Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for December 23 through 29 is “The Raid,” the second episode of the Netflix miniseries Watership Down.
Prior to watching the BBC and Netflix’s highly anticipated, bizarrely star-studded adaptation of Watership Down, the two main things I knew about Richard Adams’s beloved 1972 children’s novel were: 1) it was extremely dark (which turned me off from reading it a long time ago), and 2) it was, I’d heard on good authority, a whole lot like The Walking Dead.
None of this foreknowledge remotely prepared me for just how dark and Walking Dead-like the new four-episode miniseries is. The truth is that it really does feel like the AMC zombie series in terms of its pacing, mood, and relentless feeling of being hunted. And while its allegorical nature is partly what makes it an ultimately hopeful children’s classic, the miniseries makes a pretty boldfaced case that Watership Down is and always has been a straight-up horror story.
This version of Watership Down requires a bit of adjusting to on numerous fronts. For starters, although its highly detailed CGI animation is impressively realistic compared to the famed — and notoriously gory — 1978 animated feature, some viewers have complained that it comes off as flat and colorless, and occasionally a bit video game-y. It also takes several liberties with Adams’s characterization: Some beloved bunnies are cut from the mix altogether, and others, including fan favorites like Strawberry and Dandelion, see their roles drastically altered. Additions to the story include romance and a climactic character death. Also, the characters are technically hares in this version of the tale, not rabbits.
But the basic plot remains intact, and what a plot it is: The miniseries kicks off with a terrifying, ominous mythos prophesying that our adorable, fluffy heroes will be persecuted and hunted forever by, like, every predator in existence. (Great.) This opening sets up how this version of Watership Down will distinguish itself — by emphasizing all the parts of the narrative that involve perpetual dread. Over the course of the miniseries, our rabbit heroes will constantly be on the brink of succumbing to captivity, enslavement, and death, all in their efforts to find and establish their home at the titular warren, Watership Down.
Immediately, the miniseries gets this story underway as tiny rabbit Fiver (Nicholas Hoult) has a prophetic vision of rabbits being chopped in half by bulldozers and fields welling with blood, bringing to mind the elevator in The Shining. And that’s all in the first 10 minutes!
Fiver’s older brother Hazel (James McAvoy) soon emerges as the de facto leader of a group of rabbits who choose to leave their peaceful warren on the strength of Fiver’s vision. They’re eventually joined by Captain Holly (Freddie Fox), the former rabbit leader who initially ignored Fiver’s vision only to narrowly escape the ensuing horror when the warren was indeed destroyed in order to build a human subdivision.
Now, thrust into the wide world, the rabbits encounter one danger after another, from creepy rabbit cults to a murder of killer crows to a scary authoritarian rabbit labor camp. Also: Cats! Dogs! Foxes! Other rabbits! Humans! Humans with guns! Cars! Trains! Basically, everything is scary, and it is scary all the time. (Okay, Doctor Who’s Peter Capaldi voices a weird Scottish seagull. He’s not scary. But everything else is scary!)
No seriously, look at this sociopathic crow, brutally murdered by rabbits , lying in a cemetery, in a lightning storm, and tell me this is not horror:
In short, this version of Watership Down, in line with both the book and its animated predecessor adaptation, is scary. The downside to this is that it’s not much more than scary — so if the scary parts don’t work for you, you’re in for a bit of a slog through the more banal passages, which mostly involve lots of superimposed bunny love stories. But the moments that do work, work well — and the adaptation is at its best in its second episode, “The Raid,” which functions as a primer for why Watership Down is so revered — and why the combination of rabbits and perpetual dread is so discomfiting.
The new Watership Down miniseries emphasizes action and adventure over character-building — which ultimately underscores its horror bona fides
After spending the first episode of this miniseries shrieking about how scary Watership Down is to an amused friend of mine who loves the novel, I realized it’s possible that people who love the book love it because it traumatized them as kids, and after you’ve endured such intense trauma, you either reject the thing that made you suffer (see: me and Pinocchio) or you learn to love it all the more deeply because surely it put you through all that hell for a reason (see: me and Harry Potter).
(“There is something wrong with you,” my friend responded when I offered up this theory.)
