There’s a Game of Thrones-sized void in the TV landscape, and Apple TV Plus hopes See, from writer Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) and director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games films), can fill it. The show’s first, 10-episode season reportedly has a budget equivalent to the final season of HBO’s fantasy epic, with the money going to dramatic battles led by Thrones and Aquaman star Jason Momoa. Even the plot has clear similarities: in the first batch of episodes provided to critics, Momoa’s noble warrior Baba Voss protects his family from a mad queen with a penchant for fiery executions.
But as derivative as the launch title, along with fellow Apple TV Plus titles like For All Mankind and Dickinson, might seem, Knight and Lawrence have managed to build a strikingly original world whose secrets are doled out in tantalizingly small bites over the course of its first three episodes. Set hundreds of years after a plague wiped out the vast majority of humanity and left the survivors blind, See’s premise allows the combination of elements of medieval fantasy, post-apocalyptic dystopia, and superhero stories.
The world of See resembles the far-future sections of Cloud Atlas, with humanity having devolved into a primitive, superstitious lot. Queen Kane (Blade Runner 2049’s Sylvia Hoeks) is worshipped as a god because she can provide her followers with electricity from an ancient, failing dam, but most people live as hunter-gatherers, using weapons made of scavenged steel they call “godbone.” Humanity has largely forgotten that sight was ever possible, and those who even speak of the ability are killed as heretics and witches.
See’s creators have clearly spent a lot of time redesigning early human society without vision. Tattoos are entirely absent, but scarification is common since it can be felt. Kane sometimes wears a crown, but she’s most distinguished by a series of clinking bells on her hands that she uses to call her court to attention. Writing takes the form of knots tied in leather. People with particularly keen senses of smell or hearing are prized as scouts. Women with exceptional stealth abilities can become Shadows, moving silently among their tribe and granting favors like a benevolent guardian spirit.
The challenges of universal blindness are most striking in the show’s fight scenes, making them stand out from the traditional medieval-style warfare found in Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings. Ranged weapons based on sight are useless, but fighters try to extend their reach to connect with their enemies using whips and long blades swept low to the ground. Scented smoke marks the perimeters of marching columns and staves are used to steady balance when crossing bridges.
Fights alternate between cacophony, as forces use various noises to share their location with others, and silence as they break the fighting to try to reassess their standing in the battle. Momoa thrives in this environment, unleashing close-quarters carnage like a fearsome dancer. Khal Drogo is back, basically. In a particularly dramatic scene, he goes toe to toe with a bear, roaring to attract its attention and then repeatedly stabbing the animal until it’s felled by the impossible: an arrow.
Like Game of Thrones, See is a series about how people react to tumultuous change and existential threats. In this case, it’s Jerlamarel (Joshua Henry) a man who can evidently see and has passed that ability on to his children Haniwa (Nesta Cooper) and Kofun (Archie Madekwe), who Baba Voss is raising as his own. The most impressive thing that vision has given them is the ability to read books and discover knowledge lost to humanity like science and engineering.
There are some people in See who claim that they can sense emotions or speak with animals, but there’s so far no indication that those powers are real. But vision feels like a legitimate superpower, prompting the sort of debates commonly found in X-Men stories. Queen Kane ignores unrest at home to have her armies pursue Jerlamarel, who she describes as a god. Haniwa becomes haughty and contemptuous of those who don’t share her power while her brother demonstrates more compassion for his adopted tribe and family.
For all of See’s potential, it has serious weaknesses. While the show’s third episode, “Fresh Blood,” delivers some much needed character development for Baba Voss and his family, most of the key cast members are building off thinly sketched archetypes. Queen Kane is an extremely poor substitute for Cersei or Daenerys, and the other villains, like her sadistic witch hunter general Tamacti Jun (Christian Camargo) and the scheming traitor Gether Bax (Mojean Aria), are similarly unimpressive. The show has even squandered the substantial talents of Luke Cage’s Alfre Woodard on the generic wisewoman Paris. Knight and Lawrence also learned some of the wrong lessons from Game of Thrones; a scene in which Kane explains her relationship with Jerlamarel while receiving cunnilingus is pure sexposition.
Game of Thrones’ strong characters kept fans hooked even when the plot began to fray. Knight and Lawrence will need to do more to make theirs memorable. Nothing is likely to truly replace Thrones in the cultural consciousness, but See has the potential to give fans a rich new world to explore.
The first three episodes of See are now on Apple TV Plus.