Directed by Roger Young
Starring Rebecca Ferguson, Morena Baccarin, Minnie Driver, Iain Glen
I grew up knowing the story of Jacob and his sons. Jacob is the son of Isaac (who is the son of Abraham), and he is generally considered the father of the Israelites as his twelve sons went on to become the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel. The story of Jacob and his sons (especially Joseph) is well documented in Western religious texts. But the story of his wives, Leah and Rachel, and their sisters, Bilhah and Zilpah, aren’t nearly as detailed. And the story of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, is little more than a passing thought.
The Red Tent, based on the novel by Anita Diamant, tries to change that narrative and give voice to a group of women who played a forgotten, but nevertheless, important role in history.
Set during Biblical times, this two-part miniseries focuses on exposing what life may have been like for women during that time period. They have few options in life and what options they do have are subject to the whims of the men in their lives—fathers, grandfathers, husbands, and, to a lesser extent, brothers. Sometimes it’s hard to get past the obstacles these women would have came up against, particularly those related to male pride and vanity.
But the show is also careful to show both the good and bad things in their lives. The women of The Red Tent are a complex and diverse group. They have different goals and motivations and it makes for a well rounded story. Though some women, like Dinah’s grandfather’s wife, suffered daily, others were comfortable or found strength among their fellow women. The titular Red Tent is the women’s sanctuary in a world where their every movement is controlled by men. It’s a place where they can gather during menstruation and childbirth and take care of one another. It’s also a place where they can share their stories and pass on traditions.
Morena Baccarin and Minnie Driver are fantastic as Rachel and Leah, and Rebecca Ferguson is a perfect Dinah. All of the actors were great, but these three in particular complimented each other wonderfully. Iain Glen is a passable Jacob, but it can be difficult to see past some of his other recent roles. Though all the actors cast in the show are talented, it’s still troubling to see such an obvious case of white washing. Since the focus of the show is more on the lives of women during this time period than any religious mythology, I can think of no reason why the casting shouldn’t reflect the actual people who lived during that time period.
I think the story of The Red Tent is an important one, and I love that the creators try and give a voice to historical women who have been forgotten or ignored. The only real problem with this series is when you see the story acted out on the screen in front of you chances are you will begin to wonder how Jacob managed to be the leader of anything, let alone a major religious movement.
WARNING—Spoilers from here on out!
I’m mostly referring to the end of part one. After a falling out with his father-in-law Jacob decides to pack up the family and set out on their own. They travel to Shechem and petition the King for some nearby land, which he gives them. It’s not great land and Jacob’s oldest sons, Simon and Levi, are rather unhappy with the situation, but they’re forced to make do for awhile.
Then one day a messenger from the palace arrives, requesting Rachel’s midwife services. She goes (because when the King asks, you go) and takes Dinah as her assistant. The birth goes well. The Queen takes a liking to Dinah and has her stay longer to take care of the new mother and baby. While there, she falls in love with the Prince of Shechem and they get married. For a shepherd’s daughter in Biblical times this is a pretty ideal situation. She’s guaranteed a secure future and it is most likely a better match than Jacob could have ever arranged for her. He should be pleased—his only daughter has been taken off his hands and he is now closely connected to the royal family. With one marriage, Dinah has secured not only her own future but her family’s as well.
Jacob, however, is far from happy. In fact, he is furious that nobody asked his permission first and demands that the King return his daughter—which is a horrible plan because not only would he destroy any relations with the people who own the land he lives on, he would also have a “ruined” (and therefore unmarriable) daughter. Thankfully, his wives help him realize this and he goes off with his sons to decide what bride price they should ask for in exchange for Dinah.
Many of his sons are unhappy because a) they feel like they’ve been cheated with subpar land and b) they feel like the royal family has disrespected them by not honouring their traditions, which is when little, fair haired Joseph speaks up. Joseph (and his coat of many colours) is a funny character: he’s smarter than all of his brothers and his father by far and is easily the most famous character overall (he has his own musical after all). Jacob actually has a very small role in The Red Tent, so in order to convey his superior intelligence the show often resorts to sarcasm. I’m not sure if there was sarcasm in Biblical times, but either way the effect is lost on his brothers. As they bicker over customs, he attempts to defend his sister and eventually asks them if they would have the entire city cut off their foreskins for her.
This immediately appeals to Jacob and he agrees to Joseph’s plan (much to Joseph’s shock and terror). Simon chimes in with a “we’re still going to ask for gold too right?” but is brushed off with a “no, no just the foreskins” from his father. Proving for the second time in only a few minutes that Jacob has no sense of longterm planning. The King and the prince agree to their demands and they go off to order the entire male population of the city to sacrifice their foreskins post-haste, which they all do. On the same day.
Jacob may be happy now, but his sons sure aren’t. They hate that their father listens to Joseph over them and they hate the King for disrespecting them. They then secretly devise a plan with some of the other shepherds to sneak into the city and kill all the men while they’re recovering and can’t fight back: it would seem that Jacob’s sons inherited his inability to think more than a few hours into the future. They may not have any gold right now, but chances were pretty good that their sister would have taken care of them. Now they have less than they had before.
The actions of Jacob and his sons are frustrating, and it may sound like I’m criticizing the series because of them, but that’s not the case. I actually really enjoyed this series. Their actions may have been upsetting, but they demonstrated both how little control women had over their lives and the dangers of making decisions based on pride alone. Whether you’re familiar with the story of Jacob or not, The Red Tent is an emotional and passionate story about women and their relationships and I highly recommend it for fans of Outlander and The White Queen.