WHAT WE’RE WATCHING
‘The Power’ – what if women ruled our world?
Prime Video’s new sci-fi series based on a visionary novel in which women around the world begin developing an electrical organ, explores global gender-based power dynamics with fascinating realism.
In a nutshell
The Power is a new series adapted from Naomi Alderman’s 2016 science fiction novel that imagines a transformation to a matriarchal world, or at least equitable one, from a realist, non-utopian perspective. Teenage girls all over Earth inexplicably develop the ability to create electric jolts from their fingertips. When they realise that they can provoke the same power in older women, the phenomenon creates an enormous power shift in gender politics that ripples through our species.
The Power could so easily have been butchered and packaged as “young adult” feminist wish-fulfilment, but with Alderman’s input during production and the influence of showrunner Raelle Tucker (Jessica Jones) and Sarah Quintrell (Doctor Who) the series extracts urgently relevant parables and social commentary from its wonderfully simple premise. We follow a diverse range of characters around the world experiencing various stages of a gender-based cultural revolution in tandem with drastically different consequences.
In the US, a mute orphan (Halle Bush) kills her rapist and sets off on a spiritual journey, guided by a voice in her head; and the mayor of Seattle (Toni Collette) becomes the face of the revolution. They represent two roads towards female autonomy, outside of and inside the existing global systems of control, respectively. In the UK, the fierce daughter (Ria Zmitrowicz) of a notorious gangster uses her newfound talent to become a part of the family business and take the respect and revenge she deserves. Her story is a case study of retribution, laced with the tragic cycle of trauma. This gets taken to a further extreme by the scorned trophy wife (Zrinka Cvitešić) of a brutal dictator – she seeks to unite the women of her country (clearly a fictionalised Russia) to take control and end human trafficking, with a coup proving the adage, “power corrupts”. Most complicated and contemplative is the life of an aspiring Nigerian journalist (Toheeb Jimoh) who travels the world for CNN, putting himself in mortal danger to make sense of the changes happening around the world and envision a future where this emerging force brings about prosperity and equality rather than dissension.
Where to watch it
Episodes of The Power are released on Fridays on Prime Video.
What’s the vibe?
The premise of teenage girls shooting electricity from their fingertips sounds like a girl-power cartoon in the vein of Sailor Moon or The Powerpuff Girls, but The Power could not be more different from that. Superficially it’s similar to Apple TV+’s hit-and-miss anthology series, Roar, in that both are feminist science fictions which use allegory to trigger dialogue, but while the atmosphere of Roar is that of an angry cry for help, The Power feels far more positive, like the start of a revolution.
The Power is not about superheroes – rather than there being a special few, what makes the story so complicated is that all women have the potential to access this ability – but it does share similarities with some superhero series. It has the slow-growing suspense and mystical excitement that Heroes managed to stretch over four whole seasons. It has the same Game Of Thrones-style character-epic format, splitting our focus over parallel journeys of self-discovery just like Heroes does, and it’s similarly modest with its special effects, sourcing drama from the ramifications of this phenomenon rather than Marvel-esque fight scenes.
The defining quality of The Power that makes it different from all the aforementioned series is its realism. Fantasy and science fiction tend to be most engrossing when they investigate how an impossible or futuristic premise would play out given the sociopolitics of the real world. This is what has made the dystopian black-comedy superhero series The Boys one of Amazon’s biggest hits, and the same goes for Netflix’s Black Mirror. The Power does this on a smaller and more niche scale so that you can suspend your disbelief long enough to absorb its allegories.
A closer look
Alderman’s treatment of her fictional electric epidemic is wonderfully sapient. Her premise doesn’t serve to accomplish a particular analogy or facilitate action scenes – it is approached as a thought experiment with infinite scope. If this one small but significant change occurred in our world, how would we react? What would women feel about their new ability? What would it make men feel? How would sexuality change? How would governments respond? Would military force be enough to dismantle patriarchal systems, and if so, would this power shift simply reverse the roles of gender-based oppression?
The concept is not a silver bullet for any one allegory – it’s complicated and imperfect, the way real-world controversies are. Showrunner Raelle Tucker spoke to us about staying aware of this greyness of things that lets us trust the show and not feel as though we’re being herded towards a predetermined point.
“I’ve spent my whole career writing about power – it’s the thing I’m most interested in. I like complicated human beings. I’m not interested in good versus evil. I don’t believe in it. I think everyone has shades of all colours inside of them. Naomi’s book created incredibly cinematic, exciting, original characters that weren’t the type of characters I typically had ever seen on a television show. She put them front and centre and allowed them to be imperfect and make terrible decisions, as well as be empowering and inspiring. So I was most attracted to the complexity of the character work and the scale – how big the show was and how it represented so many different kinds of people that typically don’t get to be the stars of their own television shows.”
Alderman’s novel was written before Covid-19, but having experienced that global shift and the kinds of conflict it caused, we can appreciate just how on-the-money her anthropological conjecture was. In the series, the coronavirus has already come and gone, but governmental policy on the electric epidemic is still just as rife with suppression and misinformation, and follows similar trends that challenge state authority.
Just as real governments struggled to enforce lockdowns, masks and other regulations during Covid-19, in The Power, women’s defiance of governmental directives to have them tested for electrical activity, registered, or banned from using their ability forces shifts in policy and a worryingly expanding rift between progressive and conservative communities.
During Covid families were torn apart by the uptake of conspiracy theories such as those of Q-Anon and sensational influencers. In The Power this fear response is depicted in the form of a social media influencer called “Urban Docks” who appeals to the most base insecurities of men to cultivate misogyny and a desire to dominate women. His manipulative propaganda is comparable to that of populist “strongman” politicians like Trump, Putin or Bolsonaro and pseudoscience social media personalities like alleged rapist Andrew Tate. The toxic men who become ensnared in Docks’s hateful rhetoric are shown essential empathy – they’re undoubtedly assholes, but their bigotry is explained; it comes from fear of obsolescence.
One of the few core male characters is the Seattle mayor’s supportive husband (John Leguizamo), the best example in the series of a true ally to women, and yet when he catches his son watching Urban Docks and complaining about being bullied by girls at school, his advice is spookily familiar: “They only do that coz they like you… just try not to annoy them.” This is just one of loads of gender cliches that are flipped throughout the show – it’s intriguing which ways gender dynamics swap and which ways they do not.
The Power covers an enormous amount of ground. It evokes discussion around rape culture, abortion rights, democracy and gun legislation in the US, among many other ideas. In tackling so many allegories and splitting our attention over so many story lines, the series takes several episodes to get moving. The discovery of a character’s abilities at the beginning of a story of supernatural empowerment is often the best bit – easy, exciting, gratifying viewing – but in this case you have to wait until that’s settled to get to what makes the series special – an honest and thorough investigation of gender via a fun and colourful thought experiment.
The Power is not overly graphic or visually disturbing, but it does reach into upsetting subjects, including suicide, sexual assault and human trafficking. DM/ML
The Power is available in South Africa on Prime Video.
You can contact We’re Watching via [email protected]