In the new series “Kindred,” there comes a moment when a bedridden child (David Alexander Kaplan) musters the strength to call his caretaker the N-word. The mere act is jarring — but what startles yet more is that the woman he’s addressed speaks up for herself. Dana, the protagonist of “Kindred” (Mallori Johnson) has been magically sent from the modern day back to a 19th-century plantation. Her sense of her rights coexists uneasily with the world into which she’s been thrust.
Adapted from Octavia E. Butler’s novel, “Kindred” makes a case for itself in a by-now overstuffed genre. Exploitative projects like Amazon’s series “Them” or the film “Antebellum” have seemed at times to be trading on Black trauma, giving potential viewers cause for hesitation. Certainly, another Amazon show, the magisterial “The Underground Railroad,” seemed like a potential last word on the subject of America’s tragic history of human enslavement for a while. But as adapted by the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, “Kindred” is a sharp exploration of history, national and personal.
Dana comes into focus rapidly: In the present day, she’s a woman who carries ghosts, one who can’t get out from under a feeling of loneliness at having lost her mother. She spends her days watching “Dynasty” in order to crack what makes its stories work, so that she, too, might become a screenwriter; she’s drawn to the confidence of Diahann Carroll. And, feeling alienated, she’s drawn, too, to a waiter she meets when dining at a restaurant; Kevin (Micah Stock) becomes her companion as she jumps through time.
Which means that he, a white man, is forced to play her owner; Ryan Kwanten, as Tom Weylin, encounters the two 21st-century Americans and reads them as slave and owner. Weylin is a brute, but one sees within Kwanten’s performance something else as well. He is genuinely befuddled that his slaves don’t see him as a protector. Weylin is acting out the rituals of violence out of a fundamental lack of imagination, a stubborn insistence on his right to dominance justified by his knowing no other way.
And so modernity acts as a shock both to the plantation, where Dana introduces liberatory ideas, and to the owner of the house in which Kevin and Dana are stranded. And Weylin responds with violence. Late in the series, he lashes out in a brutal whipping scene; transported back home, Dana refuses to show concerned police officers her injuries. The series is denying us that toxic thing narratives of American slavery often indulgently dole out, the depiction of wounds and of scars for their own sake. Johnson’s performance — an astoundingly accomplished piece of work for an emerging screen actor recently graduated from Juilliard — crisply carries across what Dana has suffered.
The elements of the series pertaining to the specifics of Dana’s family history can grow knotty for a viewer who hasn’t yet read Butler’s novel; Johnson makes the character so vivid that the complications around her can at times feel ancillary. It’s in Dana’s relationship with the worlds around her, old and new, that the show feels most alive. In her normal life, Dana feels isolated. And “Kindred” very successfully excavates where, for a Black woman in a racist country, that sense of not belonging might be rooted.
All episodes of FX’s “Kindred” will be available to stream on Hulu on Tuesday, Dec. 13.