I’ll get to the point first: The Handmaid’s Tale, as adapted by Hulu, is an excellent production and one well worth any TV lover’s time. Elisabeth Moss, an actress who spent nearly a decade understanding how female characters manage a life of oppression under male domination, uses her time on Mad Men to translate a fictional written diary into an uncompromising television reality.
With that out of the way, there’s a lot to unpack regarding the several episodes we took in before the show’s wide release on Wednesday, May 26. Hulu works in the best spirit of this current golden age of television. It presents an audience that’s hungry for thought-provoking content with a story that resonates with our current, unprecedented unique political climate.
What exactly do we have here?
By the time one finishes the first episode, the viewer understands that this is a dystopia, like so many we’ve seen before, or, actually since, considering the age of the source material. It’s an awful future, like The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner…but not quite. The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t open like those blockbuster films with brilliant, blazing set pieces and intricately choreographed action sequences. The dystopia is more subtle than that. This lack of flash is exactly the mechanism that incites the slow-burning terror of the show.
By the time the viewer is through the second episode, the world The Handmaid’s Tale presents is more than just a little off, or easily defined as a good-guy, bad-guy struggle. The mundane nature of the lives of these characters gives the story a musty, tangible realness. The banality with which this society goes about its customs, whether they involve birth or death, leaves the viewer interested but uncomfortable.
And by the time the third episode is over, the viewer is left absolutely horrified. The banality of sexual coercion, inextricable from the exploitation of female angst to serve the state, leaves the viewer freaked out and disgusted.
The adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s work is, by the third episode, a world steeped in such dank and utter darkness, it’s easy to imagine today’s audience losing sleep over it. A predecessor to the aforementioned dystopias, Hulu’s production of Atwood’s world differs significantly in that the bad guys can’t be beat with a well-placed arrow. While Hunger Games’ Katniss may be constantly facing the specter of death at the hands of her peers because of a strange set of customs set up by her nation’s Capitol, Miss Everdeen doesn’t live her life under the constant threat and regular realization of the state-sponsored rape at the heart of this handmaid’s story.
How did we get here?
In a world suffering from near Children of Men levels of infertility, handmaids are women whom the state has designated, for one reason or another, the role of reproduction for its high-status citizens. In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) is nowhere to be seen in this world, so handmaids are assigned to live for years in the households of high-ranking state and military officials whose wives have been deemed barren. No effort is made to determine whether the males suffer from fertility problems before assigning a handmaid – infertility in Atwood’s world is always the female’s fault.
Atwood’s book does a lot to build this world but the voice it uses is a retrospective first-person omniscient narrative, which means the protagonist and lead character is remembering, and thus has access to knowledge of what came after the events they’re discussing. It’s a diary or a recounting, which can come across as sometimes dry in its necessary use of the passive voice. By eschewing this perspective, which helped to paint a mystifying picture in the novel, it has allowed the production team at Hulu to create a world that’s immersive from the very first image, where Moss is able to tell the story in three distinct forms – voice over, flashback, and as-it-happens, which offers the most dramatic tension.
Once a viewer is steeped in The Handmaid’s Tale for an hour or so, it becomes clear to anyone who’s read the 1985 novel that this adaptation is going to be a very new experience. Not only is it set forward in time from the book, which presumably began in an alternative “now,” but it has become a visual story that’s being shown to us, rather than told to us through a narrator. That means that there are some things present in the show that weren’t in the novel, and that some events have been moved forward or backward.
Where are we?
The setting is the Republic of Gilead, a Christian totalitarian state that exists in the former United States, which has been beaten back by a second Civil War. The show takes place deep within the Republic, so unlike the aforementioned Children of Men, we viewers are not exposed to the wasteland of urban life and refugee camps or the toxic waste dumps that are constantly mentioned in the background. Rather, the streets, lawns, and homes of Gilead are all in fantastic shape and meticulously maintained. No doubt that’s in part due to the fact that there are so few children present to ruin them with their carefree youth. There are no toys left strewn about home and yard, no screaming, yelling, pitter-pattering, or thumping. It’s a place without laughter and a place without the whimpering sobs associated with growing up. Everyone is grown.
Everyone is unhappy.
Viewers who have previously drunk deeply from the well of sci-fi will find the homes and streets eerily similar to those of the disturbing city, run by IT, the dark antagonist of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic work, A Wrinkle in Time.
Sex is at the heart of the story Atwood tells and its enforcement is visually stunning. Moss’s character has been stripped of the sexual choices she chose in her previous life as a free woman in the United States; namely her child and her husband. But while those facts shape her character, it’s her outer appearance along with those of her co-stars that constantly remind us of this sexual policing. High society’s clothing has been taken back to the mid-20th century with wives clothed in blue dresses hemmed at the mid-calf and their high-level husbands, like the Commander (Joseph Fiennes), in dark suits. Paramilitary troopers dress in black, hold powerful assault rifles, and are stationed at every corner, at every public doorway, and in some cases in front of homes. Marthas, the domestic house workers, wear clothing that will easily remind viewers of Aunt Jemima-era slaves and house servants, with their heads wrapped to keep the males present from being tempted by the beauty of their locks or to think of them as feminine at all. The handmaids don frocks and cloaks that would make a renaissance Dutch or Flemish painter feel at home with bright crimson cloth that stands out from the rest of the drab, drab world.
Despite the handmaid’s role in the sexual reproduction of the species, they are forbidden of nearly all femininity, with their hair covered twice, once with a cap and once more with a bonnet that covers their faces from nearly all angles. Welcome to what could otherwise be called “the Christian caliphate.”
Between the armed males and the chastely dressed females, along with the segregation, Atwood’s Gilead is reminiscent of Vice’s 2014 documentary of the DAESH or the Islamic State. Even her name is taken. She is known as Offred – literally “Of Fred.” Such dehumanization is necessary for the social acceptance of evil.
This drab setting gives way to some brilliant performances. With the rampant destruction of sexual agency, women unable to bear children are not only forced to bear witness to their husbands’ attempts to impregnate handmaids, they are meant to experience the acts vicariously through these fertile women. Such a juxtaposition in intimacy from typical conservative values engenders incredible situations for drama. Trust, jealousy, and intrigue come easily to this scenario, and the actors manage to stretch the emotions of their repressed characters to the fullest. The tension between Moss’s Offred and Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy, wife of the commander, is palpable. Not only in scenes where Serena Joy makes use of her power over Offred, but in the intimacy they’re forced to share, and most importantly, in their mutual acknowledgement that the scenario they experience together is an absolutely awful one. And that’s what’s powerful about this story: it’s about more than men oppressing women; it’s very much about how men force women to oppress one another.
As uncomfortable as all this sounds, The Handmaid’s Tale rolls forward, like a train wreck of society that you can’t look away from. It’s compelling in that way, forcing us to wonder how much a person’s freedom is linked to what society expects from them, whether it’s military leadership, sexual reproduction, or cultural purity. For any violence presence, the show’s narrative is forged by the forces we cannot easily see.