When fans of Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli’s DMZ watch the TV adaptation debuting on HBO Max on March 17, they’ll find a much different story than in the DC comic of the same name that debuted in 2005.
Though it still takes place in the fictional demilitarized zone in Manhattan that was created after a second American civil war, the war-torn imagery is gone, as is the general feeling of pandemonium, the desperate need for community in order to survive. Gone also is the comic’s protagonist, journalist Matty Roth, and his story of chronicling the early years of the DMZ and anchoring the many stories within.
Instead, the story of the HBO Max miniseries produced by Ava Duvernay is significantly scaled-down compared to the source material. Following the pilot episode’s debut at SXSW, the actors and showrunner of DMZ took the stage to talk about the process of making the show, how they ended up with just four packed episodes, and explain just who the new protagonist is.
DMZ digs deeper into a minor comic character
The new version of DMZ centers around Alma Ortega (Rosario Dawson) as she navigates the DMZ in the hopes of finding her lost son, while getting involved in a local power struggle for control of the DMZ in the lead up to an election.
She has connections to several key players around the DMZ, and her role is more active than, say, a journalist observing things unfold. Instead, she almost immediately finds herself in the thick of things, working in a clinic and seeing the violence of the DMZ up close and personal.
“We decided that this story meant something different 10 years after it was first published,” said showrunner Roberto Patino. “So we took the most interesting character, a background character with no name, and built her personality and a story around her. We decided to make this as personal a story as possible, about a fearless mother looking for her son.”
How DMZ updates the drama for 2022
The original comic was clearly a response to the post-9/11, war-focused cultural zeitgeist, transposing the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan to the U.S. in order to sort of guilt the audience into seeing what others are suffering through. But a story about a civil war and militias rising across the country hits differently in post-Jan. 6 insurrection 2022. So, the show takes a more generic post-apocalyptic aesthetic, trading a war zone for a Last of Us lookalike where vegetation grows everywhere, the streets are deserted and jaguars roam residential neighborhoods.
According to Patino, the new look was necessary because the post-9/11 themes and allegories of the source material now mean something vastly different. Now, DMZ is much more about trying to break free of cycles of violence, about nature versus nurture, and violence and tradition in underdeveloped or abandoned communities. According to Dawson, this made the show a very personal story for her, who grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the ’80s and ’90s. “It was war-town,” Dawson said. “I grew up in an abandoned building. I knew what it was like where poor people helped poor people and never expected anyone else to come and rescue you.”
The miniseries deals with how toxic masculinity — and the violence and power that comes with it — could be passed down between generations. “The driving force for the characters is whether they can break certain cycles or not,” Dawson continued. “It was important that in the middle of this civil war, to show the humanity amidst the conflict.”
Similarly, co-star Benjamin Bratt, who plays governor candidate Parco Delgado, described the show about coming to terms with larger problems. Nothing that happens in the DMZ is unique to it. “It’s a global problem that these societies all around the world give in to this male toxicity that is clearly leading us in directions that have never worked historically,” he said.
Why are there just four episodes?
As if making a show wasn’t already hard enough, this story about a post-apocalyptic world also had to deal with its own global phenomenon when the pandemic hit. Though many elements of the story feel like a timely response to the last two years, the episode shown at SXSW was actually shot before shutdown. The pilot wrapped in March of 2020, and filming didn’t resume for another year and a half.
“The script for the first episode was an explanation of a much larger bible of what was going to be an ongoing series,” explained Bratt. “And it was only after the pilot was put together, with the limitations that came about as a result of the pandemic that we learned that it was going to be sized considerably downwards into a four-part miniseries.”
According to Dawson, this drastic change meant that a lot of fat got trimmed for the story, and rather than explore the macro implications of the DMZ, the more concentrated story helped the actors hone in on the journey their characters needed.
“We had a lot of time to deliberate on the story and these characters,” Dawson added. “The pivots in the story come quite quickly because all that space was crunched into these four episodes. And so every single beat is intense. Sometimes you can watch a show and there are those filler episodes. There’s no filler moments in this entire thing.”
Though it is disappointing to hear that the show got reduced to a mini-series, there is always the possibility of branching out in new seasons like an anthology. After all, Matty Roth and all the other stories from the original comic are still out there to be found and explored in the future.