On CBS’s summer hit BrainDead, characters literally lose control of their minds when Washington is hit with an infestation of tiny bugs that crawl into people’s ears and eat their brains. Because both Republican and Democratic senators are affected, the nation’s capital is soon teeming with brainless operatives, doing the bidding of a mysterious, otherworldly entity that’s yet to be explained.
But BrainDead, a comedy, lacks the oppressive weight of other dramas that put their characters in impossible situations from which there seems to be no escape. On period dramas like The Americans, Outlander, and Underground, we know what the characters don’t: Their efforts are most likely doomed.
On FX’s The Americans, Cold War-era Russian spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) have been working their whole lives for the Soviet Union. They’ve married and raised their two children in Washington, D.C., running a travel agency to cover up their true profession. The series, which just finished its fourth season, gets gloomier as it progresses, and for good reason: The Soviet Union is about to collapse. When it does, it will bring down the Jennings family one way or another. It’s a question of how and when, not if.
Same goes for the Starz drama Outlander, which devoted its second season to an impossible plot: Intrepid couple Claire and Jamie Fraser (Catriona Balfe and Sam Heughan) attempt to prevent the Battle of Culloden, the 18th century battle in which British forces wiped out the opposing Scots, effectively ending the Highlander way of life. From Paris to Scotland, Season 2 saw Jamie and Claire frantically try to stop the battle from going forward. By the last episode, it was clear they had failed; how could two individuals stand in the way of two armies hell-bent on each other’s destruction?
The possibility of escaping from an oppressive system is even more remote on WGN America’s Underground, which aired its first season in the spring. Although creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski based some of the characters’ stories on real-life accounts, Underground is a largely fictional story of the “Macon Seven,” a group of slaves on a Georgia plantation who spend the season plotting and carrying out their escape.
Some succeed; others are captured or killed. But in a larger sense, we know the journey is futile. As Kathryn Schulz writes in a recent New Yorker piece on the narrative allure of the Underground Railroad, “From the vast, vicious, legally permitted, fiercely defended enterprise that was American slavery, almost no one ever escaped at all” — not from the literal plantations on which they were enslaved, and not from “the innumerable ways that we still live in a world made by slavery.”
As Schulz points out, the a story of a person — or a people — escaping the clutches of an oppressive institution plays right into the country’s most appealing self-mythology — that freedom is just around the corner, and is available to anyone who dreams big and works hard. But on many recent dramas, freedom feels impossible. For the inmates of Orange is the New Black, freedom is only possible in brief snatches: Reading a book in the sun; diving into a swimming hole when they notice a hole in the prison yard fence; sneaking into the chapel for a quickie.
In Season 4 of the Netflix series, the institutional power of Litchfield Penitentiary feels more monolithic than ever as a private contractor takes over the prison’s operations. The season — which culminates in the death of an inmate in the middle of a mess-hall riot, an accident that in retrospect seemed preordained — features a few prison guard characters who are genuinely troubled by the corporation’s treatment of the inmates. But the season also suggests the empathy of individuals is, if not meaningless, effectively powerless in the face of the immovable prison-industrial complex.
Across genres and networks, characters yearn to break free of this kind of institutional power: “I’m not going to stop the wheel,” iconoclast princess Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) informs her advisor in Game of Thrones’ fifth season. “I’m going to break the wheel.”
But as Season 2 of Mr. Robot has suggested, “breaking the wheel,” so to speak, has its limits. Elliot’s dream of “saving the world” becomes a reality in the Season 1 finale, in which he — or his alter ego, “Mr. Robot” — realizes he’s responsible for a hack that triggers a global economic meltdown. The members of his hacker group, fsociety, throw an “end of the world” party to celebrate the revolution they helped bring about. But so far, the show’s second season has been even darker than the first, and its leading man has been stuck in prison for the first eight episodes. Those who bring about change aren’t always the ones who benefit from it.
It’s 2016, and everything sucks. Millions of people want Donald Trump to be president; police keep shooting unarmed black people; the globe is getting warmer; Leslie Jones is a constant target of racist online harassers; David Bowie’s gone. If there’s a silver lining to this cloud, it’s the thought that things can only get better. As creator Sam Esmail told Deadline, Mr. Robot’s second season is all about the “hangover” of the intoxicating rebellion that ended the first. He cited the Egyptian revolution of 2011 as inspiration for the bummer season: “There’s not a miraculous fix to their society,” he said. “That’s the sobering part of revolution.”