‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Is a Haunting Glimpse Into the Unfathomable

Timeliness of its themes and message aside, Bruce Miller’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is worth watching for the show’s quality on its own merits.

The trailer for Hulu’s much-anticipated The Handmaid’s Tale series did anything but bury the lede, smartly capitalizing on current political uncertainties in a recognizable way to pique the viewer’s interest. Shots of women marching, protesters butting heads with armed police officers; these images are something we’ve all seen flooding the news in recent months. Starting the advertising of this show with the familiar, before shifting to the dystopian future of the source material allows the viewer to infer parallels between the world of 2017 and the world Margaret Atwood created so vividly and horrifyingly in her 1985 novel.

Transforming the familiar to the unfathomable makes us think: “it could happen here”; suddenly the unfathomable is all too real and potential, as many others have recently noted with regards to this series.

Timeliness of its themes and message aside, The Handmaid’s Tale is absolutely worth watching for the quality of the show on its own merits. Elisabeth Moss is perfectly cast as Offred; she was the best part of Mad Men, where she played a quiet, meek young woman who slowly gained confidence in herself and came into her own. Here, however, Moss plays rather the opposite: formerly a free, confident member of society, with a family, child, and job, Offred of The Handmaid’s Tale has been enslaved and is kept alive solely for her ability to have children, forced to swallow weaponized dogmatic Christian propaganda that denies her personhood, and required to be submissive and subservient at all times, despite the rage burning at her core.

Moss is particularly adept at conveying this suppression and this inner struggle to maintain her identity with mere movements of her eyes and tightening of her lips; she always looks like she’s saying less than what she’s thinking, self-censoring in order to live one more day. While her face is impassive, Offred’s mind is anything but, providing us with a constant voiceover narrative that fills in more details about Offred’s world, as well as providing us with her (often wry and sarcastic) innermost thoughts.

The supporting cast is also stellar; each role is clearly thoughtfully cast. Samira Wiley, so good on Orange is the New Black, gives Moira a charming, witty kindness and a resolute inner strength that we can see for ourselves, whereas in the novel we really only had Offred’s memories of her to go by. Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls) is also well-cast as Ofglen, another handmaid who’s the closest thing Offred has to a friend in her new life, despite the fact that they can’t trust one another. Ann Dowd (The Leftovers) is a frightening, fearsome presence as Aunt Lydia, the woman in charge of re-educating the remaining fertile women into handmaids, combining both theatrical zeal and moments of quiet intimidation that make her a clear threat to the freedom of these women.

Madeline Brewer (Orange is the New Black) also undergoes a startling transformation as Janine, a handmaid whose fiery nature is chipped away over the course of the episode’s flashbacks until she’s nothing more than the role she’s been forced to play. The rest of the secondary cast is less emphasized in the first episode, but I’m confident that they’ll also prove to be strong.

When I heard that Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck) and Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love had been cast as Serena Joy and Commander Waterford, respectively, I had to admit I was a little concerned that the television show was going to try and “sexy” up the narrative. In the novel, the Waterfords are an older couple who own Offred — Serena Joy as a Phyllis Schafly-type of reactionary crusader and televangelist, and the Commander registering in my mind as a man of at least late middle age — yet the actors who play them in the Hulu series are both young and attractive.

Such fears were unfounded, however; the show uses this divergence from the source text to its advantage, however. Serena Joy is largely characterized by her resentment of Offred, who’s one of the few fertile women remaining in Gilead; having a younger woman in the part actually amplifies the character’s dislike of Offred and allows the audience to understand precisely why the hatred is personal. This version of Serena still has her beauty and youth but is unable to have children despite seeming to be around a similar age as Offred. When Serena indulges in small cruelties towards Offred, it’s because she’s tormented by knowing that despite being in the prime of her life, she’s still not enough for her high-caste husband because she can’t give him a child. Based on the pilot alone, I’m curious to see if the rest of the narrative will choose to encourage the viewer to have some measure of sympathy for Serena despite her active role in propagating the oppressive society that is the Republic of Gilead.

The visuals, courtesy of cinematographer Colin Watkinson (The Fall, Emerald City) are for the most part well wrought, with the imagery of Offred sitting in dark rooms lit only by sunlight streaming through the window in her white cap and red dress like something out of a Vermeer painting. Still other shots push the chiaroscuro lighting further, likely intentionally evoking Georges de la Tour’s The Repentant Magdalene. Yet for some reason, the entirety of the show thus far is shot with what looks like a desaturated filter that’s then bathed in an unsettling blue-green light; even in the flashback sequences in which we see a pre-Gilead America. Even a change as small as a shift to a less unnatural filter in these flashback moments would’ve been beneficial in order to stress the polar opposites of both lives Offred has lived, and to remind us that nothing in the present day is normal or remotely condonable.

Some of the settings are jarring in their banality, particularly when the handmaids go grocery shopping in what looks like a CVS; I’d pictured the “market” in the original text as a more literal outdoor market, so seeing these women forced into archaic roles in such a contemporary setting is a clever move that further grounds this dystopia into today’s contemporary reality. The dirge-like, chilling score by Adam Taylor (Before I Fall) almost has organic elements that make it all the more horrifyingly appropriate, as if the swooping sounds are distorted screams.

By far, the most disturbing moments of the rich, subtly devastating pilot are when we see the handmaids interact with one another, during and after their conditioning. During the process of being trained to be handmaids, they’re taught to see the others in their caste as a strange mixture of compatriot and enemy. They practice shaming and blaming rituals towards women who are raped and are encouraged to watch one another and report suppressive behavior they witness among their fellows, knowing that those who fail to conform will be mutilated at best and sentenced to death at worst.

Yet there are heartbreaking moments where despite the brainwashing (and torture) they’re subjected to, the women try and continue their old ways of acting as caring, supportive friends, whether it’s Offred comforting another novitiate who can’t sleep, or a handmaid flippantly slipping a reference to the news into a conversation, only to pale in fear that she’ll be reported and punished for the transgression of reading, inconsequential as it seems.

This strange mixture of emotions that the handmaids must continually negotiate comes to a head in a particularly brutal sequence where they’re convened by Aunt Lydia to punish a man who raped a pregnant handmaid, causing her to miscarry. The women are directed to attack this man, and rain blows down upon him, sublimating their own rage and sorrow at their situation by identifying this single man as a symbol of the aggressive patriarchal societal order that’s stolen their lives and freedom.

Yet in a moment of tightrope-walking intensity, the women also fall all too quickly into their preordained roles as breeders for their society during this ritual as they bemoan the miscarriage itself, because even though their sole purpose is to bear children, these women still feel intensely the pain of this loss on two levels: that of horror at the diminishing population of Gilead and this instance of their mission being obliterated, and more personally as women who can bear children at all. The ritual of punishing the offender, then, becomes an avenue for the women to release their anger, to feel a small sense of power in their lives, even as it entrenches them further in their roles as nothing more than Gilead’s wombs.

In short, The Handmaid’s Tale is haunting, engrossing, and attacks its subject with all the complexity it deserves. I can’t stress how important having the right person play Offred is, because it’s through her eyes we see not only the world of Gilead, but the world she’s lost, and Hulu has struck gold with Moss. The quibbles I have with the visuals are small compared to how much the first episode does right, and I consider it essential watching for those who’ve read the book as well as for anyone interested in, or concerned by, the issues it raises; issues that we can see are still relevant today.

RATING 9 / 10