Monday, 23 November 2015

A TV of strong female leads. At last

It felt like a long overdue change might be taking place, as we watched episodes from three TV series this weekend, all with powerful female characters.

Amazon released a couple of episodes of The Man in the High Castle some time back, but the full series came out at the end of last week. It’s set in a parallel present (well, parallel past now, since the book appeared in 1962). World War 2 was won by Germany and Japan. What had been the United States is now split into a huge zone covering the middle and eastern states, under the dominion of the Greater Nazi Reich, a smaller coastal area in the west administered by imperial Japan, and between them a neutral zone based around the Rocky Mountains.

An alternative reality for the United States
The key figure is Juliana Crain, well played by Alexa Davalos as conflicted, troubled and dangerous to all who come into contact with her. Around her are some powerful characters, mostly male – including an utterly vicious bounty hunter played with deeply sinister and blood-chilling panache by Burn Gorman – and together they make for great viewing. But don’t make my mistake and read the book before watching the series: I find myself constantly regretting the series’ divergence from Philip K. Dick’s novel. It presents the Japanese as significantly less heavy handed in their oppression than the Nazis; indeed, much of the narration focuses on a Japanese character whose torment is central to the action. In addition, the book is much more about the nature of fiction and reality, far less about the top-level story. Most of that seems to be gone from the series, at least in the first four episodes we’ve watched so far. Instead, it’s more concerned to tell a tale around the theme of occupation and resistance.

It’s still gripping, though, and Juliana’s character is complex and believable.

Meanwhile, the BBC has released the latest season of The Bridge, the Swedish-Danish police series centred around the character of Saga Norén, socially awkward to the point of autism, but a thorough and gifted detective with the Swedish police in Malmo. We were a little concerned about how the story would keep going having lost Saga’s opposite number from Copenhagen, Martin Rohde, denounced by her at the end of season 2 and now in gaol. But the series keeps going just fine, with the same bewildering cast of characters, the same highly-stylised and vicious killings, and Saga driving same Porsche with its weird shade of green.

Saga Norén and her weird-coloured Porsche 911
A sub-plot’s already been announced, in which Saga’s going to have to address her own complex past, above all in relation to her parents and the death, for which she blames them, of her sister. Chickens, one feels, are going to come to roost. Meanwhile, her new Danish partner has secrets of his own, including drugs and apparently a rather unusual view of sex. Plenty of promise there, then, for more Nordic noir at its most intense.

The other series has just been released on Netflix. Even the Guardian talked about Jessica Jones as unusual for being yet another Marvel comics spinoff, but unusually with a strong female lead. The eponymous protagonist is played by Krysten Ritter, and she has real complexity. Still shaken by PTSD, she seeks solace in two activities which donplay much of a role in most comics: heavy drinking and (occasionally) casual sex. She’s a compelling character, but not necessarily a nice one.

Jessica Jones: always interesting, not always nice
The basic story line is standard for a Marvel spinoff. She’s a super-hero, though with the neat twist that she’s retired from the game, making her living as a Private Investigator. She’s up against a super villain (David Tennant) with truly diabolical powers – indeed it’s because she’s a past victim of his that she’s a PTSD sufferer – and, again in an original departure, there’s nothing of the joker about his villainy, which is quite bleakly cruel. Much more like The Bridge indeed, than Guardians of the Galaxy, say.

I didn’t expect ever to feel anything more than slightly supercilious amusement at a comic-strip spinoff, but this one’s a cut or two above that. I’m looking forward to the next episode.

PS In a piece about strong female characters on TV, you might feel I ought to have said something about Nicola Walker. I haven’t forgotten her. Watch this space.

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