Women Rule in the Emmys' Season of Dystopia

Major nomination generators “Westworld” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” feature strong female characters – human and otherwise – fighting oppression.

The strong female characters – human and otherwise – in "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Westworld" wage uphill battles against oppression amid bleak landscapes.

But Thursday's Emmy nominations marked early victories for two compelling shows that broke new ground in a fertile season for women-driven dystopian dramas.

Both future-shock-fueled programs scored Best Drama nods not only through bold writing and excellent performances, but by speaking to the times in ways that even their creators probably couldn’t have predicted during production.

HBO’s “Westworld” landed set in a seeming man’s fantasy world where rich wannabe cowboys could bed and kill robots at will. But the drama quickly tapped into a more intricate exploration of what it means to be human, as Evan Rachel Wood’s increasingly sentient farm dweller and Thandie Newton’s madam with a growing memory flipped the script, via a robotic rebellion.

Wood received a Best Actress nomination, while Newton notched a supporting actress nod, though both proved worthy of the top category. Overall, “Westworld” logged 22 nominations, tying “Saturday Night Live” for the most.

Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” was no slouch, collecting 13 nods. The bare-bones drama, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, emerged as even more haunting than the high-tech “Westworld”: It’s a disturbing tale of an environmentally devastated U.S. ruled by a fundamentalist patriarchy that enslaves the few fertile women left as procreation surrogates.

Elisabeth Moss stars as Offred, as in “Of Fred,” the “commander” who’s made her his sex slave, arm candy and emotional crutch. But Moss’ character, born June, slowly fights back, picking her moment to embrace the rebellion. Her nuanced take on the role earned Moss a Best Actress nomination, while Ann Dowd (as cruel and conflicted handmaid trainer Aunt Lydia) and Samira Wiley (as June’s escaped best friend Moira) garnered supporting actress nods.

"The Handmaid's Tale" and "Westworld" are in competition with each other – and a high-quality pack that includes “The Crown” (which details Queen Elizabeth II’s own encounters with sexism), “Stranger Things" (which features an alien girl who escaped her oppressors), “House of Cards” (which features a ruthless woman president), “Better Call Saul” and “This is Us.”

But the dystopia duo stands out, on the tube and off. “Westworld,” which debuted a little over a month before the election, and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which arrived shortly before President Trump’s 100th day in office, roughly bookended benchmarks in an ongoing turbulent period.

For some, the shows particularly resonate amid the ascendancy of a president who bested a woman for office, who boasted of being able to accost women at will and whose inauguration was upstaged by women’s marches in the U.S. and beyond.

How "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Westworld" fare at the Sept. 17 awards ceremony will speak not only to the times, but to how the Hollywood establishment values dark stories of insurrection that rebel against the boundaries of traditional TV storytelling.

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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