Saving Ourselves

Real love as rebellion in TV’s Brave New World
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The most affecting scene in Brave New World, Peacock Television’s timely and intimate reimagining of Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopia, comes toward the series’ conclusion. The glass-and-concrete corridors of New London, a city of pliantly pill-popping, orgiastic, genetically-segregated, Internet-connected post-humans, are covered in blood. It is the result of an uprising of the city’s Epsilon class, encouraged, however inadvertently, by the outsider “savage” John (Alden Ehrenreich), who cares less for class politics than for his burgeoning relationship with Lenina (Jessica Brown Findlay), a member of the ruling class.

The Epsilons have stopped production on the city’s embryos, destroyed its storehouses of soma — the drug, equal parts ecstasy and Xanax, that keeps New London’s citizens’ all-important “levels” intact. (Within minutes, the soma shortage has spurred suicides.) And, finally, the Epsilons have decided to take matters into their own hands. Echoing John’s vision of equality — “no one above, no one below” — they decide to start killing the Alphas and Betas, who have designed a system of spiritual and physical oppression.

In another, lesser dystopian saga — the kind ubiquitous in our pop franchises, from The Hunger Games to Divergent — this could be the thrilling climactic moment. In the third-act finale, our plucky heroes finally overturn the big, bad authoritarian empire, all in the name of the all-important freedom, as John the Savage keeps telling the Epsilons, to choose. At times, the rough outlines of the plot — an adult Savage, secretly the illicit son of an Alpha, returns to New London from the Savage Lands, falls in love with a New London woman, and destabilizes the whole society in the process — seem to be leading up to such a simplistic conclusion.

But this Brave New World resists such easy answers. As it turns out, the destruction of the oppressors doesn’t solve the problem. The fault is not in some streamlined and artificial system, but in the contradictions of human beings themselves.

The member of the Epsilon underclass known to us only as CJack60 (Joseph Morgan) comes to his senses, trying in vain to stop the carnage he has wrought. His lips trembling, he asks the show’s closest thing to a Big Boss, Mustafa Mond (Nina Sosanya), the one question she can never have an answer for: Why are we like this? There is a brokenness, somewhere, in the human condition, something that neither the muted somnolence of New London nor John the Savage’s avaricious bravado can heal.

It is Brave New World’s refusal to hit the customary, aesthetically pleasing beats of the dystopian franchise, as much as the liberties it takes with its source material (the show diverges so wildly from Huxley’s book in both plot and tone that it can safely be considered a completely different beast), that make it one of the most complex and thought-provoking television shows of the past few years. It takes as its starting point the notion that liberty, in some inchoate sense, is at the heart of what human beings need. But it takes no less seriously the commitment that none of its characters’ attempts at defining that liberty are morally or spiritually satisfactory.

The most obvious failings, of course, come from the city of New London itself, which resembles an infinite tessellation of our London’s Shard building. It’s a transhumanist paradise, one in which our polyamorous techno-utopian overlords have designed every element of our lives in order to optimize our experience, to stabilize our levels.

Every member of the population is connected to INDRA — a slightly MacGuffinish computer network — via an optical link similar to an implanted iPhone, complete with in-air emoji hallucinations, avatar-changing special effects, and — most importantly of all — the ability to access anyone else’s optic feed at any time.

It’s an unsubtle, if elegantly rendered, parody of our contemporary panopticon. In New London, “everyone belongs to everyone else.” Privacy, especially the removal of the optic implant, is “solipsistic.” Monogamy — highlighted here, even more than in the novel, as the site of the greatest societal transgressions — is completely taboo.

In this Brave New World, the technocratic underpinnings of New London owe as much to the Californian Ideology of the 1990s as they do to the novel’s Henry Ford: a vision of human beings as fundamentally hackable, and human freedom as the pursuit of pleasures that, whether through a hit of drug or dopamine, can only ever be chemical in nature.

New London’s ethos of sex — anonymous, consumptive, orgiastic — is the heart of the city’s freedom and its imprisonment. It is liberty as libertinage: New Londoners are free to chase fleeting pleasure, in drugs or the bodies of other people, to pursue their own happiness without any form of repression or taboo. The only thing they’re not free to do is to be exclusive with one another, to deny other people the transactional use of their bodies for pleasure.

