Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams
Hoo boy. Where to even start with one of the most sneakily offensive episodes of television I’ve ever seen?
To talk about why “Safe and Sound” so drastically misunderstands its own message, we first need to talk about the portrayal of race in science fiction. It’s an issue that isn’t discussed nearly enough because white people subconsciously love to tell sci-fi stories where race doesn’t exist. Sure, a lot of sci-fi talks about race in terms of grand metaphors and needless cultural divisions, and it’s all meant to show how racism is wrong and unjust. That’s what the genre is supposed to do, right? You can’t just showcase a portrayal of real-world oppression because that’s too on the nose, so it has to be a metaphor. I get the instinct, but it ends up catering to a deeply problematic trend: It indulges the blatant hero-fantasy of white people getting to be the ones who are oppressed by larger forces.
And that’s exactly what this episode does.
In “Safe and Sound,” America is divided into two elite coasts and all the oppressed potential terrorists are from “the bubbles,” which are clearly set in Middle America. Our heroine, Foster Lee (Annalise Basso), is as fresh-faced of a Midwesterner as you can be. This isn’t an accident: The episode directly plays with the idea when Foster moves to a fancy city with her mother, Irene (Maura Tierney), a political activist who criticizes how everything moves too fast and the people are cruel, cool, and jaded in equal measure. Believe me, there’s a totally worthy story to tell about that experience and how it feels to be left out of the cultural cache. But allow me to revert to all-caps to emphasize the following point: TO INSINUATE THAT’S WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A MINORITY IS THE MOST INSULTING IDEA POSSIBLE.
Not just in terms of the dangerous equivalence, but because of the way it helps propagate the erasure of the minority experience. Think about the logic of choosing a white protagonist to be the victim in the first place. In these kinds of stories, the reason often sounds like this: “If we put a white face on the oppressed people, then white audiences will empathize more and see what they’re doing is racist!” Which is not only faulty logic — the white audience instead gets to feel great because it justifies their suspicion that they are the ones who are actually oppressed — but also backs up the assumption that people cannot feel that same level of empathy when they look at a brown face, which is what racism literally is. And so, a story like “Safe and Sound” is full of cultural erasure on every level: Not only do you not get to exist in this future, but also your experience is going to be supplanted for our own.
And then there’s the matter of terrorism, but we’ll get to that in a second. Truthfully, the episode is a bit of a mess in general. The Midwesterner-in-the-big-city idea is the stuff that works best, particularly when we see how easily Foster gets used by people who think nothing of it. (There are even two great lines: “You wanted me to help you just because?”; and the totally disingenuous “It’s okay to have fun here!”) There’s also some nice stuff about how we find friends online when it’s hard to find them in real life. But that’s all before “Safe and Sound” descends into the hysterics of a paranoia plot.
I’ve spent these recaps talking about how drama is a delicate interplay of different wants clashing against each other, but so much of this episode is just … noise. It’s a young character thrown into violent, confusing, irrational situations. It’s an ever-altering hell of stimuli that we can’t make heads or tails of, which means we can’t root one way or the other. Even as the story unspools and Foster is turned into an unwitting tool of anti-terror propaganda, it’s filled with unnecessary “how it all really happened!” flashbacks that we just don’t need. But again, that’s the small stuff.
Because now we have to talk about terrorism, which means we have to talk about terrorists. Specifically, what it takes for someone to commit a terrorist act. Yes, it happens to young, disenfranchised people like Foster — people who feel a need to fill some kind of hole in their lives. And, yes, they’re preyed upon by larger forces bending them to their political design. But the most essential tactic is about getting the terrorist to believe. To belong. To see the way that the ideologues do. This is the most crucial part of terrorism because it requires a person to erase themselves in the name of a larger idea. This is the truth at the heart of any portrayal and understanding of terrorists.
When “Safe and Sound” feeds into the paranoia angle and the way that government stokes fears, it corrupts this notion completely. Foster essentially gets tricked into staging a terrorist attack because she’s, like, freaked out and stuff. Not only do I not believe that she would make this final choice — ultimately believing the obvious lie that her mother is an actual terrorist — but also I’m not sure the storytellers totally do either. Hence, the need to add the backstories about Foster’s father doubting his own sanity and committing suicide. Throwing in this mental-illness angle is just another offensive sideswipe in a story that’s chock-full of them, and the result unwittingly stokes a kind of false-flag paranoia nonsense that’s best left to Infowars.
Racism. Terrorism. Government abuse. Mental illness. These are deadly serious things that real people have to deal with every day. Here, they are perverted into a dramatic power fantasy for the disenfranchised white soul. (Oh snap, I think I just described Infowars again.) But as far as we’re concerned, there’s another important question: How the heck does something like this happen?
By not thinking about it. The episode clearly wants to tackle the idea that “safety” can be used to manipulate society and create an authoritarian state, but by associating that idea with such misplaced metaphors, it undoes itself completely. That’s what happens when a story doesn’t hold up the sanctity of its central metaphors. When we write from a gut reaction, aimed for dazzling effect, we get disconnected from the reality that actually matters. Science fiction is supposed to bring us closer to truth, closer to life, and closer to ourselves. And I’ve never seen a piece of sci-fi get so lost from the truths that matter, quite like this one.