Adaptations have been thriving on HBOMax and with the world in the state that it is in, dystopian futures have taken on a more relevant meaning. With DMZ, a four-episode mini-series based on the DC Comics (via the now-disbanded imprint Vertigo) graphic novel by Riccardo Burchielli and Brian Wood, we get an adaptation that has honed in on a tighter story and confronts issues we know are all too real in 2022. DMZ is directed by Ava DuVernay and Ernest R. Dickerson and was written by Roberto Patino. It stars Rosario Dawson, Benjamin Bratt, Hoon Lee, Reynaldo Gallegos, Jordan Preston Carter, Juani Feliz, and Marcel Mendoza.
DMZ is set in the near future where America is embroiled in a bitter civil war that has left Manhattan a demilitarized zone (DMZ), destroyed and isolated from the rest of the world. Instead of focussing on the entire state of the United States, DMZ chronicles the harrowing journey of Alma Ortega (Rosario Dawson), a medic and mother, she renters the DMZ in order to find the son she lost in the evacuation of New York City at the onset of the conflict.
But while Alma searches for her son, Parco Delgado (Benjamin Bratt) is throwing gasoline on the fire while he pushes to gain power in the new world, over everyone. He’s the leader of one of the Spanish Harlem Kings, one of the most powerful gangs in the DMZ because he’s charismatic and lethal in equal measures. Struggling against Chinatown’s Wilson, and the other factions in the DMZ, the political power struggle is more in focus than the larger war. DMZ doesn’t care about how New York City became or how it relates to the war raging around it. Instead, it only cares about what the people on the inside are doing.
This leads to each area of the city being sharply drawn along racial, ethnic, and gendered lines in a kind of essentialism that doesn’t sit right, by creating very distinct areas that are clearly based on visual clues over anything else. This is a blindspot for a show that actually plays with identity more deftly as it begins to come close in on individual characters.
The gang element of the series could have easily gone badly. I mean, visually, each gang embraces visual stereotypes as I said before and it doesn’t surpass those much of the time. But in other ways, DMZ plays with these elements, giving us characters who are aware of how we see them. The best example of this comes from Wilson, played by the charismatic Hoon Lee. He puts on a show for those he interacts with, leading his persona with the more stereotypical ways you would think of a Chinese gang leader. However, he knows this and comments on it. It’s done on purpose, playing up expectations to leverage fear in non-Asian groups in the DMZ.
Bratt is intimidating and enthralling. The charisma needed to take control of people is on the other side of the coin as the violence needed to keep them in line. Through Parco and Skell, there is an exploration of machismo and power. While it’s explored initially, it doesn’t get the full in-depth exploration it deserves. Skell himself is of two minds, one that seeks power through violence and one that only wants to be an artist. This dichotomy in the character is what makes him more interesting than the men around him, even if it is rushed through instead of explored deeply.
And this is where the problem is with DMZ. The concepts work well on paper and there are so many threads to be explored. The story is rather sprawling with interesting characters and concepts of family, power, and violence. But in just four one-hour episodes, everything gets stifled. Storylines are either truncated or sped through, and while the cast is filled with great performances, many of the characters feel one-note.
While I understand the choice to focus on the DMZ and the government it is trying to form, the idea of being forgotten by the surrounding US isn’t even on anyone’s mind. We don’t see or even get close to understanding the outside forces that are precipitating the circumstances in the area. As resources running out are mentioned, we don’t get the full picture. Hell, we don’t even get an understanding of what factions separated the US, why, and how it’s impacted things. As much as this is about the DMZ, it’s about New York, taking a city back from two factions we don’t understand.
But while the series has its shortcomings, the shining element of all four episodes is how Susie (Jade Wu) investigates the idea of choosing one ruler over another. Susie throws a wrench into the very linear exploration of power and who is better than the other. As the gap between Wilson and Parco gets smaller, this is where DMZ begins to find its voice on how power corrupts. That said, Susie and Wilson are far more interesting than Parco and Alma. Susie throws Alama’s cause into the fire because, in the end, she is selfish in this narrative. And because the miniseries is so small, there is no room to explore all of the story threads.
DMZ is too short. It feels like multiple episodes are missing and the story feels too boxed in to feel the weight of decisions and action. That said, DMZ does offer up an exploration of relationships, and power that was so close to being so good. While the first episode is a strong start, it’s the remaining episodes that wax and wane in pacing and focus. The foundation is there, the performances are stellar, but past Episode 1, DMZ becomes a mini-series that doesn’t do the exploration needed to become something truly noteworthy.
DMZ premiered its first episode at SXSW 2022 and is streaming exclusively on HBO Max now.
DMZ is too short. It feels like there are multiple episodes missing and the story feels too boxed in to feel the weight of decisions and action. That said, DMZ does offer up an exploration of relationships, and power that was so close to being so good. While the first episode is a strong start, it’s the remaining episodes that wax and wane in pacing and focus.