Part II of the Lifetime Original miniseries “The Red Tent,” based on the 1990s book club classic by Anita Diamant, begins with murder and mayhem in the land of Canaan and then takes a sharp right turn into ancient Egypt—less Game of Thrones and more a Bronze-age Call the Midwife.
At the end of Part I, our headstrong heroine Dinah has taken love at first sight—and “Smash the Patriarchy!” misandry—to an unwise extreme and married the prince of Shechem without her father’s approval. Her brothers Simeon and Levi, whose bad nature is telegraphed by their scowls and hirsute swarthiness, retaliate. Taking advantage of the fact that the entire city of Shechem has agreed to have its men circumcised in penance for the elopement of their prince, Simeon, Levi, and some shepherds go forth and slaughter.
In a grisly scene, Dinah wakes up screaming next to her husband’s corpse. Her brothers circle back around to get her and carry her back home in a blanket, which they dump unceremoniously at their father’s feet. They try to slut shame her but Dinah is not having it; she rises from her shroud like a vengeful ghost, spewing invective at everyone in sight, particularly Jacob—whose only response to the fact that his sons have killed dozens of innocent men is to run.
Dinah, still stunned and stained, goes back to the palace. Her mother-in-law whisks her away to Egypt, where she had at one point been a queen. You must live, she tells Dinah. Not for yourself, but for your child. One feels that Dinah, like Emily Gould, will make one hell of a mommy blogger.
During labor, Dinah demands an on-the-spot pre-modern episiotomy that will put you off procreating forever. Her micromanagement impresses the local midwife, who suggests that Dinah take up the trade. But when the queen reveals a secret agenda to take Dinah’s son as her own and relegate Dinah to the status of nursemaid and slave, our heroine scrubs floors instead.
Back among the shepherds, Simeon and Levi make another excellent choice and attack their little half-brother Joseph, who we know is good because he is pale and less hairy. After selling him to slave-traders, they take his coat-of-many-colors—it’s actually only brown, tan, and green, but that must have seemed gaudy at a time when everyone wore nothing but homespun puce—and soak it in blood before bringing it to their father. Boys will be boys, I guess! Jacob thinks his favorite son is dead and nearly dies of grief and over-acting.
Dinah’s life gets better after she is released from bondage and goes into business for herself in Egypt: first as a medicine woman and then, embracing her destiny, as a midwife. She even falls in love with, and marries, a nice man who doesn’t seem to want to control her. When fate brings her back in contact with her brother Joseph, though, she must decide whether she is ready at last to make peace with her past.
Even when executed so loosely and, sometimes, painfully, it is fun to see well-known Bible stories recast in a way that passes the Bechdel test. And these endeavors do raise some interesting questions.
There’s very little that’s religious about this miniseries, even though it’s Jacob’s new-fangled monotheism that initially sets his small tribe apart (and so enrages him when his daughter marries a non-believer). Part of Dinah’s success as a midwife is even attributed to her revival of her mothers’ pagan traditions around labor and delivery. In making Dinah the moral center of a Hebrew Bible story, Lifetime actually makes a rather subversive argument: the woman who blends back into Canaanite/Egyptian society is the courageous one, and the famed patriarch, Jacob, is the coward. What does it mean—spiritually if not literally—that we are supposedly descendants of him, not her?