Westworld Vs.The Handmaid’s Tale: What They Have In Common, and Who Should Win the Emmy
#TeamSciFi Vs. #TeamDystopia
After the Emmy Nominations were announced earlier this morning, I posted this status on my Facebook page: “If Westworld doesn’t win every Emmy it was nominated for, I quit.” A friend of mine posted “Girl, it’s up against The Handmaid’s Tale in some cases. Nope.” And so, a conflict was born.
I adore both shows, and am so grateful that we’re living through a moment in television during which two high-minded, female-led genre shows about female bodily autonomy can not only exist, but be critically acclaimed and both be up for the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy.
However, I have to admit that Westworld is my personal favorite. When pressed to talk about why, though, I needed to give it some serious thought. After all, there’s a lot that these shows have in common and do well, and there are some things that The Handmaid’s Tale, both as a narrative and as a production, does better.
For sheer female participation behind the camera (and in front of it, given the nature of the show), The Handmaid’s Tale definitely has the edge. Of the five directors working on the series, only one is male, and he directs two of the ten Season 1 episodes. Reed Morano directs the most with three, Kate Dennis and Floria Sigismondi direct two each, and Kari Skogland directs one. They have a majority female writers’ room, too—seven out of ten writers are women, not counting Margaret Atwood herself, who is a consulting producer.
However, the show has a white, male creator and showrunner in Bruce Miller, whereas one of the showrunners and creators on Westworld, Lisa Joy, is a woman of color (she is half Chinese). Whereas with The Handmaid’s Tale, we’re getting a story that was created by a woman told through the prism of a male creator, in Westworld, we get a story that originated with a man (Michael Crichton) through a partly female prism (Joy is the co-creator of Westworld along with Jonathan Nolan).
From the conscious decision to make the figure in the Westworld logo a female one, to making the two main characters through which we get to see the hosts’ struggle and oppression female, Joy has helped deliver a unique and nuanced depiction of femininity to television. The role of creator and showrunner is important, as that voice is the one that guides the writers’ room.
While it makes sense that Miller saw fit to ensure that there were women in his writers’ room to, as he put it in an interview with Elle, balance his deficits, his is still the voice that guides the ship.
Emmy Nominations for Writing:
The Handmaid’s Tale – Bruce Miller for “Offred” (Pilot)
Westworld – Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan for “The Bicameral Mind” (Season Finale)
Still, the vision of The Handmaid’s Tale is in large part in the hands of its female directors, whereas Westworld only had one female director in its entire 20-episode first season: Michelle Maclaren, who directed “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” While the showrunner(s) of a television show are where the buck stops on any and all decisions related to narrative, the decision to see the world through female eyes is an important one, and necessary for a show like The Handmaid’s Tale.
Emmy Nominations for Directing:
The Handmaid’s Tale – Reed Morano for “Offred”; Kate Dennis for “The Bridge”
Westworld – Jonathan Nolan for “The Bicameral Mind”
Now, let’s get in front of the camera and talk story, performances, and visuals.
As I said above, both Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale are stories about female bodily autonomy. In Westworld, that theme is explored through sci-fi tropes and metaphor, with Dolores and Maeve experiencing oppression as hosts that looks very similar to what women experience out in the world. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the constant refrain is that the show is scarily relevant. While technically a genre story in that it’s set in a dystopia, it’s much more literal and straightforward than Westworld.
One of the things that appeals to me most about Westworld is its artful storytelling. While individual episodes were often mysterious and/or confusing, there is not one moment or image wasted, and it’s all leading somewhere. Seen as a whole, seeing how all the pieces come together, Westworld Season 1 is a work of art that’s very much like looking at a beautiful watch, and the equally beautiful and intricate clockwork inside.
The Handmaid’s Tale is an artful adaptation, but the risks and successes of the storytelling come less from the show itself and more from its place in history. We love The Handmaid’s Tale in large part because of conditions outside the show; because it accurately captures the world in which we live, not necessarily because it is, on its own, particularly creative or innovative.
Both Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale are based on other source material, but whereas The Handmaid’s Tale is very firmly an adaptation of the novel, Westworld merely uses the film on which it’s based as a jumping-off point, creating an entirely new world and cast of characters instead.
And here we get to the amazing nuanced female characters both shows gave us to enjoy.
Elizabeth Moss’ Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale is breathtaking and raw. Moss has always been an amazing actress who always chooses wonderful projects to get involved in, and Offred is definitely a case of the perfect actress aligning with the perfect role. Her Offred is both fierce and vulnerable, jaded and hopeful, beaten-down and determined to survive. Watching her ups and downs as she experiences Gilead is an amazing experience.
