In Trepalium, a populace is divided into two communities: The “useful”, wealthy minority that lives in the Aquaville, and the “useless”, poverty-stricken majority that inhabits the slums of the Zone. The two demographics are divided by a Wall erected 30 years before the start of the series; and, for the first time in three decades, that Wall will open to let a select number of the “useless” into the city to work as servants for the upper class. This is a move, initiated by the Prime Minister, meant to bring the rich and the poor closer together, to provide more of the “useless” with jobs that will “give their lives meaning”, and also, hopefully, to curb rebellious behavior on the rise within the Zone.
There are many elements to appreciate in Trepalium from the sets, the backgrounds, the costumes, to the characters. The theme of usefulness, of whether a person’s worth should be defined by their ability to work (and thereby “contribute to society”), is intriguing in the way it’s presented and explored by the writers. The question is answered rather definitively by the end of the series (and without much subtlety throughout it), but not without first studying a variety of ways in which this kind of black and white evaluation of human worth hurts people on both sides of the Wall.
Maëlle, an autistic child born within the Zone, is considered “useless” by her Aquavillian peers and most of her family because of her mutism and irregular behavior and their implications as to her ability to work effectively in Aquaville. Unless her father can reach a certain pay grade and she can pass the entrance exam for a special needs school, she will be forced to leave the safety and comfort of the city (with its running water, food, and general comforts) to live in the slums. Meanwhile, Jeff Larkham, a Zonard, is naïvely working with the Prime Minister and her colleagues to improve relations between the Zone and Aquaville. Jeff tolerates abusive treatment from government officials while trying to convince Lisbeth, his wife, that the same government really does want to help the unemployed poor. Injustice and lack of compassion from the government and Aquiaville affect those on both sides of the Wall, even the privileged few.
I have some problems with the writing, particularly regarding the relationship between Izia Katell (a Zonard servant) and Ruben Garcia, Maëlle’s father. While their interactions are interesting because of their differences in status and because of the difficult positions they find themselves in, their romantic relationship feels too rushed. There are moments when their chemistry works, but the depth of their relationship doesn’t feel earned, possibly because the writers didn’t give themselves enough time to flesh it out in their ensemble cast miniseries. Particularly the writers’ treatment of Izia Katell is a gaping flaw in an otherwise smoothly written show. She had the potential to be so much deeper, if only the writers had treated her more like a character and less like a plot device. Her rape, which takes place fairly early on in the series, is never addressed outside that episode. Furthermore, there seem to be no changes written into her behavior in the series thereafter, as if the scene that featured a potentially traumatizing, personal violation was merely another writer’s tool for demonstrating how corrupt the upper echelons of Aquaville are. It’s an insulting oversight because it would have been so easy to make the character much more dimensional by integrating that plot point more thoroughly into the story. (I would have preferred a series that didn’t feature ANY rape scenes, but if you’re going to write something that serious into a series or movie, at least have the decency to treat the crime and its survivor with the gravity they deserve.)
That being said, I enjoyed watching Trepalium. Once I started, I had to finish it. I only hope that if Izia Katell or a similar character appears in the second season, she/they will be written with more consideration.
Trepalium is available for legal streaming on Netflix France. Photo smuggled across the Wall from here.