It is a testament to the skill of Brave New World’s directors and choreographers that most of the sex in the show (and there is a lot) is so profoundly unsexy. Writhing naked bodies are shot not with prurience, even of the isn’t this so terrible variety (see the various scenes of sexual slavery and eroticized rape on HBO’s Game of Thrones), but with the disinterested lens of a nature documentary. We might as well be watching the undulations of sea anemones. All the forms of sexual freedom that modern liberalism all too often implies are at the heart of the project of happiness-pursuit — anonymous sex, sex-for-pleasure, sex-for-entertainment — are here rendered as sterile as New London’s office windows.

What is transgressive in New London is not sexual liberation but real human connection: two people whose erotic desire for one another is rooted not in the enactment of personal pleasure but in the playful dynamism of shared vulnerability, of story co-created. “A story is knowing,” says one character. “Knowing another person inside…. Emotion’s never easy. Connected to doubt, and joy, and pain, and loss. Mothers. Fathers. Lovers. Beautiful. And alone.”

It is telling that the few erotically charged scenes on the show — all of which involve Lenina, whose sexual interest and availability drives much of the show’s plot — involve not visual nudity but verbal role-play, desire as the interplay of intimacy and possibility. In a world where sexual congress is not just accessible but expected, actual eroticism comes from that most primal and simple of places: two characters talking to each other.

In one of Brave New World’s earliest scenes, Lenina takes a trip with her superior Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd), an awkward Alpha with a deep-seated sense of his own inferiority, to the “Savage Lands,” a Westworld-style theme park where the unenlightened and INDRA-disconnected tantalize Alphas and Betas with tidbits of civilizations past. Uncomfortable with the poolside orgy they see out their hotel window, Bernard and Lenina, still fully clothed, turn away from the window and start kissing. They share their fantasies, equal parts sultry and comical, of being “savages” who partake in “savage” customs like dating and waiting for the wedding night — concepts that have no more meaning to them than the ostensibly ferocious “white-tailed deer-beast” they see on taxidermied display in the Savage Land’s museum. It is a moment of genuine connection — all the more compelling for its slight silliness.

Having read about Savage customs like saving oneself for marriage, Lenina, now on top of Bernard, proposes the dirtiest kink of all. She has, she says, a “silly idea,” correcting herself at once to “naughty. Like, bad.” The taboo? “What would happen if we — ” Bernard finishes the question for her: “If we saved ourselves? … It could be our wedding night.”

They stop kissing and look at each other with astonishment. The scene ends with Lenina saying, “We’re savages.”

New London’s insufficiencies are plain from the start of the show. But what makes Brave New World so compelling is that the ways of the Savage Lands aren’t much better. Obsessed with freedom and choice, the customs of the “savages” (rendered awkwardly in Huxley with Southwestern Native American folk motifs, and far more intriguingly here as trailer-park-meets-Wild-West Americana) lend themselves to their own sins. Here we find sexual possessiveness, jealousy that leads to violence, and avarice for material goods. One of the displays that most shocks New London’s Alphas, a re-enactment of a stampede at a Black Friday sale, is no less horrifying to us as viewers.

One of Brave New World’s greatest coups is the casting of Alden Ehrenreich as John the Savage. As in the Coen Brothers film Hail, Caesar!, in which Ehrenreich played a would-be heartthrob of the Hollywood studio system, Ehrenreich’s screen presence blends the distinctly retro appeal of the matinee idol with ironic self-deprecation. As John, a character immersed in the mythos of Old Hollywood (in the book, it’s Shakespeare), Ehrenreich is John-playing-John, a broodingly romantic all-American hero, a preacher of the gospel of freedom, who is nevertheless in the same bondage to his human insufficiency as are the genteel Brits of New London.

John’s desires, whatever we may think of New London’s state-mandated polyamory, are selfish and solipsistic. When we first meet him, he’s working props at a Savage Lands theatrical display, replacing blanks with real bullets at the behest of his longtime crush Madysun. His job sets into place the Savage revolution that ultimately brings him (along with Bernard and Lenina, who get caught up in it) to New London.