However, the slow-burn awakening of Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores on Westworld is a revelation, precisely because she spends so long naive and “asleep.” Whereas Offred starts and continues to be a fighter. The role, and Moss’ performance are a destination we want to visit. Wood’s Dolores is a journey we want to embark on. We get to watch Wood’s finely-calibrated performance as Dolores realizes there’s something off, follows it, goes crazy for a while, and ultimately makes her way to full-on host revolution.
Where Westworld has an edge character-wise is in the role of Maeve, played by the incomparable Thandie Newton. The Handmaid’s Tale also has a prominent female character of color in Samira Wiley’s Moira, and Moira (not to mention Wiley’s performance) is awesome. However, she’s very much a supporting role to Moss’ Offred. All of the other female characters and actors, while brilliant, are all in service of Offred’s story. This isn’t a bad thing, simply the nature of the story being told.
Maeve on Westworld is a co-lead. She doesn’t exist to support Dolores, she exists parallel to Dolores, with her own arc and interests. When we’re watching Westworld, we’re watching both their stories.
As Dolores makes her way to the idea of host revolution slowly, Maeve has gotten there much more quickly, and spends much of the season taking matters into her own hands. By the end of the season, as Dolores seems to embrace the idea of the world belonging to the hosts (and the hosts lining up behind her as she charges), Maeve seems to have a different approach, giving each host she comes across the choice to join her. I feel like Maeve and Dolores are going to go head-to-head in Season 2, as each woman has very different interests when it comes to rebellion. The fact that Westworld has two female protagonists, one of which is of color, is a huge plus for me.
Emmy Nominations for Best Actress:
The Handmaid’s Tale – Elizabeth Moss
Westworld – Evan Rachel Wood
Emmy Nominations for Best Supporting Actress:
The Handmaid’s Tale – Samira Wiley; Ann Dowd
Westworld – Thandie Newton
And on a side-note re: the performances, Alexis Bledel gives The Handmaid’s Tale a boost with her Guest Actress nomination, and both Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright (one of two men of color in his category, out of seven) were nominated for their brilliant performances in Westworld as Lead Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively.
What struck me as interesting when looking at the technical awards that each show was nominated for is that there were many for which The Handmaid’s Tale just didn’t qualify, simply because of the nature of the show. After all, you can’t expect a show about a society that doesn’t value hair and make-up to earn hair and makeup awards. It’s also not the kind of show that requires prosthetic make-up or very many VFX. So, as far as that stuff goes, Westworld has the edge just for being a big sci-fi show.
Westworld snagged nominations in: Outstanding Special VFX, Outstanding Sound Mixing, Outstanding Sound Editing, Outstanding Prosthetic Make-up, Outstanding Main Titles, Outstanding Interactive Media (for the awesome Discover Westworld site), Outstanding Hairstyling, and Outstanding Editing.
Meanwhile, The Handmaid’s Tale got a nod for Outstanding VFX in a Supporting Role (I have no idea what that means). Both shows got nominations for Outstanding Period/Fantasy Costumes for a Series, because of course they did. Have you seen those costumes?
So, why am I #TeamWestworld? Female showrunner, female-led series with two strong, nuanced female characters, an original story that is an artful metaphor for female oppression, and brilliant performances, storytelling, and production value all around.
There’s also the matter of it being more sci-fi. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for fictional stories about science, robots, evolution, and the implications of human being creating technology that eventually causes more problems than it solves.
I’ve always loved dystopias, and am a huge fan of not only The Handmaid’s Tale as a novel, but of YA fiction like The Hunger Games and Divergent. But that’s the thing. People have come to expect female-led dystopias, so much so that there are parody Twitter accounts to that effect. Feminine and female-led sci-fi is still much more rare, and so I would love to see Westworld take home the big Outstanding Drama Series prize if for no other reason that I wanna see female-created sci-fi win.
That said, I would not at all be upset if one of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s brilliant female directors took home the Best Director prize. Specifically Reed Morano, who’s work is awesome.
As for all the rest, I would happily see Westworld take everything. The Handmaid’s Tale is great, but Westworld is a triumph.
What do you think? Am I nuts? Are you #TeamWestworld, too? Or do you think another one of the Drama nominees deserves the top prize more? Let’s talk Emmys in the comments below!
(image: HBO/Hulu/Teresa Jusino)
Want more stories like this? Become a subscriber and support the site!
—The Mary Sue has a strict comment policy that forbids, but is not limited to, personal insults toward anyone, hate speech, and trolling.—