But this penchant for inducing stress in readers/viewers is definitely part of the storytelling design — both in Adams’s original plot and in the tweaks that director Noam Murro has made to it in this miniseries. Back in 2016, when the miniseries was still in its early stages, executive producer Rory Aitken told the Telegraph that the BBC planned to “restore the reputation that the book should have as one of the great adventure stories of all time.” In other words, the BBC was going to put the action back into the terrifying bunny story.
Yet the new miniseries is still a terrifying bunny story, so once again I must compare its storyline to The Walking Dead, because so much of the action is bound up with horror. And “The Raid” really drives this point home, by giving us two equally scary subplots juxtaposed against one another.
In one of these subplots, Hazel leads Fiver and the surly rabbit cop Bigwig (John Boyega, who’s just so good) on a quest to free a local group of caged rabbits who are being kept by humans. In the other, Captain Holly leads a trio of rabbits — including Daniel Kaluuya as a storytelling bunny named Bluebell — on a quest to recruit more lady rabbits, whom they desperately need to dig tunnels at their new warren, and also because, well, rabbits.
But the mission instead leads to their capture by rabbits from a terrifying authoritarian rabbit commune led by a one-eyed rabbit voiced by Ben Kingsley. (Ben Kingsley! What even is this cast!)
The discordance between the concept (bunnies) and the plot (everything is scary forever) of Watership Down rendered me unable to do much more than exclaim, “My god, this is a horror movie!” for most of the miniseries’ first two episodes. But then “The Raid” ratcheted up the action, ending with a climactic sequence in which Hazel and company successfully free the caged rabbits and Captain Holly and company escape Ben Kingsley, which the episode stages as a series of dramatic cross-cuts between the two groups, leaping from one danger to another.
“These rabbits,” I remarked to my friend at one point, as Hazel’s band of rabbits frantically evaded gun-wielding humans, “are GOING UP THE FUCKING STAIRS!” Because that is what happens in a horror movie.
If “The Raid” drives home the horror, it also does a great job of disseminating the larger allegorical point that makes Watership Down both so memorable and so formative: Everything in these rabbits’ lives is a fight, because everything about living is a fight. Though this isn’t a universal critical read of the new adaptation: The Independent, for instance, has deemed it “breezy and fast-paced and ... entirely without menace.”
But one person’s breeze is another person’s unease, and while the latter two episodes of the miniseries are full of over-the-top moments of forced drama that fall entirely flat, “The Raid” left me twitching in fear alongside the terrified rabbits. In this instance, the realism of the animation, in concert with the rabbits’ skittish, jittery body language, only served to remind me of just how stressed out I was. (I should mention here that Watership Down also has its own unique literal rabbit language, and the miniseries is faithful to that element of Adams’s world-building, peppering the dialogue with constant references to rabbit society jargon and terminology.)
I kept waiting for the novelty of the episode to wear off, but honestly, it’s probably a good thing that it didn’t: Watership Down isn’t nearly as effective when it’s not stressing you out. When its script deviates from Adams’ soft and graceful language in the novel, or from the miniseries’ fast-paced action/reaction structure, it can devolve rapidly into mawkish and unsubtle platitudes about friendship and love and community, which mostly just underscore how little friendship and love and community we’ve seen because Watership Down has been too busy trying to scare us.
The second half of the miniseries gets bogged down in sentimentality and drama at the expense of keeping things lean; it also gets weirdly uncomfortable at one point, with an unnecessary moment in which the authoritarian rabbit Woundswort tries to blackmail one of the female prisoners in his labor camp into becoming his rabbit queen. And while it definitely attempts to have something to say about environmental collapse, authoritarianism, and utopia, on the whole, it’s mostly a loose assemblage of clichés.
All along, the similarities to The Walking Dead continue. It’s always possible for a story to become so mired in a cycle of dread that it loses its effectiveness and you cease to care whether the characters escape. This was a fate that so many recent seasons of The Walking Dead suffered, until at last the show allowed its characters some time to settle, rest, and build themselves up.
Although that’s eventually where Watership Down deposits us, “The Raid” is the most successful of its four episodes at holding together both its plot, its taut pacing, and its community of rabbits in ways that don’t start to grate on the nerves. In fact, “The Raid” manages all this so well that after it’s juggled all its conflicts, the rest of the story can’t help but feel repetitive. Ultimately, it probably says something about the nature of a good conflict that the series’ predictably happy ending doesn’t seem nearly as satisfying as the perilous beginning.