Watercooler Wednesdays: The Serpent & The Handmaid’s Tale
Watercooler Shows, the trending series that everyone talks about the next day at the office, around the water cooler… today there are no longer offices to go to, the movie theaters are rather closed than open, and the content on the streaming platforms is increasing exponentially. Watercooler Wednesdays seeks to be a (critical) guide through the VoD maze: from masterpiece series to guilty pleasures, and from blockbusters that keep you on the edge of your couch to hidden gems; if it leads to binging, then it’s exactly what we’re looking for.
The recommendations I bring this month for our Watercooler Wednesdays column are two series that focus on main characters who choose to live outside the law. In one case, you root for them, whereas in the other, you pray for them to be caught as soon as possible. Now at its 4th season, The Handmaid’s Tale continues its immersion in a dystopian present in which the relations between the sexes are screwed up by an institutional implement of rape culture. In a society where women are economically and sexually subjugated, the protagonist played by Elizabeth Moss ignites the fire of revolt and revenge. The main character in The Serpent is also hunted by the authorities. If in the first case, we are talking about a (super)heroine, in the second, we are dealing with a sinister villain. Charles Sobhraj, aka The Serpent, gained notoriety not only for the number of his victims, but also for the way he took advantage of his fame.
The Handmaid’s Tale and The Serpent could very well be watched in parallel because they examine two different extremes of positioning the individual in the community. The social-political system imagined by The Handmaid’s Tale annuls the identity of the individual, gives them a uniform and denies their name, converting them into a function through which the system is perpetuated. It’s practically a prison in which each category of prisoners has its well-defined corridor, and deviations are impossible and severely punished. The Serpent, on the other hand, is a jungle – sometimes urban, sometimes real – where you can get lost (or you’re doomed), where the borders are extremely permeable to a chameleon expert in identity theft.
The Serpent (Hans Herbots, Tom Shankland, 2021)
In an attempt to tell Charles Sobhraj’s story once again (after 4 biographies, 3 documentaries, a TV miniseries and an Indian feature on the subject), The Serpent combines two different narratives (and enough flashbacks to make your brain hurt).
On one hand, we have the actions of the villain, an atypical serial killer, for whom the victims are collateral damage of the gem smuggling business. Settled in Bangkok, after a series of illegal affairs in India, Charles Sobhraj chooses his victims from the many Western hippies wandering through Southeast Asia in search of Nirvana (the action takes place in the ’70s, at the height of the hippie trail). Sobhraj poses as a successful merchant, a benevolent friend with unlimited resources, and Westerners are lured as mules. Those who do not want to participate in the smuggling act are falling ill, getting robbed, and eventually being killed. It’s perhaps the most terrifying thing that The Serpent highlights: the murders are ultimately just a matter of math, people are in fact numbers, passport numbers, that is.
Enter Herman Knippenberg, an official at the Dutch Embassy in Bangkok, the kind of nerd with a heart of gold. He likes numbers and diplomatic rigor, but understands that behind every long-haired dude in sandals who turns his back on Western welfare and security, behind every number, there’s a family that needs to know what happened to their kin. Also based on a real character, Knippenberg puts his diplomatic career and marriage at stake, and becomes obsessed with catching Sobhraj. Knippenberg is the good guy, a necessary (and fortunately real) moral counterweight to a story that otherwise would seem to glorify if not a serial killer, then his lifestyle.
Knippenberg – and the whole gang of white expats with diplomatic pedigrees who, under his direction, start doing the work of the corrupt or inefficient local police – offers screenwriters the opportunity to explore Sobhraj’s crimes on a post-colonial background. In a scene occurring early in their investigation, Herman and Angela (his wife) discuss the case of the mysterious gemstone dealer, sitting comfortably on the couch. When she remembers an important detail she had seen in the Bangkok Post, Angela calls out the housekeeper to bring them the newspaper that’s only a few feet away on the porch. It’s a tiny detail, but it exposes the entire cultural-political fabric of the place that was the hunting territory of Charles Sobhraj.
After the colonial liberation, the 1960s and 1970s brought the pacifist invasion to the area. The film subtly explores this colonial tension (them vs. us) that transpires from Charles Sobhraj’s actions, but also from the embassies’ lack of action. The common viewpoint is that, in the end, the hippies who chose this alternative tourism (low-budget, months away from home, drugs, immersion in the local culture, staying clear of hotel chains) brought it on themselves, because they traveled across borders that shouldn’t have been crossed. When it comes to the diplomatic staff, this lack of involvement is justified by their requirement to respect the rigors of the profession (which in the often caricatured view of The Serpent it’s just another cover for negligence and indolence). Charles Sobhraj, on the other hand – the character, not the real person –, is persuasive enough in his anti-Western speeches to make you feel bad that you agree with him. The film correctly intuits that there’s an angle to explore here, at the intersection between Sobhraj’s multiethnic and multicultural background and the way an intelligent criminal finds moral justifications. The justifications are actually meant for his accomplices (inevitably all of them become victims), depending on what he wants to get from them. Otherwise, Sobhraj remains a stone-cold killer to the very end.