Later, John destroys his burgeoning relationship with Lenina, with whom he has fallen in requited love, because he cannot stand his jealousy over the sexual encounters with other men she must keep up to cover their assignations. John remains blind to Lenina’s own experience — her growing disgust at consenting to sex she does not want, her increasingly outraged sense of personal violation as she realizes her body is nothing but public property. Instead, he castigates her for perceived “infidelity,” casting her into the mold of Faithless Whore, recalling the reverse-morality plays of the Savage Lands. It is John’s fury at Lenina that causes him to stoke the rage of his Epsilon friends: willing to threaten the stability of all of New London in order to get one over on his girlfriend.

The New London propaganda department could find few more effective deterrents to “savage” values than John himself. Lenina isn’t wrong when she tells him, shortly after the Epsilon Massacre, that “everywhere you go, things fall apart.”

The question we are left with, therefore, is far more interesting than the bromides of most modern dystopian fiction. It is the notion — enshrined into our liberal cultural consciousness with force of law — that repression is bad, freedom is good, and all we need as human beings is the freedom to choose. This Brave New World challenges us by asking, What is it that we need freedom from? What is it that we should be free to do?

The New Londoners, after all, are free to have as much sex as they want, to satisfy all their physical needs, to be happy. But this means they are free to divorce themselves from the meaning that can only result from stricture: the relationships built on choosing one another and forsaking all others, the narrative power of stories built on human limitations. The Savages, for their part, are free in another sense: free to battle one another for sexual access, or to embrace and institute their various wills to power.

Both groups, at least in the Peacock miniseries’ schema, thus fall victim to different representative illnesses of modern life. Both a techno-utopian faith in human perfectibility and the atavistic “savagery” of the all-American hero are revealed as insufficient: incapable of grappling with the complexities of being human. Neither our savages nor our civilized are free of whatever, in CJack60’s words, makes them like this.

But Brave New World presents us with a third image of human freedom, one predicated not as freedom-to-pursue, or freedom-to-act, but rather as freedom-to-imagine. It shows us a self that is neither violated by submitting to a collective (as initially is Lenina) nor fully, selfishly, autonomous (as John comes to be). We see that image in Lenina, turning down a threesome she does not want, proclaiming, “This is my body, it’s mine, and I want to be the only one inside it right now.”

It is a statement not just of sexual privacy but of a genuine form of inwardness. It is a vision of human dignity, and human complexity, that calls to mind the “inner life” that Zena Hitz extolls in her recent book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life. In that book, Hitz argues for the pleasures of reading the classics not merely on utilitarian grounds — because, say, they “help us think” in the ubiquitous CV-building sense — but because they increase our capacity for serious inner thought. And inner thought fosters an inner life — not our desires, in the sense of what we wish to acquire or consume, but rather our distinct and irreproducible perspective.

Here, too, it is in the dignity and the carefully rendered specificity of our lead characters — John, Lenina, Bernard — that we see a capacity for human interaction beyond that of either New London or the Savage Lands.

For all its high-concept plotting, Brave New World spends most of its time focusing on the chamber-drama of its leads: their foibles, their longings, their desires — constantly thwarted — to understand one another. Bernard Marx is unable to stop himself from rambling about his adventure driving an “auto car” during his time in the Savage Lands — the only time he’s ever felt valuable. Lenina and John imagine themselves into a hypothetical Eden, where he fishes while she goes out to hunt those “white-tailed deer-beasts.” John and Bernard develop an awkward but sincere friendship, as John rolls his eyes at Bernard’s sartorial attempts to fit in with New London society, or as Bernard, secretly still pining for Lenina, picks John’s brain about that old Savage custom of “dating.”

Even minor characters less willing to look upon New London’s insufficiencies, like Lenina’s onetime Alpha lover Henry Foster or her best friend Frannie, are granted full complexity. We see Frannie try and fail to hide her jealousy of her more successful best friend, burying the resentment three somas deep. And we see a flustered Henry Foster, who has spent most of the show humiliating Bernard, find he needs his colleague’s support after a disturbing meeting with Mustafa Mond.

Brave New World isn’t just a dystopian science-fiction thriller, but also an awkward mumblecore romantic comedy, a darkly biting workplace drama, a buddy-cop movie about Bernard and John’s attempts to navigate the New London orgy scene.

