, making sure one worked hand-in hand with the other, American Gods took a different path to adapting the seemingly unadaptable. The series opted to hew closely to the novel in some episodes and then take entire episodes to journey off into new material. As a result, the “new” episodes tended to be delightful, whimsical, and smart character pieces that worked incredibly well (save for the voyage into the land of Vulcan, which was just too long and pointless), while those that kept to the story were gorgeous to look at, but a mess of confusing plot.
Having read American Gods, I was able to fully follow the plot of the series. However, those I know who haven’t read the novel reported being lost within the story, the characters, and the overall arc of the season, because the show never took the time to explain itself.
Yes, exposition can be a slog and no one wants to sit around and listen to characters outline the story for us. American Gods’ main character, the bland Shadow Moon, worked well as an audience surrogate for the early goings of the show. He was just as clueless as the audience when it comes to the machinations of Mr. Wednesday and his friends. But, after traveling hundreds of miles with a mysterious man who has almost gotten him killed several times, Shadow didn’t think to demand answers of him at any point. And it wasn’t until the season finale that he really learned exactly what he had become a part of. Which means that audience had to wait eight episodes until they got any real answers as to how these various gods fit into the story (which Mr. Wednesday succinctly explained as old gods and new fighting for supremacy of America when interviewed by a soon-to-be-dead cop back in Episode 5, but it wasn’t until the finale that the war really started). Spending some time meandering through story is all well and good, but almost nothing of substance happened until the last thirty minutes of the season. And that is troubling.
American Gods fared much better when taking the time to flesh out its supporting characters. Laura Moon, Shadow’s reanimated wife, is a relatively cursory character in the novel. In the television series, she’s the most developed character, richly portrayed by Emily Browning. Her two standalone episodes were the highlights of the season. However, as far as we know, Laura has no role to play in the upcoming war. Sure, she has a bone to pick with Wednesday, but other than that, her sole purpose is to try and lure Shadow back into her arms. But, the arc was certainly a great showcase for Browning (and Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney, who worked as the perfect other half to their road trip buddy comedy).
This uneven desire to actively avoid answering audience questions, while taking the time to lovingly build a character like Laura Moon, flouts the more templated approach of The Handmaid’s Tale. And it’s to the detriment of the series. Trying to do your own thing is great, particularly in today’s crowded television landscape. But to succeed, all elements of the narrative process need to be served: characters need to be deep and complex, the story needs to have a clear purpose, and the show cannot play fast and loose with exposition. We need to understand the story to understand the characters. That doesn’t mean tell us everything up front. Rather, it means give us enough to keeps us interested. I appreciate that American Gods doesn’t spoon-feed its audience, but it can’t let them starve when it comes to big things – like why is Wednesday building an army? And why was Shadow chosen?
I loved the episode-opening vignettes, highlighting various gods and their origin stories. They were delightful mini-movies, rich in color and style, and great ways to introduce the gods. If only those gods had things to do during the course of the season beyond an introduction and a stray scene here or there. I suspect many viewers will be hard pressed to recall some of these origin stories in season two or three, once that particular god becomes an element of the larger plot. Those opening sequences would have been better spent on the characters at play within THIS season. I would have like one on Easter. Or one on Vulcan (although, that entire episode appears to have been rather pointless in the grand scheme of things). It seemed that Bryan Fuller and company were so excited with all the interesting toys they had to play with that they tried to pull them all out of the toy box, rather than slowly doling out relevant plot points and character details.
And that brings us to the final divergence between the two series: their pacing. The Handmaid’s Tale presented the entirety of Atwood’s novel in its first season. Season two will be a journey into unknown and wholly original storytelling. It will also answer a question that many readers have debated over the years: Is Offred safe? American Gods, on the other hand, chose to move slowly through its source material. I had expected the series to at least reach the House on the Rock, a key moment in the early section of the novel, by season’s end. And it definitely didn’t (that road sign was simply a tease for book readers, rather than any sort of key plot point).
I never expected American Gods to exhaust the novel in a single season. There’s far more plot to cover in that book than in The Handmaid’s Tale. But I expected more to happen than just Wednesday’s reveal of his true identity to Shadow and the initial declaration of war. I wanted something of consequence to occur, to make me eager to see what happens next. As of right now, my only desire to tune into season two is to watch Ian McShane and Crispin Glover go head-to-head, because man, how good were they? I don’t care what happens to Ricky Whittle’s Shadow Moon (poor Whittle, the least experienced actor of the show’s loaded cast, was decidedly not good and generally forgettable throughout the season). I’d actually be fine if he was killed off and the story shifted to following Laura Moon as she works with and against the gods. But, alas, I know that won’t happen. But I do hope that Fuller decides to actually provide a story arc in season two. Beautiful visuals and interesting performances do not make up for a lack of plot. And if Fuller needs somewhere to look for how to make a killer adaptation, all he needs to do is check out The Handmaid’s Tale.