Review: THE HANDMAID'S TALE, Powerful and Terrifying Television

Elisabeth Moss and Alexis Bledel star in an adaptation of Margaret Atwood's prescient novel.

Editor, Canada; Montréal, Canada (@bonnequin)
Review: THE HANDMAID'S TALE, Powerful and Terrifying Television

I doubt (or at least I hope) that Bruce Miller, Reed Morano, and the rest of the team behind the new adaptation The Handmaid's Tale were unaware of how close the possibility of this scenario would be in contemporary America. Margaret Atwood's speculative fiction novel was published more than thirty years ago, and even when she wrote it, she only saw it as a remote possibility (though one with historical precedent in many countries around the world).

But given the US government's continual refusal to stand up for equal pay for women, talk of changes to or the elimiation of federal protection of abortion rights, the rise to power of right-wing Christians, and by extension the 'normalization' in the media of the most abhorent behaviour of men towards women, this television show could not be more timely. And luckily, it's also brilliant and terrifying.

In the not-so-distant future, in the midst of mass infertility, Christian fundamentalists in the United States stage a coup, and take over the government, creating a country run as a patriarchal theocracy. All women are stripped of even the most basic rights, becoming little more than chattel, and the few fertile women are forced into sexual servitude to the rich. Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is sent to be a surrogate for The Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Offred, whose daughter was stolen from her when she and her husband tried to escape the regime, finds a few allies in Nick (Max Minghella), the chauffeur, and her friend Moira (Samira Wiley).

Atwood's novel is rich in in its detail of the physical atmosphere, and gives just enough information, paced out over the book's course, to give keep the reader in constant suspense and fear; the writers of the series have taken this to heart, and weaved their adaptation in the same way. Moving between the present situation, Offred's past life, and the events that lead up to this terrible revolution, gives the audience time to compare and contrast, and see the parallels with what is happening in the real world today.

First, infertility becomes rampant; then, women are forced out of their jobs and have their bank accounts frozen; then, the protests that turn deadly. We are wisked back to the present, and in each scene, both men and women (now pitted against each other) treat the Handmaidens (the only hope for a future) both as revered and reviled.

Offred's voice-over not only gives insight into what happened and how, but also her state of mind; in this place and time, Handmaidens' intelligence is irrelevant and therefore beaten (figuratively and literally) out of them; items at the grocery store are labelled by pictures, because of course, Handmaidens shouldn't read.

Offred's thoughts, with references to her emotional state and memories (and the tropes of horror films) are her only means of staying sane, and ours means of understanding. Dialogue is sparsed, but packed with power; only a few words are necessary to make Offred understand her place and complete lack of power: one of the matrons who trains the Handmaides, Aunty Lydia, tells the women that all this will soon become ordinary (does that sound familiar?). This is a place were you have no idea who can be trusted, and words are chosen carefully.

A story such as this rests on the shoulders of whomever is playing Offred, and Moss (as she has proven in shows such as Mad Men and Top of the Lake) does her finest work to date. Before this revolution, she could stand in for many of us: an educated, open-minded woman, not politically ignorant but not necessarily one engaged to action; not afraid to make a point when needed, but blind-sided to how far things went, so quickly.

Offred stays and obeys in the faint hope of finding her daughter, and as such is positioned to be the audience's eyes and ears. Moss' face is frequently in close-up, and her expressions allow us to be a part of her thought process as she navigates this landmine of an existence. In one key scene in the third episode, though, even she has had enough, and despite knowing that she will be punished, she takes a stand, even if it is hopeless.

The supporting cast is no less strong; Wiley as Offred's old friend, who is also now a handmaiden, and perhaps a bit more wise to the hopelessness of the situation; Strahovski's Serena Joy, as a former right-wing pundit who fought against women's rights, who must now reap what she sowed, finds her small bit of power over another woman with righteous anger; Ann Dowd, as Aunt Lydia, perhaps the most ardent supporter of the regime's ideology, being at once the most kind and most terrible 'mother'; though the most surprising in strength of performance is Alexis Bledel, as Offred's handmaiden companion and the one who initiates her into rebellion. Bledel has shed her Gilmore Girl days of cuteness and is steely determination.

Unsurprisingly, the look of the series so far is pretty much flawless. Colin Watkinson's cinematography gives us exteriors that are bright and harsh, bathed in a sunlight that doesn't warm, but exposes; colours pop in emphasis of the status of the characters, and make everything seem as though in a dream state; though in the case of this story, it is more of a nightmare. Even in one place that seems to have more 'life', the Commander's office with its books, art objects, and indications of what life used to be, the scenes are underlit, as if reminding Offred that such knowledge is no longer hers to access.

Again taking her cue from the book, Ane Crabtree's costume design highlights the colour indicators: Handmaids in red to indicate menstrual blood; priveleged wives in teal/blue to indicate them as Virgin Mary's, or favoured women; the Aunts in brown, colours of the earth to indicate them as instructors and midwives; men in greys and blacks, almost dull against the landscape as if to show how they can blend in and yet be the norm. Adding to this is the amazing production design by Julie Berghoff, and you have a world that looks like the future of America.

Make no mistake, this series is harrowing, and keeps you on the edge at all times (seriously, you might need to take a breather between episodes). It wants you to understand what being in this world would be like, how you would have to be comstantly on your guard, never knowing if the next moment would be your last.

Again, this treatment of women is something that has happened in the past in many places in the world (not least to Black women in the US; I encourage you to read a great piece on Bitch Media by Priya Nair on the novel's appropriation of Black women's history. While the novel makes a point of noting that only white women are selected as handmaidens, in the show, Miller decided that fertility should trump everything, a narrative point that does not reflect current race relations in the US.), and continues to happen, in some variation, today.

There are still seven episodes to go, and I'm both excited and more than a little scared to watch more. The Handmaid's Tale is without a doubt some of the best television of recent years, and a far-too-prescient look at a far-too-possible future.

The Handmaid's Tale is airing on Hulu in the US on Wednesday nights.

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Alexis BledelBruce MillerElisabeth MossJoseph FiennesMargaret AtwoodMax MinghellaReed MoranoYvonne Strahovski

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