Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s adaptation of Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel of the same name starts out in modern-day Los Angeles, where Dana (Mallori Johnson) has just moved to be closer to her family following the death of her parents and, hopefully, begin a career as a screenwriter. After accepting a ride home one from a waiter named Kevin (Micah Stock), she begins a clumsily cheerful tryst with the man. Everything seems to be going well for Dana—that is, until she’s suddenly and inexplicably transported to a plantation in the 1800s.
The series sets all of these story pieces in place with an unfussy efficiency. We quickly get a sense of both Dana’s place in the modern world—excited but slightly rudderless, still struggling with the loss of her parents and the complicated inheritance they left behind—and the rules of the time travel. Kevin is there to bear witness to Dana’s first disappearance before being inadvertently transported to the past with her (turns out that anything or anyone she’s holding onto at the moment travels with her). But after a promising start, Kindred begins to lag and struggles to capture the propulsive energy of its beloved source material.
The series spends most its time in the period setting, which is crafted with the richness we’ve come to expect from prestige television. Kevin and Dana pass themselves off, respectively, as a traveling musician and the woman he’s enslaved, all the while trying to suss out what’s going on. They’re inducted into life on the plantation overseen by Tom Weylin (Ryan Kwanten) and his equally cruel wife, Margaret (Gayle Rankin), but it’s the couple’s young son, Rufus (David Alexander Kaplan), who’s the key to Dana’s connection to the past, as any time that the boy feels like he’s in mortal danger, Dana is flung back in time to rescue him.
As guests in the Weylin household, Kevin and Dana are powerless to prevent countless indignities as they watch from the sidelines, from backs being flayed by whips, to children being torn from their families, to women being raped. The show’s time-hopping nature cleverly underlines the different ways in which the horrors of the past still haunt us today. The first time Dana and Kevin return to the present, Kevin, somewhat shamefacedly, refuses to go back again. The moment isn’t presented as a burning indictment of his cowardice—it’s a truly horrifying situation, after all, and one that he’s being asked to endure on account of someone he only met a few days ago—but racism is a battle that Dana will be fighting no matter where or when she goes. As a white man, Kevin always has the option of quietly retreating from it.
Kindred, though, doesn’t feel the need to spell out these thorny dynamics for its audience, as it lets the quiet, introspective moments between major plot beats speak for themselves. And yet, Dana and Kevin feel like temporal tourists for much of the season’s middle section, drifting through the past without the sense of omnipresent danger that’s so harrowingly detailed in the book. Dana in particular feels at risk of fading into the background of her own story.
A curious decision is also made to add a plotline concerning Dana’s mother, Olivia (Sheria Irving), who we learn was also transported to the past many years ago and is thus still alive in that timeline. It’s an odd choice that adds an unnecessary subplot what was a clear and well-defined central dilemma of whether Dana will remain in this cruel world to ease the suffering of its people or figure out how to escape back to the present as quickly as possible. The side-quest to find her mother never really turns up anything especially revelatory and only adds to the sense that Kindred is spinning its wheels.
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