Review: “The Red Tent” (Part Two)

Note:  Full spoilers follow.

Immensely more engaging and well-written than the first half, proving that historical drama can say something meaningful about women’s historical experiences.

Going in to the second half of Lifetime’s adaptation of The Red Tent, I have to admit to being skeptical.  The first half, while engaging and entertaining enough, was far too aesthetically clumsy to really capture my attention.  The second installment, however, managed to correct some of the issues of the first half and, if not necessarily as explicitly feminist in its ideologies, nevertheless continues to emphasize the importance of female community and the connections among different generations of women.

After the brutal murder of her husband and his people by her jealous and vengeful brothers, Dinah curses her father for his unwillingness to punish them and flees back to the city.  Her mother-in-law, vengeful and angry at the murder of her son and her husband, takes Dinah back to Egypt, where she gives birth a son.  The queen, however, exacts her revenge by driving a wedge between mother and son, which is only healed after much suffering on both of their parts.  Dinah eventually gains a husband, while also gaining the forgiveness of her son, reuniting with her brother Joseph and her dying father.

A profound sense of sadness and melancholy pervades this second part of the narrative, a perfect orchestration of the too-late and in-the-nick-of-time moments that Linda Williams argues are essential parts of the workings of the melodramatic mode.  Here, they help us as contemporary viewers come to grips with the way in which, in the ancient world, one could indeed spend a great deal of one’s life away from one’s dearest family members.  There is something almost unbearably sad about Leah’s statement near the beginning of this episode that she will never see her daughter again, and so it proves.  By the time that Dinah returns to her father’s camp, both her mother and her aunt Rachel have died, and we realize that this world does not necessarily permit of the happy reunions and narrative closure we have been trained to desire.  Life for these ancient women is perpetually fragile, yet all the more precious because of that fragility.

While Dinah does not get to say farewell to her father (he doesn’t even recognize her, but instead thinks she is Rachel, her already-deceased aunt), she does get to revisit, for one last time, the Red Tent of her youth.  Here we see what is perhaps the series’ strongest message:  the power of intergenerational bonding among women, as the younger generation gathers about Dinah to hear her tell of her life and her struggles.  Despite the attempts of men to reclaim or mark this space as their, these ancient women endured, buoyed up by both their strength as individuals and by the knowledge that they are not alone, that they are surrounded by their mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, and nieces.

As I was in the first installment, I was genuinely moved by the sight of women banding together to grant one another strength during childbirth.  Though most of us in the U.S. and Europe have forgotten it, childbirth is an extremely dangerous time, and it was even more so in the ancient world, when the odds were not in women’s favour.  Again the motif of fragility is particularly acute, but again it is through banding together that these women manage to survive everything that nature throws at them.  They endure, despite everything, and they even learn to forgive one another (as Dinah eventually forgives her vengeful mother-in-law), and even the father and brothers that betrayed her and robbed her of happiness.

Of course, tonight’s installment had a few hiccups in terms of storytelling.  The tantalizing glimpses of Joseph’s torments as a slave weren’t quite enough to justify his transition from sensitive prophet to prideful madman and back again, and his brothers still come across as one-dimensional bullies.  But then, this isn’t really a story about the male experience, so I’m mostly okay with those bits.  After all, don’t we have enough “complex” male antiheroes in the rest of television?  The romance plot between Dinah and her her carpenter husband also felt a little rushed and forced, and it seems rather extraneous, but I suppose that’s an unfortunate requirement of this type of fiction.  (Though one could, I suppose, argue that a woman practically had to be married in the ancient world if she wanted to have any measure of physical security).

In sum, this was a worthy entry into the annals of women’s historical television.  Although women’s historical fiction is a thriving market in the literary world, it’s only made a few in-roads into the world of television (The White Queen and the forthcoming The Dovekeepers being two notable examples).  Hopefully, if this series proves to be a success, we might see more of these types of narratives coming to the world of television, in the process writing women back into the historical record and helping us to gain an understanding, no matter how flawed, of what life was like for these ancient women.

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