Like in José Saramago’s novel of the same name, Fernando Meirelles’ 2008 film Blindness tells the story of an epidemic in which sighted people lose their vision. The afflicted are quarantined, and it’s not long before the vulnerable turn on the even more vulnerable, in what both the book and film present as an allegory for how an otherwise “civilized” society can descend into chaos.
Steven Knight’s See is a kind of spiritual successor to Blindness, only the Apple TV+ drama is set in the distant future, in a de-industrialized world. A title card soberly informs us that in the 21st century, an epidemic decimated the Earth’s population. Fewer than two million people survived, and they all became blind. Hundreds of years and dozens of generations later, the vast majority of people are blind, and living in villages in a once more pristine wilderness. It is in Alkenny, one of these tight-knit communities, that Maghra (Hera Hilmar) gives birth to twins with the help of Paris (Alfre Woodard), a village elder who could also give doula classes. We meet Maghra’s husband Baba Voss (Jason Momoa) as he races to return to her side, his desire to celebrate the birth of the children quickly replaced by a need to protect them from imminent danger. Because the twins are some of the only humans in the centuries since the epidemic to be born with sight.
In the dystopia of See, which premieres November 1, humans may have rebuilt the world after a near-extinction level event, but they are on the verge of another massive shift. The sense of sight is something that is both demonized and fetishized; to even speak of vision is heresy, but everyone from Paris to Queen Kane (Sylvia Hoeks), the demagogic leader of the Payan Kingdom, speaks in hushed tones about sighted humans, past and present. What many characters agree on is that sighted people, including one mysterious figure who comes in and out of Baba Voss’ life at some very opportune times, are a game changer. According to Queen Kane, they’re basically gods.
Obviously, that concept—that vision would be considered a super power to blind people, who have managed to restore civilization without it—smacks of ableism, but that isn’t See’s only trouble. The series is culled from other chosen-one narratives and dystopian stories—including borrowing Jared Leto’s Blade Runner 2049 contact lenses—and wrapped up in historical period dress not unlike what Momoa recently donned for Netflix’s Frontier. Except for Queen Kane, whose costuming more closely resembles something from The Hunger Games in its pageantry. At times, See even feels of a piece with A Quiet Place, the kind of survivalist fable that taps into parents’ fear that they can’t protect their children from everything. Its opening credits mirror and echo those of American Gods. This mix of influences and eras is ultimately more confusing than it is cohesive. The verdant background offers a compelling counterpoint to most dystopias, which often imagine either a sterile, skyscraper-filled world or a desolate wasteland. But there are so many other standard dystopian ideas at play here as to rob that decision of its novelty—after a forced reset, portions of humanity have still given into their basest instincts. Slavery exists, and women are threatened with sexual assault.
You could say that Knight, who wrote these early episodes along with Hadi Nicholas Deeb, is just avoiding idealizing people who face some serious hardships: bitter winters, food scarcity, attacks from a band of witchfinders led by Tamacti Jun (Christian Camargo), who is actually tasked by Queen Kane with finding these “gods.” They do what they have to in order to survive, much like their ancestors. There’s no reason to think that the people of Alkenny and similar villages would be virtuous just because they decline to live in the relative luxury of Payan (which looks to be inside of a hydroelectric dam). Most of the characters are morally complex enough to avoid the kind of criticism Meireilles’ film earned from advocacy groups for depicting blind people in a “dehumanizing, animalistic way.”
But avoiding a similar work’s pitfalls isn’t enough to make See a compelling watch in its first three episodes. The landscape is made alternately forbidding and awe-inspiring by Francis Lawrence’s direction (not a stretch for the Hunger Games alum), especially once the story branches out from Alkenny. Momoa’s physicality gives the action scenes a real jolt, and Woodard proves once more that she can do gravitas in her sleep. But the rest of the cast, aside from Hoeks, doesn’t make much of an impression. Archie Madekwe and Nesta Cooper play the twins Kofun and Haniwa, respectively, as adolescents in the third episode, which isn’t enough time to judge what kind of an addition they make. Hoeks’ performance is hammy, but in a calibrated way, as if she’s the only person who’s aware of how silly Queen Kane’s “masturbation as prayer” scenes are.
See is part of Apple TV+’s inaugural slate of programming, but it resembles enough of the bleak tales that have proliferated in recent years that it’s unlikely to be the series that sets the new streamer apart. After a cliffhanger, the remaining episodes could take the rest of the season in a more promising direction, but that will require See to venture as far away from the familiar as its characters.