Much of Aldous Huxley’s vision of a Brave New World has been borne out: genetic engineering, mood-stabilizing pharmaceuticals, chemical birth control, ubiquitous marketing, and a society given to distraction. When the novel was published in 1932, these ultimately prescient notions placed it squarely in the realm of science fiction. The social stratification in the main setting of New London, on the other hand, was mostly a reflection of a class system that’s existed for centuries. What the aristocratic Huxley feared wasn’t a world in which there are haves and have-nots—the latter conditioned to never question why things aren’t equitable. He was much more concerned with the threat that Henry Ford’s assembly line and “vacuous entertainments” (sports, movies, etc.) posed to individualism.
Though it was primarily aimed at technological advances instead of a hierarchy indifferent to the inequities it perpetuates, Huxley’s critique of systems in Brave New World has proven as enduring as his highly influential novel. This opposition to a predetermined way of life—one molded by technology rather than religion—runs through most adaptations of the book, including the iteration that premiered on Peacock last month. Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd) expresses insecurity about his Alpha-Plus status, Beta-Plus hatchery worker Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay) is vaguely discontent, and their trouble-free existence is disrupted by John (Alden Ehrenreich) of the Savage Lands, who prefers to be himself, not who society says he is.
But David Wiener’s sprawling, intermittently daring sci-fi drama makes several updates to Huxley’s story. World Controller Mustafa Mond (played coolly here by Nina Sosanya) and Helmholtz Watson (now Hannah John-Kamen’s “Helm,” an emotions-and-orgy “conductor”) are rewritten so that they are played by women of color, which adds an interesting texture to their respective storylines. But the most promising developments in this Brave New World look beyond the framework of the source material to tap into real-life challenges to the established order. Wiener ventures into new territory by keeping the locale and introducing new characters. These additions don’t just question their place in the world—they eventually come to interrogate the system that creates a paradise for some and a life of servitude for others. Comfort breeds indifference in the upper castes; even the death of an Epsilon, a member of the lowest-ranking division in New London’s social order, only briefly snaps them out of their soma stupors. This tragedy is viewed as an anomaly that’s swiftly corrected by Bernard handing out drugs. The Alphas and Betas go right on about their hedonistic day, as is their duty, their place.
It’s this idea of systems and the brutality people enact through them—which can take the form of redlining, food deserts, and gerrymandering in our world—that feels most relevant today. When I spoke to the Brave New World cast earlier this summer, the ongoing protests calling for justice for George Floyd and other victims of state-sanctioned violence were already underway. “Black Lives Matter” was and is on the lips of activists and politicians, and emblazoned on the streets of cities. Huxley wouldn’t have aimed his criticism at the government (unless Ford ever held an elected office), but this interpretation of his work has the potential to. I asked members of the cast about the protests, as well as the feeling that Mond and the founders essentially re-created an unjust world.
“We all feel that way, certainly when you see these things happening over and over again,” Ehrenreich said. “This is sci-fi, but it’s not about escaping. It’s really about the world we live in now, just as the novel was about the world we lived in then.”
There’s some dissonance in watching Brave New World in the midst of resurgent social justice movements. It’s an odd time to indulge in a TV show that explores how entertainment desensitizes us to each other’s plights, something that Ehrenreich and Sosanya acknowledged. But Brown Findlay stresses that the show “allows us to reflect ourselves, to look at how we’ve constructed things, and asks, ‘Can they be changed?’” Sen Mitsuji, who plays Alpha-Plus Henry Foster, said Brave New World’s treatment of “discrimination based on birthright or birth status, the context you’re born into, things you can’t change,” ensures it still resonates. “[This story] is always going to have a place.”
We see that in the story of CJack60 (Joseph Morgan), one of the Epsilons who preserve the Alphas’ way of life (and, to a lesser extent, that of the Betas). The Alphas will continue to take sex-filled vacations and engage in nightly orgies, indifferent to the people who facilitate their pleasure. “They’ll never have to suffer for any of it,” John observes in a rage. Nor will they or anyone else question it, thanks to the work of scientists like Lenina and Frannie (Kylie Bunbury, always a welcome presence), who essentially design personalities to suit their caste designation: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon. New London’s citizens were all conceived, in a sense, to play their role in society. Whenever genetic engineering fails them, their conditioning and drugs nudge them back into place.
Like any system, New London’s “social body” requires a lot of maintenance. Here, that’s symbolized by Indra, the kind of highly sophisticated artificial intelligence that ends up doing what all such programs do as they evolve: go rogue. Indra is the other side of this equation of systems and violence. And like the Matrix, Indra attempts to create a reality that keeps humans from actually experiencing life on their own. The machines of the Wachowskis’ film trilogy are just a tad more insidious, using humans as batteries; but Indra is also siphoning something from the New Londoners, who, via their standard-issue oculinks, are all connected to it (and each other). Indra is taking in their consciousness and memories for some unknown purpose beyond creating a “perfect world” in New London.