The actor got into the skin of the character. Of all the clichés that a film critic may use, this is definitely the nuclear option, which they only turn to when having the worst writer’s block. And yet, the character in this case is an unscrupulous murderer, who changes skins (passports) with every victim, and winds across the borders of Southeast Asia unhindered. I don’t know if the actor eventually got into character, but he certainly managed to capture his essence (at least the essence shown in The Serpent). Born to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father, naturalized and educated in France, where his mother had remarried, Sobhraj is a character who belongs to several worlds at once and none entirely. The fact that he built a “career” in identity theft is somehow the natural outcome. For Westerners who have fallen victim to him, but also for the locals, Sobhraj is an exotic “other”, fascinating but at the same time familiar.
Not recognizing Tahar Rahim in the lead role was probably the best thing that came out of binge-watching The Serpent. From the very subtle cultural-political commentary (less is more, BBC’s motto), to the reconstruction of an era in all its costly details, including the soundtrack of a generation (the bigger, the better, Netflix’s motto), the series has a lot to offer. But what makes it memorable is ultimately Rahim’s ability to (re)create a character you simply can’t figure out, constantly shrouded in a menacing fog. And here it’s not even a question of playing the character, but of physical presence; more precisely, of an inscrutable face that makes you nervous not because you can read who knows what criminal thoughts or sociopathic gestures on it, but because you can’t seem to read anything.
The Serpent is available on Netflix.
The Handmaid’s Tale – Season 4 (Bruce Miller, 2021)
“You cannot save her. Some women don’t wanna be saved.” It’s a line that embodies very well everything that happens in the latest season of The Handmaid’s Tale: from the evolution of the main character played by Elisabeth Moss (including Biblical references), to the creators’ stubbornness to keep digging into the same direction in a former gold mine (trophies and large audiences). It’s not that it would bring more mine tailings than gold to the surface, but you can’t rely endlessly on screenwriting mechanics such as “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Especially when “what doesn’t kill you” often falls into the “porn torture” category.
As the long-standing tradition of successful shows goes, the 4th season premieres nearly two years after the previous one. A delay that was hailed even by some critics. The Handmaid’s Tale has this reputation for being hard to digest, not only because of the way it depicts violence against women, but also because of the unbearable atmosphere that allows no respite. Therefore, it calls for a recap.
The Handmaid’s Tale adapts the novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood (1984), a dystopia taking place not too far in the future, but which the series moves to a generic present (the success of the first season in 2017 coincided with the first year of Donald Trumps’ term, so parallels were inevitable). Following a civil war, the territory of the United States is reorganized politically, socially and gender-wise, into a fascist theocracy: Gilead. What differentiates Atwood’s vision from other dystopian nightmares is this gender segregation where women are cast in well-defined roles, inspired by biblical characters: wives, housewives, prostitutes, surrogate mothers (the maids). The main character (June) belongs to the latter category, a caste of fertile women exploited in a system of reproductive slavery. As expected, and contrary to the direction in the book, June becomes a heroic figure of resistance. At the end of the third season, the heroine organizes a spectacular escape to the neighboring and sane Canada, but she herself chooses to stay and continue the fight on the inside.
As for the 4th season, I will not go into the details. Not because I would like to avoid giving spoilers, but because there haven’t been any so far (in the 3 episodes provided to Films in Frame by HBO). Of course, there are some surprises, a few characters make their final exit (all violent deaths), but they are irrelevant to the narrative arc. The Handmaid’s Tale has made a name for itself in how it dissolves the narrative into performance and atmosphere. The problem, sort of, is that after the first season, the series had already exhausted all the narrative resources offered by Margaret Atwood’s novel. The creators’ answer, which becomes all the more obvious this season, was to use Atwood’s highbrow literature in dressing up what is essentially a rape and revenge film. The mechanics of this cinematic genre require that both actions be carried out with extreme violence (especially the revenge part, hence the cathartic effect). And what could be more cathartic than revenge on an entire system that institutionalized rape, torture and humiliation of women?
Unlike other productions based on a very good literary material – Game of Thrones, for example –, The Handmaid’s Tale has prepared very well from the beginning for the moment when the literary talent will have to be replaced by the screenwriting one. Rather than adapting a series of events, The Handmaid’s Tale managed to create a world. Of course, the specifics of the book also help, from the Biblical formulas that pervade the public and private discourse, to the hypnotic monochrome uniforms that everyone wears. With all this audiovisual support, and the ingenuity of the dystopian model proposed by Atwood (sexually abusive Christian politics), which opens countless doors to tension and conflict, the series has always focused on emotion (hence the dominance of close-ups and extreme close-ups).
And last but not least, may I have a moment to talk about our leading lady… Elisabeth Moss? “You cannot save her. Some women don’t wanna be saved.” The heroine doesn’t want to be saved, she wants to save everyone else. There are long moments, and well executed, in which the protagonist is framed as an icon of suffering for the greater good, tortured and at the very limit of her endurance. It’s just a nuance, a visual reference, The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t get bogged down in metaphors, it sticks to emotions: horror, terror, agony, anger. Elisabeth Moss, and her incredible versatility when performing for close-ups, is, after all, what holds everything The Handmaid’s Tale has to offer.
The series premieres on HBO Go on April 29.