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Amazon’s The Power does not want for ambition. Like the Naomi Alderman novel it’s based on, it’s set in a world transformed by a quirk of biology that suddenly gifts teenage girls the ability to generate electric jolts from their fingertips — and like the Alderman novel, it attempts a forest-and-the-trees approach to the premise. Its narrative encompasses half a dozen leads spread out over three or four continents, and includes plotlines as intimate as a teenage romance and as sweeping as national political movements.
But if the broadness of its scope is intriguing, the broadness of its storytelling sometimes comes as a disappointment. Particularly in the first half of the nine-episode season (of which critics screened the first eight hourlong chapters), The Power too often relies on archetypes over complex characterizations, and talking points over nuanced conversations — though by the final installments, it does manage to generate enough sparks to make a theoretical second season look much more promising.
Cast: Toni Collette, John Leguizamo, Auli'i Cravalho, Toheeb Jimoh, Josh Charles, Eddie Marsan, Ria Zmitrowicz, Zrinka Cvitesic, Halle Bush
Developed by: Raelle Tucker, Sarah Quintrell, Naomi Alderman, Claire Wilson
The series’ core storylines are carefully chosen to offer a cross-section of experiences. Each is rendered in a slightly different tone, and while of course any viewer will have their preferences, it’s mostly a compliment that none is dramatically more interesting than the others. There’s the relatively familiar domestic drama of the Cleary-Lopezes, as Seattle mayor Margot (Toni Collette) struggles to balance the demands of her career and the needs of her family — which includes a loving but skeptical husband (John Leguizamo) and a moody teenage daughter, Jos (Auli’i Cravalho), who’s having trouble harnessing her new ability.
Across an ocean and on the other end of the relatability spectrum is Tatiana (an enjoyably high-strung Zrinka Cvitesic), the miserably unhappy wife of an Eastern European dictator (Alexandru Bindea) who vows to crack down on the new powers, also referred to as EOD, with overwhelming force.
Over in London, teenage Roxy (Ria Zmitrowicz) inserts herself into a crime drama as she grows closer to her mob boss dad (Eddie Marsan), sometimes deploying her gift on his behalf. From Lagos, Tunde (Ted Lasso’s Toheeb Jimoh, tempering his usual warmth with the well-meaning naivete of privilege) strikes out on a journey to document the front lines of shifting gender dynamics around the globe. And Eve (Halle Bush), an abused foster kid from Alabama, embarks on the most unpredictable path of all under the guidance of a seemingly omniscient voice (Adina Porter) who she believes might be God herself.
The Power, which was developed for TV by Alderman, Raelle Tucker, Sarah Quintrell and Claire Wilson, means to shake the audience out of our assumptions about gendered dynamics by flipping them on their head, and at times it succeeds powerfully. In one striking image, a wave of female protesters in Saudi Arabia stream past terrified male soldiers in the wake of a deadly clash. It’s a show of mercy that doubles as an unnerving show of power: Choosing to withhold violence requires having the capacity to deploy it in the first place. By the final episodes of the season, The Power is increasingly shot through with the uncomfortable and narratively promising realization that women are just as capable of abusing their power as men are.
Unfortunately, it takes The Power long enough to get there that it’s bound to lose some of its viewers in the meantime. The early episodes fall back on feminism 101 cliches that would have felt hoary five or 10 years ago: High heels are oppression, women fear for their lives walking home at night, how would men like it if women on the street told them to smile, etc. It’s not that these observations are wrong per se (although “stilettos are patriarchy” does seem like a gross oversimplification of women’s relationship to fashion). But they might as well have been pulled from a listicle of “universal” female experiences, for all the specificity and nuance they’re presented with here.
Part of the problem seems to be a lack of time — or more accurately, an inability to make the most of visual details that might add some texture to the characters’ worlds, or lines that might hint at richer lives. Even within the plodding pace of the first two or three episodes, which introduce the characters one by one as each awakens to the new status quo, the series finds too little room to consider who these people were before EOD, or who they are now beyond their relationship to EOD.
The supporting characters are especially shortchanged. A subplot about Jos’ brother, Matty (Gerrison Machado), becoming radicalized by an Andrew Tate-like figure should land as terrifyingly relevant. But the character is so underwritten that it’s hard to feel much for him, or glean any insights from his ordeal. He becomes an abstract idea for us to consider, not a human to understand or connect with.
The generalizations become particularly bothersome when it comes to the series’ handling of intersectional identities that might complicate the central men-versus-men dichotomy. To The Power’s credit, it includes trans and intersex characters to remind us that the relationship between biological sex and gender is not so cut and dried. Less to its credit, the series positions them as stray details or surprise twists in storylines centering cis people. Very little time is spent exploring what their experiences look like from their own perspectives, much less what EOD means for the larger community of non-cis people. Nor does the series expend much energy exploring how experiences of EOD might differ across races or sexualities. All these missed opportunities render The Power‘s depiction of the female experience flatter than it should be and undercut its own attempts to think more critically about power in general.
Still, there’s reason to hope the series will be willing to dig deeper as it continues. Alderman’s novel also began as a seemingly simplistic empowerment fantasy before working its way toward thornier and ultimately more rewarding territory. And while I might question Amazon’s decision to spread the adaptation across multiple seasons, the upside is that the second season is already shaping up to be weirder, messier and altogether more engrossing than the first. Episode eight concludes with a particularly sardonic needle drop that made me laugh out loud, and had me curious to see the series evolve into a bolder version of itself. As it turns out, there is a thrum of potential in there somewhere. But it might need some more time for those wielding it to figure out how to harness it.
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