HBO’s “Westworld” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” offered two horrifying visions of American dystopia, capturing the zeitgeist of hate and polarization like no other shows this season. But even though their stories and worlds were very different, they shared several elements in common, including arresting visuals and rebellions led by two female protagonists: The android/host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and the eponymous June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss).
In re-imagining Michael Crichton’s adult theme park gone berserk, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy tapped into a philosophical exploration of consciousness, creativity, and destruction. And in re-imagining Margaret Atwood’s allegory of violence, repression, and misogyny, director Reed Morano found solace in maternal unity.
Not surprisingly, drama series “Westworld” led the Emmy field with 12 craft nominations (two for production design, cinematography, costume design, editing, hairstyle, makeup, main title design, special visual effects, main title music, sound editing, and sound mixing), and its main rival “The Handmaid’s Tale” distinguished itself with four nominations (production design, cinematography, costume design, and supporting visual effects).
Unlocking the “Westworld” Maze
“Westworld” was defined by a series of dualities: the android/hosts and the human guests, the benevolence and cruelty of their behavior, the beautiful western theme park and the cold programming center, and alternating past and present events. The main title design by Elastic conveyed the essence of the series with poetic imagery and the main title theme by Ramin Djawadi underscored the sad enslavement of the hosts.
Production designers Nathan Crowley and Zack Grobler focused on the theme park and programming center, respectively, and so much of the visual metaphors resided in those contrasting worlds. There was a warm, retro beauty to the western setting, where so much violence and death occurred. By contrast, the futuristic programming center, dominated by concrete and glass, was the birthplace of a beautiful race of androids with more empathy than the guests. Cinematographer Paul Cameron got the most out of the contrasting tones by shooting on 35mm film in the opener.
John P. Johnson/HBO
Although the show featured a talented ensemble (including Thandie Newton’s Maeve host, Jeffrey Wright’s programming host, and Anthony Hopkins’ founder, Robert Ford), Dolores was the primary focus, a sweet host lost in a maze of mysterious memories. So much of the nominated crafts revolved around her journey, and she couldn’t break the programming loop until she asserted her free will to escape from Westworld.
And what a turning point when the sadistic Man in Black (Ed Harris) complained that “the guests can’t lose and the hosts can’t fight back.” Indeed, Dolores fought back with a vengeance in this cautionary tale of death and rebirth.
Understanding the Fabric of “The Handmaid’s Tale”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” was also about death and rebirth for Offred, who slowly summoned the strength to escape from Gilead. Cinematographer-turned director Morano established the palette of Atwood’s color-coded dystopia with nominated cinematographer Colin Watkinson and costume designer Ane Crabtree. Because of the gray, muted look of Gilead, the blood red of the Handmaidens stood in sharp contrast to the teal of the Commanders’ Wives, who shamefully observed their husbands sexually abusing the Handmaids.
For his part, Watkinson fashioned a painterly Vermeer look for Gilead, mixing beauty with horror. He used atmosphere to create depth in the frame and would light from outside the room. The neutral background and use of gray diffusion perfectly complemented the red and teal and added to the constant tension.
In keeping with Vermeer, Watkinson used streaming bright light, providing a glimmer of hope. This occurred in “Birth Day,” with parallel shots of Offred and Serena (Yvonne Jaqueline Strzechowski) hunched over. One desperately wanted to reunite with her daughter while the other desperately wanted to be a mother.
Offred’s journey was marked by two different depictions of the death by stoning ritual called “salvaging.” In the opener, Offred was pushed over the edge and struck the first blow. However, in the snow-filled finale, when asked to stone the fragile Ofdaniel (Madeline Brewer) she refused. And the rest of the Handmaid’s joined the rebellion.
Like “Westworld,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” delivered pain and suffering to inspire more empathy to make the world less divisive.