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Praise be to the arresting, topical nightmare of The Handmaid’s Tale

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Photo: Hulu
Photo: Hulu
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In the theocratic republic of Gilead, Handmaids wear wide Dutch bonnets to conceal their faces from the world—and to shield the world from the Handmaids. But that doesn’t stop the camera of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s take on the award-winning dystopian novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood. In the series’ first three episodes (all debuting on April 26, all helmed by Meadowland director and Looking cinematographer Reed Morano), the camera gets all up in Elisabeth Moss’ grill, the better to register the feelings and opinions that her character, Offred, dare not vocalize. We can still hear her inner monologue, though, in curled-lip curses and pained remembrances often taken directly from Atwood’s text. In these voice-overs, and in Morano’s direction, The Handmaid’s Tale recreates the internal nature of Atwood’s narrative, a gripping core for an adaptation that pushes into territory its source material left to the imagination.

Such shots are also a chilling symbol of a regime that wants to invade, surveil, and control Offred’s entire being—most specifically her reproductive system. Even at a time when two of the biggest shows on TV are blood-soaked processions of humans suffering under monsters metaphorical and literal, it feels odd to use words like “gripping” in relation to The Handmaid’s Tale. Even given the novel’s reputation, and Atwood’s standing as a literary giant, it feels odd to put it in the terms of a traditional TV recommendation.

“You gotta see this show: It’s about a woman living in a near-future society where she has no rights, and is forced to live in bondage as a surrogate for the ruling class of Christian fanatics who’ve been rendered infertile by environmental pollution and/or the instruments of war. But the visuals are downright painterly!”

“Are there flashbacks to the United States’ collapse at the hands of these self-righteous misogynists?” “You bet: They’re particularly brutal and sometimes scored to ironic pop music cues.”

“Also: There are lengthy sequences in which Peggy Olson is raped by the guy from Shakespeare In Love in an unemotional, loathsome breeding ritual, while Sarah from Chuck straddles her head.”

It’s very good TV, even if calling this “very good TV” is to risk sounding like a sleaze at best and an avid Breitbart commenter at worst. But anyone who’d think that of someone who’s enthusiastic about The Handmaid’s Tale is the same type of equally noxious person who’s been trying to keep this vital piece of literature out of public schools for the past 30 years. Don’t let those bastards grind you down: Watch The Handmaid’s Tale generate tomorrow’s nightmares from today’s anxieties, smuggling in a little bit of beauty and resiliency under all that ugliness.

Unlike Westeros or the scorched earth walked by Rick Grimes, Gilead was not built to harbor escapist fantasies. Hulu’s adaptation absorbs more than entertains, plunging viewers into its alternate reality first and filling them in on the details later. As much as Offred is the camera’s subject, she’s also the camera herself, observing the goings-on in this place that looks like the modern-day United States, but for a few key details. Hers is a color-coordinated world of Handmaids in red, Wives in green, Commanders and their male subordinates in black—these uniforms starkly contrasting their washed-out surroundings. The tyranny of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his lot is a feckless and banal sort, its underlying danger only revealed when a jet-black surveillance van screeches into frame or a construction crane is used to hang a dissident. Wisely shifting its target from the Moral Majority that was on the march when the novel was released, this Handmaid’s Tale takes aim at 21st-century He-Man Woman-Haters Clubs whose shitposted brand of toxic masculinity just might have boosted an avowed sexual assaulter to the highest office in the land. It’s totalitarianism by way of so-called “nice guys”: In one scene, Offred is grilled by an ineffectual interrogator, the imperiousness missing from his voice represented by the cattle prod wielded by Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), the schoolmarm on steroids responsible for indoctrinating Handmaids.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a patriarchy, but men rarely outnumber the women on the screen. This is so squarely Offred’s story, but the adaptation—headed by Bruce Miller, who started out on ER and Everwood before pivoting to genre fare like The 100, Alphas, and Eureka—widens its focus to include fellow Handmaids Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) and Janine (Madeline Brewer), Offred’s best friend, Moira (Samira Wiley), and the commander’s wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). The fact that there’s more than one Orange Is The New Black alum in the cast either reflects the fact that there are so few shows on TV with such a bounty of roles for women or a sign that both are stories about women pulling together into a community under wretched circumstances. (Under the tutelage of the Aunts, the Handmaids are capable of acts that are both touching and gruesome.) It might just be coincidence, but there’s an intertextual shrewdness to the casting of The Handmaid’s Tale’s female leads, the flashbacks to their old lives mingling with the viewer’s memories of the vibrant, witty, independent, ass-kicking characters that Moss, Bledel, Wiley, Brewer, and Strahovski played for years on other shows.

That’s not to say that The Handmaid’s Tale sticks a bonnet on a Mad Men GIF and calls it Offred. Moss grounds her character in a quest for reclamation—of her autonomy, of her identity, of (should the fates allow) her family. Her comic timing pokes holes through The Handmaid’s Tale’s abiding darkness, and she locates a sense of resiliency in Offred’s private acts of defiance. Her take—and the show’s take—on the character is a distinct blend of what Atwood once identified as the main thrust of Canadian literature (survival) and a gumption most closely associated with the country Offred once called America. This can cause some tonal clash in the voice-over—the mission statement that closes episode one feels like it belongs in a different show—but it also gives The Handmaid’s Tale the necessary verve for an ongoing series. (This should be a limited series, but that’s neither here nor there.) And Moss has to make the conviction count, because it’d be noticeable in all those close-ups if she didn’t.


Created by: Bruce Miller, based on the novel by Margaret Atwood
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski, Samira Wiley, Alexis Bledel, Max Minghella, Madeline Brewer, Ann Dowd, O.T. Fagbenle
Debuts: First three episodes premiere April 26 on Hulu; new episodes follow weekly
Format: Hour-long speculative-fiction drama
Three episodes watched for review
Reviews by Allison Shoemaker will run weekly.