Friday 15 December 2017

Television: Fargo and Handmaid's Tale trump new season of House of Cards

Double take: Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Ray Stussy (Ewan McGregor) in the third season of Fargo
Double take: Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Ray Stussy (Ewan McGregor) in the third season of Fargo

John Boland

It's hard not to summon up thoughts of the Trump presidency while watching both The Handmaid's Tale (Channel 4) and the new season of House of Cards (Netflix), though it's the latter that suffers from comparisons with this sinister time in American politics.

During the benign administration of Barack Obama, when the first four seasons of House of Cards were screened, it was fun to imagine US power in the hands of someone as frightening as Francis Underwood, but now that such a fantasy has become reality, the fun is gone.

Yes, the husband-and-wife team played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are as ghastly as ever, but when the actual incumbent of the White House out-does them in terrifying self-regard, both they and their antics suddenly seem very old hat - cartoon baddies from an era in which the possibility of a Trump presidency wasn't even the stuff of nightmares.

In this fifth season, Frank and Claire are yet again scheming and plotting and manipulating and murdering, but since that's all they've ever done, some of us have long become weary of their one-dimensional villainy. Perhaps this latest season, with all its episodes now available to binge-watchers, will turn out to be full of dramatic thrills and topical relevance, but I'm afraid that after the first episode, I came to the conclusion that life was too short to find out.

By contrast, The Handmaid's Tale, which has been adapted from Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel of the same name, has a chillingly contemporary feel, especially in relation to the patriarchal nature of the Trump administration and its fundamentalist stance against women's rights over their own bodies.

The story's premise is simple: In an America plagued by infertility, women who can get pregnant are rounded up and coerced into sex with a ruling elite of men whose wives can't conceive. The penalties for resistance or even discernible scepticism are extreme, and the handmaids of the title (all garbed like servants in a Vermeeer tableau) are paired with other handmaids so that they can spy on and betray each other.

In this week's first episode there were two especially disquieting scenes, one involving the ritualised rape of the main character Offred (Elisabeth Moss), as she was forced to lie in the lap of her assaulter's wife, who maintained eye contact with her husband while the rape was taking place. The other, in which scores of handmaids were ordered to kill an accused man and did so with obedient ferocity, called to mind Shirley Jackson's terrifying short story, The Lottery.

This was grim stuff and the series looks set to get grimmer. Certainly, you're unlikely to encounter any levity, though if you've the stamina there's no denying that it's arrestingly shot, edited and performed, especially by Moss, who'll also be returning soon in the second season of Jane Campion's Top of the Lake.

Mischief rather than grimness has been the prevailing tone of Noah Hawley's weird and wonderful Fargo (Channel 4), which returned this week for a third season and began with a characteristically enigmatic prelude, set in the communist East Berlin of 1988.

Then it was back to the familiar wintry landscapes of rural Minnesota, where stupid people do bad things and vice versa. This time around, the stoner thief hired by pot-bellied parole officer Ray (Ewan McGregor) to steal a precious stamp from Ray's businessman brother Emmit (also Ewan McGregor) went to the wrong house by mistake and killed an entirely innocent old man. That didn't end well for the stoner thief, either.

Meanwhile Emmit, "the parking-lot king of Minnesota", was trying to repay a loan but was informed by the loan company rep (a creepy David Thewlis) that he needn't bother as the company viewed it instead as an "investment" in Emmit's business empire. Oh dear.

How these storylines will pan out is anyone's guess, but one thing is clear: there will be blood and lots of very black humour as Ray and Emmit try to get out of the messes they're in. I'll certainly be along for the ride.

At its midway point, Conor McPherson's clammy three-part thriller Paula (RTÉ1/BBC2) lost the plot, tipping over into farce as the heroine grabbed a stray pistol and shot up the women's toilet of a restaurant without hitting her villainous target.

After that, stalwart cop Mac (Owen McDonnell) had his eye gouged out by the baddie, which was really quite nasty, though it seemed to be back in its socket in the final scene.

So had the gouging happened or was it all a bad dream? Hard to tell in an episode that featured stagey set-ups, clunky dialogue, pseudo-psychological revelations and mysterious apparitions.

All will become clear (I hope) in next week's finale, which might also explain why the main character remains so scowlingly bad-tempered.

I'd imagine Jeremy Corbyn is a big fan of Jimmy McGovern, who has always worn his working-class politics on his sleeve and who, in the first episode of Broken (BBC1), showed again his empathy with those who have fallen through the cracks of an uncaring society.

The main character in this new six-part series is Fr Michael Kerrigan (Sean Bean), a priest trying to make a difference in an impoverished area of an unnamed northern English city, but in this week's opening instalment he didn't have any luck with defensive single mother Christina who, though in dire need, rebuffed his offers of help.

Her emotional and psychological complexities were brilliantly conveyed by Anna Friel, while Bean, who's mostly associated with such macho roles as Sharpe, was impressively low-key as a decent man carrying the burden of an abused childhood.

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