These genre shifts are the best thing about Brave New World, allowing the show to put its characters front and center. For nine episodes, our focus is not on New London, the dystopian social and political system, but rather on the ordinary human beings who inhabit it. We see them wrestling not just with how much soma to consume or whether or not to remove their optic interface for an illicit tryst, but with far more quotidian — and interesting — questions: How vulnerable can, or should, they be to one another?

The truest moments of freedom we glimpse in Peacock’s Brave New World are not the glimpses of political revolution — Epsilons smashing soma storehouses, say — but rather our characters’ small, defiant defenses of their own humanity. It is John, methodically creating drawings of himself and the garden world where he imagines a life with Lenina outside the confines of New London. It is Lenina, taunting Henry Foster after their final sexual encounter, flirtatiously challenging him on whether he enjoys sex in which — contrary to established New London protocol — the Beta takes the lead. It is Bernard Marx, who can have sex with anyone he likes in one of the city’s myriad pleasure-palaces and “feelie” theaters, making himself painfully vulnerable by asking Lenina on a date, then working up the nerve to hold her hand.

“I find myself imagining what it would be like to go back,” Bernard admits to Lenina on their date, reminiscing about their abortive affair in the Savage Lands. “I suppose I mean go back in time. Like, not as we were, but as we are now, right here, in this moment, knowing what we know and being who — I might proceed differently. If we were in that room now, I mean, what do you think would happen?”

“I suppose what usually happens in hotel rooms,” replies Lenina. “But whatever would happen, it wouldn’t change what we have.” “We’ve shared something …,” says Bernard, unable to find the word. Lenina completes his thought: “special.” But as he leans in to kiss her, she stops him, then breaks his heart by saying, “It’s made us friends. I’m glad it worked out this way, Bernard.”

These celebrations of human frailty, of human complexity, of the irreducible and irreproducible dignity of the inviolable human life, provide a counterweight not just to life in New London, where everybody belongs to everybody else, but also to life in the Savage Lands, where everything belongs to the victor. It is a vision of freedom predicated not on freedom to choose — John’s selfishness — nor on freedom to be happy — the pleasant balm of soma — but rather freedom to be: a being that needs no further predication.

The show isn’t perfect. With the exception of John’s mother, Linda (Demi Moore, swigging brandy and chewing scenery), the Savage rebels that dominate the series’ first few episodes find themselves on the wrong side of the line between cliché and high camp. It’s telling that John only becomes interesting once he’s safely squared away in New London, interacting with the better-written characters. And a secondary plot line involving Mustafa Mond and the actual mechanics of INDRA (who, in a confusing twist, may or may not be Mond’s daughter) is not just unnecessary but thematically distracting, diluting the show’s careful focus on human beings in order to accommodate a clunky Big Bad AI plot that seems designed solely to set up a potential second season.

But the show’s deft ability not merely to balance character drama with political world-building, but to use the richness of its characters as a political statement, makes it among the best science-fiction dystopias of recent memory. For contrast, consider TNT’s post-apocalyptic Snowpiercer, a rollicking-good-time of a dystopian thriller that nevertheless suffers from its inability to see its own righteous revolutionaries as anything but all-American heroes, bravely sounding the clarion call against those fat cats who run the show.

It offers us a space to rethink about the domain of human freedom, and what constitutes human dignity: a space in which John, Lenina, Bernard, and CJack60 alike can ask the question — Why are we like this? — and where simply asking the question constitutes a more revolutionary form of freedom than orgies of either sex or blood. Existing — as a conscious, thinking being — is already a radical act, one that precedes desire or choice.

By the standards of network television, or even cable, this is all far less sexy than a bloody revolution, or the romantic Hollywood ending John dreams of with Lenina, a woman he wants to possess almost as much as he wants to adore. But, like Lenina and Bernard’s fumbling role-play at the Savage Lands hotel, it opens up new fields of possibility — of human connection predicated not on castes of birth, nor hierarchies of power, but on the particularity of two distinct human beings coming to know and be known by one another. It might just be the most transgressive thing on television.

Tara Isabella Burton, “Saving Ourselves,” The New Atlantis, Number 62, Fall 2020, pp. 88-96.
Header image: Alden Ehrenreich as John the Savage in Peacock’s Brave New World
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