In the center of downtown Atlanta, footsteps from the city’s busiest business district is the site of one of its most popular blocks for film production, and also a tent city. In July 2021, Atlanta police forcibly removed members of the Atlanta Homeless Union from the area to make way for the production of the new HBO Max dystopian miniseries DMZ. It was an on-the-nose moment — removing unhoused activists to film fictional activist characters, revealing once again that capitalist media productions centered on “radical” politics are just empty representation. DMZ is a prime project for promoting political inaction, confusion and propaganda.
It’s difficult to explain the sensation of watching a major studio production, with its budget that surely cost more per day than I will make in a lifetime, and feeling like the writers’ room possessed the political imagination of a rock. With themes of political division, authoritarian leadership and activism, DMZ uses cheap political rhetoric and sparse action to cast a dubious, politically incoherent shadow. Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions are starving millions across the world, the red hot labor movement is under attack, the inevitability of climate catastrophe is impending and communities (like those living in tent cities) are forced to commit crimes just to exist. It all makes escapist pictures like DMZ feel especially unpalatable.
For a show like DMZ to stand out, it would first need to contend with the uneasy and dystopian nature of our own reality. It doesn’t.
Adapted from a DC Vertigo comic book series, DMZ follows Alma Ortega (Rosario Dawson), who works as a medic in a near future when the United States is at war with the Free States of America during the second American Civil War. Manhattan Island has become a demilitarized zone (hence the title). In the first episode, thousands of disheveled New Yorkers (including Alma) rush to cross the Manhattan Bridge to evacuate. Nearly a decade later, Alma has crossed back into the DMZ to find the son she was separated from during the evacuation. Alma’s whereabouts in the years outside the DMZ are up for questioning, but her return is considered a dangerous and uncommon occurrence.
The DMZ is portrayed as a sort of bustling no-man’s-land with self-segregated communities dominated by conflicting gangs. In this future, the apparent absence of U.S. law enforcement has led to violence, danger and deep division. Rival factions led by strongman personas take advantage of the demilitarized zone and fight for power. Parco (Benjamin Bratt) controls Spanish Harlem, and Wilson (Hoon Lee) controls Chinatown. Alma was Wilson’s friend before the war, but her missing son’s father is Parco.
This tapestry is filled in by the show’s political and environmental backdrop. Fans of the comic may find some redeeming value in the opening episode’s cinematography, which offers an “Escape from New York, Fallujah, and New Orleans right after Katrina” mash-up, as described by the comic’s writer, Brian Wood, in an interview with the website CBR. While the comic evokes cautionary tales of war with radical-leaning and brutal dialogue carrying the story, the TV show has a more subtle approach, with much softer elements.
While Dawson dazzles as the lead (alongside newcomer Freddy Miyares’ impressive portrayal of Skel, Alma’s son), comic fans will find headaches comparing the show against its politically complex source. With a total runtime of just four hours, the show’s rushed introduction takes no time to make sense of its own political premise for viewers, who are asked to believe in a world in which the United States has collapsed but are never given much of an explanation, or any idea what the rest of the country looks like, or why Manhattan was chosen as a demilitarized zone.
As a medic, Alma worked in what resembles current U.S. border detention facilities. In one scene, she walks through a loud, crowded room full of people standing in long queues, and underneath a large U.S. flag we see soldiers bullying refugees.
“Do you know where you are?” Alma says to a young woman. “You’ve been detained for unlawful entry into the U.S.” The woman apparently crossed the border to visit her dying grandmother in Boston. The woman tells Alma she was “caught” in Poughkeepsie and that she didn’t know the border had changed. Through quickfire, tweetable dialogue, the exchange is one of the scenes that most explores the show’s main political elements. “Feels like the border keeps changing day by day,” Alma says, before explaining the events of evacuation day. We soon see Alma paying a coworker to help get her back into the DMZ, saying, “I’d rather be stuck in an active war zone than be out here wishing I could look for [my son].”
A year before the pilot was originally written in 2019, performative Democrat politicians were coopting the “Abolish ICE” slogan, and such scenes may have held more relevance. But after global mass movements for Black lives have taken place, including the growing anti-colonial and socialist sentiments shaping grassroots politics, with the material conditions pushing political consciousness to heightened levels, the scene simply comes off as shallow and cheap. With the same energy as that infamous 2017 Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial, these moments feel insincere and forced in DMZ, asking viewers to extend empathy for the sake of patting themselves on the back, nothing more. Moments on DMZ such as this one desire to be conversation starters or political statements, yet they ring hollow in a fictional world that the writers never attempted to build.
Eventually, as the DMZ holds its first election for governor, Alma must choose between supporting either Parco of the Spanish Harlem Kings or Wilson of Chinatown. The election is proposed as a chance to fix what’s broken in the DMZ, the problem being the corrupt men vying for power— never questioning, of course, even in these destitute circumstances, if an election makes the most sense as their political tool of choice. Through this election, as Alma puts it in an impassioned speech, everyone can use their voices “to build a new kind of power.” We see no one advocating other approaches — not armed resistance to the outside forces of the United States and the Free States of America, no attempts to align with other demilitarized communities (which may or may not exist), no struggle to broadly reorganize society within their own small sliver of land.
This scenario presents a variety of failures, the first being the assumption that, in the absence of U.S. police and government, the same one-dimensional, “evil” gang monsters that politicians have warned you about would use violence to dominate. Typical of Hollywood productions in the catastrophe genre, people left behind are rarely portrayed with the capacity to construct communalistic or, dare I say, socialistic ways of living. (And if such a civil society is portrayed on screen, it’s usually shown in the negative, where a shift away from individualism marks destruction, such as in Peacock’s Brave New World, based on the Aldous Huxley novel.) In DMZ’s case, boogeymen step into place where bold visions of an anti-capitalist imagination could have been explored, such as community safety patrols, communal medicine and agriculture, and mutual aid and resource sharing.