CJack60 represents a threat to the foundation Indra’s so painstakingly laid. After the death of his fellow Epsilon is waved off as an “accident” in the premiere, CJack60 starts rethinking his way of life. John acts as a catalyst, but it’s mostly by accident. He’s only railing against the system because it encourages Lenina to have sex with other people even after she and John exchange “I love you”s. As John screams to the Epsilons shortly before they revolt, “People are not supposed to live like this! They can’t tell you who to want! They can’t give you some letter and tell you where you fit.” He doesn’t understand what he’s set in motion, but the series does—after John’s galvanizing speech, the Epsilons all drop their soma dispensers, the metal tubes sounding like bullet casings as they hit the floor. It heralds the bloodshed to come in the season’s final episode, as the Epsilons operate under a new mandate: “No one above, no one below.”
Wiener’s Brave New World manages to keep the book’s specific criticism of systems like utilitarianism in the form of John lashing out and Lenina and Bernard probing the bounds of their prescribed roles, while fomenting an actual revolution. Unfortunately, the show botches this development; the first obvious sign that things aren’t hunky-dory pops up in the Savage Lands, when Sheila (Kate Fleetwood) snaps John out of his daze. Sheila is leading her own rebellion against the New Londoners, who are titillated by the fake massacres carried out like clockwork in the Savage Lands—which are reimagined for the series as a Westworld-like theme park. She inspires John’s awakening when she urges him to ask himself, “What am I?” A free human being or a washer of cars?” Yet these self-described “free people” are rarely seen again until the final moments of the season.
Westworld’s revolts tend to lose their steam due to the sheer volume of characters and plot; Brave New World suffers from the same scattered focus, as CJack60 disappears for long stretches at a time, which takes some of the power out of his sudden emergence as a leader. But there’s no doubt in Morgan’s mind that his character was already feeling “frustration and anger at my oppressors… at being forced into this box” before John wandered into the Epsilons’ home. As Morgan told me, CJack60 may have been goaded by John, but he was ultimately “like a rocket. When the fuse was lit, he really took off.”
The season ends with an untold number of slain Alphas, Betas, and Epsilons (and possibly members of the other castes; it’s hard to say), a meticulously planned society laid to waste, and little indication of what comes next. Wiener and executive producer Grant Morrison are clearly setting up the next season, sending their three leads in different directions: John to mourn; Lenina to a new new world, one whose story isn’t “crisis.” Along with Helm, Bernard returns to the Savage Lands, with what may be the new version of Indra. Both Bernard and Mond try to blame Indra for the bloody confrontation and many of the events leading up to it, but a system isn’t inherently violent; it perpetrates violence when it’s imbued with the beliefs and goals of its creators. Time and again, we’re told the social order of New London is both necessary—to prevent future global catastrophes—and beneficial to all. But even if it’s true that the Epsilons aren’t exactly impoverished, that they have jobs and homes, they’re still disenfranchised. And that’s by design. To quote from a different dystopian tale recently adapted for TV, “‘Better’ never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some.” Mond et al. knowingly established inequities in their society, essentially making their new world in the image of the old.
Despite his fear of what automation would do to workers, Huxley wasn’t challenging the social order of his world. When he wrote of people in New London buying into the system, it actually reflected his disdain of indiscriminate mass consumption: “Most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution.” Wiener’s adaptation picks up on Huxley’s fear that people would willingly give away their individuality if the offer were attractive or distracting enough. Though Kylie Bunbury doesn’t get nearly enough screentime on Brave New World, her character, Frannie, is at the center of this particular discussion. Frannie is a Beta-Plus like Lenina, and they’ve essentially been assigned to be each other’s best friend. She frequently tries to bring a searching Lenina back into the fold, because on some level, she knows they’re better off playing their parts. But New London’s architects have also designed the life of a Beta-Plus to be so filled with pleasure as to defy rejecting it. Bunbury sees this part of the narrative as the show demonstrating how we can participate in these systems, actively harmful and otherwise.
“There is a lot of following the way things are because this is the way that things are, rather than taking a look at things,” she said. “A lot of it is just unconscious. And if you feed people something enough, they’re going to believe it.”
Frannie and Lenina aren’t the same, despite ostensibly sharing genetic profiles and social standing. There comes a moment in the second half of the season, when the Beta-Plus women play a futuristic version of racquetball, and Lenina mocks her frustrated friend, who’s lost several games already. Lenina brags to Frannie that she always comes in first, despite their shared status. She urges her friend to question why. Like its source material, Peacock’s Brave New World never addresses how its society “evolved past” racism. The divisions are purely caste-related, but like so many “post-race” stories, the series still has primarily white actors in lead roles. When I asked Bunbury if she thinks this “confession” from Lenina is a subtle acknowledgment of racism even in this supposedly idyllic society, she agreed: “I see the genius in Lenina saying, ‘Why do you think you always come second?’ because that is the truth of the world right now. It’s a clue—maybe in the near future, those things will still be going on, even if people are genetically engineered. That was a tough scene in that regard, because I viewed it as a racial situation.”
If the show gets picked up for a second season, it will hopefully cease eliding race, a decision that’s done The Handmaid’s Tale no favors. A good portion of the action will likely take place in the Savage Lands, which are located in America. Given the world that Brave New World debuted in, it’s more important than ever not to ignore that history, and the systems entangled within it. When asked if this adaptation of Huxley’s novel challenges people to think about how they uphold systems even as it entertains, Lloyd said, “It definitely makes you think about society and the way in which humans can live, and do live, and could live, in terms of becoming part of a system or challenging a system.” That’s the next step toward a brave new world for this sci-fi drama.