‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: Frightening and Bold

Photo: Hulu
Photo: Hulu

There is something immediately enticing, absorbing, about The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s bestselling novel. The opening sequence plunges us into Atwood’s vision of a near-future in which women are subjugated into meek silence, made to wear clothing that disguises female shapes and cuts off their communication with the world. The first sound we hear is the voice-over thoughts of Elisabeth Moss’s Offred, musing on her own oppression. By turns defeated, bitter, sarcastic, and terrified, Offred’s narrated thoughts quickly create the nightmare world in which this series takes place.

In this story, America has been taken over by an oppressive patriarchal regime that relegates fertile women, now called Handmaids, to a kind of slave status, used primarily for servant work and breeding. (The country lacks a sufficient number of newborn citizens due to a thus-far-unspecified plague that has left many women barren, with death at childbirth common.) The series takes many of its visuals from 17th century Puritanism. Women wear slack robes and white winged bonnets that suggest a nun’s wimple. They must avert their eyes to the rulers who preside over them, whether they’re men or a female enforcer such as Aunt Lydia, played by Ann Dowd, who, after her roles here and in The Leftovers, deserves something light and frothy.

We experience Handmaid-oppression primarily through Offred — Atwood’s version of a slave name, connoting to whom this woman belongs: she is of “of Fred.” The name is also a pun: She is offered up — as in a religious offering or sacrifice — as a body to which almost anything can be done by the people who own her. Moss’s performance is perfect: at once contained and open, withdrawn and bristlingly aware. Her Offred finds an early ally in Alexis Bledel’s Ofglen, a Handmaid who is only superficially more subservient than Offred.

Atwood’s novel was published in 1985 and has rarely been out of literary consciousness since, but recent events give the fiction even more prominence. The concept of a Christian-fundmentalist-led government intent on rolling back women’s rights to choose… anything… while exploiting fears of terroristic attacks to keep the populace uneasy and easily manipulated — it all seems barely futuristic at this point in history. This show probably won’t pop up on President Trump’s Twitter feed — too much of a downer, sad — but I can easily imagine Vice President Mike Pence ordering his wife to get their home a Hulu subscription pronto.

Although set in the future, Handmaid’s is less science fiction than it is a horror story. The ruling class set up in this theocratic dictatorship includes women who subjugate other women as cruelly as men. The most prominent one here is Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy Waterford, a hard-shelled mistress of the house, married to Joseph Fiennes’s Fred.

There are flashbacks to what life was like just before America was seized by oppressors, and this material will unnerve a lot of viewers for its similarity to the kinds of demonstrations that rose up spontaneously after the last presidential election. Directed to seem like a beautiful nightmare by Reed Morano, The Handmaid’s Tale has a 10-episode first season based on Atwood’s novel, with a second, post-novel, season already under discussion. It seems likely that this show is going to be the most popular original programming Hulu has yet produced. It will dominate a lot of pop culture conversations in the coming weeks; I’d also anticipate some harsh dismissals of Handmaid’s as hysterical, left-wing propaganda on Fox News. (In particular, the show would seem to be right in the wheelhouse of Fox’s O’Reilly-replacement Tucker Carlson and his free-floating scorn.)

But The Handmaid’s Tale can stand on its own as a gripping drama; you don’t need to apply overlays about Trump-era conservatism or, say, parallels to the Duggar family to find its portrait of a women under duress moving.

The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale begin streaming Wednesday on Hulu. Subsequent episodes will be released once a week.

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