The DMZ is also apparently despotic, ruled harshly by the aforementioned rivaling factions, but somehow the power of liberal democracy is so strong that electoral politics still reign supreme, which is doubly confusing. Memories of the George Floyd uprisings of 2020 come to mind, during which liberals continuously shouted not to loot, riot or protest in the face of anti-Black state violence, and to just vote instead. It’s quite bizarre to watch a TV narrative, teeming with revolutionary potential, become instead centered on the importance of an election. Liberal electoral politics are often upheld as a panacea to the social ills of capitalism — which should theoretically otherwise demand revolutionary action — and DMZ pushes these exact politics in its plot. Perhaps the writers just didn’t have time to portray revolutionary action in just four episodes, but they did have time to force a voting subplot.
We should also take note of Alma’s apparent aversion to violence and political action beyond a vote, within the context of the violently divided DMZ. Alma is horrified by the violence and exploitation she witnesses at the hands of Wilson and Parco, yet ultimately chooses the side she feels is the lesser evil — all while emphasizing that her motive to reunite with her son is not political. To promote her chosen candidate in the election, Alma enlists the support of Oona, leader of an all-woman commune who controls and cruelly constricts the DMZ’s water supply. In effect, Alma fights for the power of a vote (in the middle of a demilitarized zone!), even if it means justifying violence and evil.
By overemphasizing Alma’s disinterest in politics, and emphasizing instead the relationship between Alma and her son, a politically apathetic struggle is presented as politically important. Perhaps the writers just wanted to warn against charismatic leadership, which they do a bit heavy-handedly, without political complexity. All of the leaders are bad for one reason or another, and all are shown to be “authoritarian” in their own ways. In one scene, Alma speaks with Wilson’s mentor, Susie (Jade Wu), an elder mystic trope who only appears long enough to warn viewers that “communism is bad.”
In conversation, Susie essentially tells Alma that all rulers are equal, saying, “From up close they’re different, perhaps moment to moment, but that’s just an illusion.” As the conversation continues, Susie recites a monologue that feels like an Afterschool Special ghostwritten by the Cold War:
You remind me of myself. You know, I’ve been through a revolution. I believed there was a difference. I believed in the incorruptibility of one great ruler. And I picked up a gun to serve Mao for what he said was right. And I fired at people he told me to. And my belief orphaned a child. […] I ask you this because no one asked me before it was too late… What will you do when you leave orphans?
The jarring diatribe adds nothing to the plot while pushing saturated anti-radical politics and outright anti-communist propaganda. DMZ equates the divisions of an oppressed demilitarized zone to a real-life communist revolution, and in the process, suggests that political action is simply useless.
The political incoherence of each episode becomes all the more jarring when looked at as a whole, and political incoherence is itself a powerful tool for political propaganda. By avoiding political depth and context almost entirely, DMZ is left with a vacuous script HBO can fill with simple, soundbite scenes, such as the Susie moment described above.
Sarah Aubrey, head of original content at HBO Max, told Deadline that “DMZ’s unflinching story of a country torn apart resonates eerily and profoundly amid our current state of the union.” The question remains, however, if the show has anything to offer the torn country.
Many may wonder what harm a politically incoherent show has for viewers — what message political confusion and apathy may carry — but it’s within the subtleties of these questions that we find our answer. Political propaganda does not always need to look like CIA analyst Jack Ryan swooping into socialist Venezuela to bravely ensure a U.S.-backed regime change. Political propaganda can also appear as a diverse project, teeming with mainstream-acceptable “radical” themes and liberal universalisms, to intentionally obscure notions of what radical grassroots change might actually look like.
In other words, capitalist propaganda can be incoherent, and even intentionally so.
In fact, we’ve seen this empty political incoherence as propaganda before. The so-called War on Terror is a product of this weaponized incoherence, as its incoherence and irrationality create a void for strategic narratives to fill. Think back to the media messaging following the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. With political incoherence sewn into the War on Terror, testimonies of patriotism, moral duty, electoral obligations and other surface-level appeasements stood in place of rigorous political discussion. Celebrities were called in to promote the war, while massive antiwar demonstrations were drowned out.
One should also question the role of these wealthy celebrities themselves, like Dawson, who jump at scripts that satisfy the parts of their brands that speak to larger political moments — but only in the safest, most sanitized ways. Dawson’s activist history remains largely attached to electoral politics, having helped mobilize the Latino vote for Barack Obama in 2012 through her organization Voto Latino, Bernie Sanders in 2016, her then partner Cory Booker in 2019, and then ultimately Bernie Sanders again in 2020. Using electoral politics to brand yourself an “activist” (or worse, a “celebrity activist”) does not actually make someone a radical activist. In fact, celebrities can agree to sign onto a show that promotes political inaction and confusion, anti-communism and cheap diversity and inclusion — all while utilizing the celebrity-activist moniker as a tactical net-positive for their careers.
One can’t expect a major network like HBO, nor the capitalist celebrities acting on the show, to deliver politics that contradict their own position. The political inconsistencies and lack of depth deriding the show are intentional, because the viewer better not dare to imagine an oppressed group of people do anything revolutionary.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
We've partnered with the publisher, Haymarket Books, and 100% of your donation will go towards supporting In These Times.
Devyn Springer is a cultural worker, community organizer and host of the “Groundings” Podcast.