TV’s most popular dystopian shows use the dining table to lay out the power struggles of their bleak worlds
The mark of a good dystopian thriller is how much it can make you see traces of our own society reflected in its world. And while plenty has been said about the power of dystopian novels in our current political climate, this idea is even more resonate when it comes to the genre’s TV shows, whose success depends on their abilities to create compelling worlds that can keep viewers engaged over several hours. Just like in our own society, looking at the range of beverage and meal options available to various members of these worlds offers a subtle commentary on classism and power.
“We had a lot of conversation about how the two dominant cultures that win [in The Man in the High Castle] influence everything that we think about the show,” says Drew Boughton, the Amazon series’ production designer. The Man in the High Castle is a thriller based on author Philip K. Dick’s premise that the Allies were not the victors of World War II after all. The show, which is set in an alternate version of 1962 and returns for a third season later this year, depicts the home of the brave as one now occupied by Imperial Japan in the west and Nazi Germany in the east — each itching for an excuse to blow up the other.
In real life, Boughton says, “we have American food being the dominant food that’s spread across the world because we won the war. So we had to basically reverse that idea.” A diner set in the narrow neutral zone between the feuding dictatorships is shown in the first season of The Man in the High Castle to have a menu that Boughton says suggests that the “Depression era never left.” You can still get a hot dog; it just may not look like an Oscar Mayer frank because other factories are now making sausages. In the second season, a greasy spoon in a Japanese-occupied territory still has decent counter service and waitresses with pluck. But it’s now the place to slurp ramen instead of chicken noodle soup on your lunch break. “That sort of mixing of ideas is what we like to do to take the viewer of out of it,” Boughton says.
Details like this can also offer a subtle side-eye to our own culture’s thoughts on dining. The new HBO film Fahrenheit 451, which premieres this Saturday, May 19, updates author Ray Bradbury’s fear of television’s takeover of society by exploring our devotion to screens of all kinds over reading. While a stark lounge filled with perfectly primped individuals wearing VR goggles is considered the upper echelon of that population, it’s only in an after-work dive bar or at an inconspicuous restaurant for the forgotten and persecuted where actual conversation goes down. Feel free to mention this extreme vision the next time you get frustrated with dining companions who won’t put down their phones.
“This is core to the story that there are the enfranchised and the disenfranchised,” Fahrenheit 451 production designer Mark Digby says. “If you’re in that world, then everything by certain people’s standards is perfect and sleek and modern.” However, he says, you don’t stop fighting just because you’ve been kicked out of the privileged sector and your meals are no longer as fancy. “People survive as a critique to the conditions and social norms. They gather together. They still sit and eat and are as resourceful as they can be,” Digby says.
Like the characters in Fahrenheit 451 who are subsiding on the rejected crumbs of the upper class, it’s telling what the handmaidens in The Handmaid’s Tale are permitted to eat. The first season would occasionally drop details about their new country of Gilead’s world views on, say, sugar (apparently treats like ice cream and macarons should not be given to the women who need to stay healthy for purposes of conception). But in this world, where providing these women with information is contraband, even a visit to the supermarket can turn into a scavenger hunt for clues.
”The grocery store [in Season 1 of Handmaid’s Tale] was a huge undertaking because we created every label with no words. Everything had a symbol for where it was made, what its ingredients were, where it came from,” production designer Julie Berghoff told Marie Claire last year of adapting author Margaret Atwood’s novel. “Every piece of fruit had a thought process behind it — when she gets oranges, the implication is, ‘Okay, they conquered Florida.’ If they had artichokes, it meant they conquered California. The evolution of Gilead was always in mind.”
Some similar details are also seeded into Season 2 of Handmaid’s Tale, which is streaming now. The third episode allows for a bit of levity through the character of Erin (Erin Way) an escaped handmaid now living as a refugee in Canada who is so traumatized by her experiences in Gilead that she’s gone mute. She opts to break her silence with a pun, uttering “blessed be the Froot Loops” and thus confirming that at least Kellogg’s Canadian plants are up and running while also allowing herself to feel the relief of being able to eat the processed foods that were denied during her captivity.
An episode later, we receive further confirmation that green juice smoothies never go out of style or cease to be disgusting. Nor do cigarettes — if you know how to smuggle them in through the black market and you happen to be an affluent lady like Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Waterford.
Kira Snyder, a writer and co-executive producer on The Handmaid’s Tale, says both Serena’s decision to smoke in her home in front of Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia and, in turn, Aunt Lydia’s decision to concoct such a foul vegetable juice blend for the handmaid she calls Offred (Elisabeth Moss) are about power. In the end, Lydia wins both rounds because she has the ultimate trump card: she’s the one thinking about what’s best for the baby growing in Offred’s uterus. Snyder adds that Lydia and her lot “could probably make tasty shakes if they wanted to, but it’s another way to stick it to the handmaid,” while Serena is well aware that the clout she and her husband currently have could easily be taken away in this ever-evolving dystopian chessboard and therefore “wouldn’t smoke out on the street.”
Serena does, however, find other ways to flaunt her status in that episode. It’s her baby shower, after all, and she serves both Champagne and sparkling apple juice. “There’s no ban on alcohol in Gilead for the elites — although they are expected to be moderate and discreet — and this is a celebratory occasion,” Snyder says, adding that it’s doubtful Serena herself partakes of the former. “Wives in Gilead are considered to be and treated as pregnant — the baby is theirs — and so Serena likely enjoyed the apple juice.”
Coupled with the meals and beverages the characters are seen actually consuming, labels aren’t just fun nods to viewers who are paying attention. They’re also reminders that there is no easy way out because, to borrow from another dystopian thriller, Big Brother is most certainly watching. Symbols hint at backstories and themes that aren’t blatantly addressed. Most TV and film productions create fictitious product logos for commonplace items like liquor bottles because of the licensing and copyright headaches that could ensue, but with Fahrenheit, Digby and his team saw this as an opportunity.
“Where we could, we’d subliminally [put our] own coded references,” he says. Images and emoji function as shorthand in a culture that doesn’t read but is also not technically illiterate. The beer that Michael B. Jordan’s lead, Guy Montag, is drinking in one scene? It has a logo of a bird on it, representing freedom. An eagle-eyed observer will also see other avian imagery throughout the film.
High Castle’s liquor logos are meant more as proverbial taunts. Patrons who frequent a Japanese gentleman’s club may see white women dressed as mid-century housewives pouring American rye whiskey. Advertisements celebrate Pacific Victory Lager, in case you’d forgotten who’d won.
“It’s just sort of finding ways to rub it in,” production designer Boughton says, ”which is what the victorious culture does.”
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment and pop culture writer based in Los Angeles.
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