Having just had its world premiere at SXSW today and set to debut on HBO Max on March 17, the Rosario Dawson, Hoon Lee and Benjamin Bratt-led adaptation of Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli’s comic of the same name can be best summarized in the massive graffiti splayed across a dilapidated Manhattan building in the series – “We’re Still Here.”
Yes, in the agile sociological hands of 13th and When They See Us director DuVernay, it is all still here, even more so in a further broken America. The racial, gender, class warfare and constant betrayal that has been soaked in the soil since before America even became a country is still here in the near future of DMZ and the wound is moist and fresh for those left behind and expected to pick up the scraps again.
“It’s all about our future now, it ain’t about the past,” declares electioneering gang kingpin Parco Delgado, portrayed by the shining charisma comet that is Benjamin Bratt, late in the four-episode run. Yet, in America, fictional and factual, it is still always about the past even if some in the winner’s circle don’t know it.
Abandoned and walled in as the Second American Civil War roars, bombs drop and competing outside institutional forces maneuver, the resulting vacuum of a demilitarized zone that this POC dominated Manhattan crumbles into a terror that controls even more than it kills.
As Dawson’s haunted medic Alma Ortega awakes from a bad dream and nearly a decade after everything fell apart, in the opening moments of the DuVernay directed opening episode DMZ crashes into an even more horrific reality It is the truth of a nation gnawed apart by the very divisions that have long saddled us and have been let even further loose from the leash of political proprietary in recent years in real-life.
On that front, this DMZ can be a straight ahead bloody and full tilt action thriller with a countdown clock and unexpected alliances fighting to take down a rigged system. It can’t be emphasized enough how good and spry Bratt is here, dancing on a landmine of a role that he never allows to explode.
On another level, this DMZ is the story of a desperate mother seeking her child in the wilderness of a world gone mad, even if he is a harborer of the madness. With a swaggering and simultaneously nuanced performances from Dopesick alum Dawson, and despite the fact that DuVernay, Ernest Dickinson (who helms episodes 2-4), and Patino are clearly trying to tie a tourniquet over their limited budget, DMZ works very well on both those battlefronts.
That’s a limited series worth watching, but there’s a Trojan Horse on the long march here that is something much more engrossing. Now, let’s be clear, what Westworld EP Patino has written here is a DMZ that takes the ethos and mythology of the 2005 to 2021 Vertigo published comic, but heads to the periphery.
That’s the honest place to be.
In this era of a pandemic ravaged country with the ideological barbwire barricades in place and wars in Ukraine, Yemen and elsewhere on our screens, it is the story of stolen votes, contested territories of truth and the power of showing up and speaking out. Staying on brand for WarnerMedia, there’s a Batman and Flash cameo here, but truly staying on brand for DuVernay, there’s not just a desire to “cut the rot out,” but also plant seeds from the genre display and otherwise that DMZ is.
“My advice, stay Downtown,” cautions Agam Darshi’s Franklin after she helps slip her fellow healthcare worker Ortega into a dilapidated midtown Manhattan in hopes of finding the son she was suddenly separated from years before as the evacuation surged “There’s nothing Uptown but looters, shut-ins and lunatics,” the underground railroader adds.
Well, that is one way of saying it.
Also featuring top turns from WTSU vet Freddy Miyares, and See’s Lee, and a remarkable Jordan Preston Carter, as well as Queen Sugar’s Rutina Wesley, the Manhattan of this DMZ is a war zone, but not a dead zone. From Chinatown to Central Park and all points in-between and surrounding, the borough that never sleeps lives on in night markets, nightclubs, and hustle to survive in the ongoing lives of the 300,000 souls who were left behind.
Strapped on to the dystopian cannon that has been illuminated the last decade by The Walking Dead, of course there is a point where this rotten Big Apple story could also go very I Am Legend, The Dark Knight Rises, HBO Max’s Station Eleven or hark back to classics like John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and especially Walter Hill’s The Warriors. No shame is drawing from those deep wells.
At a greater velocity than even in past decades, our untethered America has become one where the end truly feels nigh on the street and our screens. DMZ can’t escape that, but it doesn’t have to. Here there is also poignant seeds and roots of Norma Rae, the boy soldiers of Sierra Leone, The Battle of Algiers, some Lysistrata, Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 and 2, and some Stacey Abrams here too.
“The only way to grow is kill your Gods,” Bratt’s power hungry scheming and bruised Parco proclaims in a pivotal moment in DMZ. The Spanish Harlem Kings chief is wrong, the only way to really grow is to plant seeds that grow into strong stalks and that’s the detailed ground on which DMZ thrives