As I prepared to watch FX and Hulu’s new show Kindred, I kept thinking of Hulu’s other big literary adaptation from a few seasons ago, The Handmaid’s Tale. I was worried that Kindred, whose eight-episode first season is now streaming on Hulu, was going to be too close to Handmaid’s Tale, in a bad way.
Both shows are based on famously harrowing novels about violent oppression. Kindred comes from Octavia Butler’s visceral, haunting story of a Black woman in the 1970s time traveling back 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 childbearing slavery under a dystopian theocracy in 1980s America. These books are upsetting reads that delve deeply into the violence and horror of their worlds, yet when The Handmaid’s Tale made its way to screens, it did so to diminishing returns.
The first three episodes were brilliant pieces of television, so disturbing that they felt like watching a frozen scream. But by the end of the first season, Handmaid’s Tale already felt like it had little new to say about the violence it was depicting. It started to feel as though it was simply luxuriating in the atrocities it put onscreen, that it had become nothing but trauma porn. Later seasons have not changed that narrative.
How, I wondered, could Kindred avoid the same trap? Kindred’s story is built on the violence enacted on the body of a Black woman, as well as on the violence she witnesses and is complicit with. Once all those horrors were put onscreen, what could stop Kindred from pulling a Handmaid’s Tale?
A lot, as it turns out. Under showrunner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Watchmen), FX and Hulu’s Kindred seems if anything to have learned the lesson of The Handmaid’s Tale too well. The eight-episode first season, which covers the first third of Butler’s novel, is restrained to a fault. The result comes nowhere close to 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.
Jacob-Jenkins’s Kindred centers on Dana (Mallori Johnson), an aspiring TV writer who’s just moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2016. Orphaned Dana is concerned with navigating her fraught relationship with her overprotective aunt (Eisa Davis) and a nascent romantic connection with sweet-natured white Kevin (Micah Stock), but the world isn’t willing to let her make these everyday problems her focus. Instead, every few hours, Dana finds herself jolted back to a massive plantation in 19th-century Virginia, surrounded by people who believe themselves to be entitled to treat her like property.
Rapidly, Dana realizes that she’s being pulled to the past by Rufus Weylin (David Alexander Kaplan), the white child of the plantation owners. Rufus is one of Dana’s ancestors, and every time his life is in danger, Dana gets hauled into the past to rescue him. In order to put a stop to the time travel, she realizes, she’ll have to make certain Rufus lives long enough for her next ancestor to be born.
Central to the horror of Butler’s novel is the queasy, unsettling realization that Rufus will be fathering that child on a Black woman whom he will most likely enslave. Dana has, in other words, found herself forced to be an accessory to her ancestress’s rape in order to ensure her own existence.
Meanwhile, to survive, Dana must live enslaved on the Weylin plantation. Without any control over her comings and goings from the past, she watches the people enslaved by the Weylins beaten, deprived of food, and forced into demeaning pageants. What, she wonders, will protect her from the same fate as long as she’s stuck in the past?
This is upsetting stuff, but Jacob-Jenkins sketches it in lightly; probably, in most cases, too lightly. Butler’s depiction of the Weylin plantation was upsettingly visceral, but on television we get so few details that the plantation fails to feel lived in. It becomes the stage for a morality play instead, a cardboard backdrop inhabited by cartoonish figures of evil.
Dana, too, feels underwritten in this version of the story. Johnson plays the role with a terrific steeliness masking a trembling-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 cloudiness of her characterization is the fact that her most emotional moments come in a messy, extraneous subplot that Jacob-Jenkins has rather bafflingly added to the story. Dana now finds her long-lost mother in the past, in a storyline that is positioned as central to Dana’s emotional arc despite it seeming to exist mainly to streamline the exposition about the rules of Dana’s time travel.
More compelling is Dana’s surprisingly tender love story with Kevin, who finds himself dragged into the past along with her. While Butler’s version of the story sees Kevin and Dana as a married couple, Jacob-Jenkins makes theirs a new relationship. Much of the first episode, in fact, takes the form of a Kevin and Dana rom-com, complete with meet-cute and gentle bantering over Dynasty reruns. It’s a sweet choice that grounds the terrors that are to come in a gentler present tense.
Once they’re back in the past, Kindred gets a lot of mileage out of the way Kevin finds himself utterly unequipped to navigate a world that Dana grasps and is able to operate within in minutes: He has never had to consider emotionally what the antebellum South looked like or how he would have to behave in such a world. Yet regardless of how bad Kevin’s impression of a 19th-century gentleman is (he’s taken a vow of poverty, he claims at one point, to explain why he keeps showing up on their land in ratty T-shirts and no shoes), the Weylins still make him a favored houseguest. No matter what the year is, Kevin is always protected by his whiteness, and he always feels guilty about it.
Kevin is not, however, able to protect Dana all that much, which is the heart of this story. Dana, it develops, can only travel back to the present when she is in genuine fear for her life. In turn, that means that as she slowly becomes inured 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 as time goes on, casual threats of violence become part of her routine. They fail to frighten her the way they used to.
The problem that leaves Dana stuck in time is a close cousin to the problem that made The Handmaid’s Tale start great and get bad: Over time, violence loses its power to shock in a productive way. It becomes vacated of any meaning beyond violence itself, suffered for its own sake. On television, the result is boring and unpleasant; for Dana, the result is horrific and painful and dangerous.
But the fact that Kindred understands this trap so well says a lot for its ability to depict violence without falling into the trap of misery porn. The spectacle of violence and danger in this show exist not merely as spectacle but inherently as movers of story, dragging Dana back and forth across history. When Kindred at last scales up its violence in the season finale to a horrific whipping scene, the moment cannot feel gratuitous, because it shapes the story so viscerally.
Kindred in its first season has problems, big ones. Its central character is underdeveloped, and its world is not yet lived in. But it nailed the problem of pacing exactly: It has started slow and it’s building up. With luck, it has laid the foundation for a very good second season.