You already have or will be hearing a lot about the timeliness of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and its story of the rise and governance of an ultraconservative theocracy known as Gilead that runs the vast majority of the United States and has stripped women of even the most basic of human rights. And while the story of Offred (Elisabeth Moss), a titular Handmaiden – one of the few women in the story’s near-future dystopia still capable of bearing a child – feels distressingly prescient, the series’ jarring depiction of the particular circumstances and sequence of events that brought about the rise of Gilead affords The Handmaid’s Tale an enduring and equally worrisome sense of timelessness.
Because current events (of any decade, really) conjure a disturbing proximity to even the most speculative aspects of the story, this isn’t the first adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, but it certainly is the most ambitious. Developed by Bruce Miller (The 100, Eureka), and with the first three episodes directed by the talented Reed Morano, Hulu’s series makes strong use of Atwood’s thematic arc by employing a dual narrative structure that leaves no stone unturned in its incendiary depiction of the rise of a fascist state, one that is excused by those participating in it for its supposed “return to traditional values”.
Gilead’s rise to power is predicated on society’s collapse in the wake of ecological calamities, terrorist attacks, and a mysterious pandemic rendering the majority of the female population infertile. The response, then, is the ascent of a fundamental religious movement that reduces women to one of a handful of classes that determines not only her function in the new society but also whether or not she’ll remain part of society at all. Offred – the series’ protagonist – is dubbed a Handmaid, a woman assigned to a Commander (powerful men who are the only ones allowed to have a wife or be assigned a Handmaid) for the purpose of conceiving his child. And while the oppressive details of Gilead’s regime – which includes labeling members of the LGBTQ community as Gender Traitors, and certain infertile women an Unwoman – make for a startling, repellant reality for the characters, it’s the juxtaposition of the near-future with its recent past that makes The Handmaid’s Tale resonate as strongly as it does.
Morano – who worked as a cinematographer on Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and directs the first three episodes of the 10-hour first season – articulates the decent of the United States in a series of chillingly matter-of-fact flashbacks. Morano’s skill as a storyteller is evident in the way she contrasts the terrifying realism of the rise of a fascist state with how quickly others not only seek to normalize it but also glorify the new totalitarian and misogynistic status quo. In one of the three episodes sent to critics – all of which are available with the series premiere before it shifts to a weekly release schedule – the series demonstrates the frightening fragility of democracy as women are systematically denied access to their personal bank accounts, removed from their jobs, and when many of them take to the streets in protest, fired upon by a militarized police force.
Despite its strong visuals, the too-close-for-comfort gut punch that is The Handmaid‘s Tale wouldn’t land so decisively if not for the many terrific performances from not only the aforementioned Moss, but also Alexis Bledel as her companion Ofglen, pre-Gilead best friend Moira, played by Samira Wiley, and those benefitting from the Gilead regime. Moss is the perfect choice for a story that unfolds through one character’s extreme perspective. In everything from Mad Men to Top of the Lake, and especially Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth, she has exhibited a knack for communicating pages worth of emotion through a single facial expression or the smallest nugget of dialogue, all of which makes voiceover dialogue like, “I need to scream. I need to grab the nearest machine gun,” horrifying and darkly funny at the same time. That voiceover comes in handy, as it not only affords the narrative a welcome chance to breathe in the claustrophobic atmosphere of Offred’s rigid home life under Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), but it acts as a necessary release of tension – for Offred as well as the viewer – especially in the presence of Ann Dowd’s confounding hardline collaborator Aunt Lydia.
Strahovski and Dowd have arguably the most demanding roles in the series, as it’s difficult to ascertain what these women stand to gain by collaborating with a misogynistic regime. There’s the obvious power, material comfort, and reduction of restrictions on their personal freedom, but that’s a somewhat simplistic approach to these collaborators who are presented as true believers – although Serena Joy seems more aware Offred’s misery than the punishing Aunt Lydia. Strahovski, in particular, presents her character as more than a one-dimensional villain, which makes her complicity with the fundamental movement a fascinating contradiction to see play out. Dowd’s Lydia is a bit of an easier read, as she and the other Aunts are entrusted with schooling the soon-to-be Handmaids. The Aunts seem to delight in the biblical specificity of the punishments doled out to women deemed unruly or non-complaint (Atwood herself even makes a clever cameo as a barely seen Aunt who cuffs Offred’s ear for not listening), and Lydia is certainly convinced her efforts will pay dividends for… someone, making her ultraconservatism all the more chilling.
Atwood’s novel has been around for more than 30 years and seemed as prescient then as it does now. The adaptation succeeds in updating the details and especially in how it pulls the speculative side of its fiction unnervingly close. The end result is that The Handmaid’s Tale remains a timely and enduring cautionary tale regardless of when it’s read or, in the case of Hulu’s phenomenal new series, seen.
The Handmaid’s Tale continues next Wednesday on Hulu.