The Handmaid’s Tale is a combination of sharply pointed speculative fiction, engrossing visual poetry, and knock out performances making it a contender for one of the best shows of the year.
It’s also grim as fuck.
Set in Gilead, what would have been Massachusetts, a new totalitarian fundamentalist regime has usurped what was once known as America. We learn this nation’s rise to power was predicated on the ability to manipulate fear: growing concern about a rapidly declining birth rate, the impending attack by “The Terrorists,” and the threat of homosexuality posed to the family. The illusion of safety and security acts as an exacting tool to coerce and control. Under His Eye.
Based on the book by Margaret Atwood the work is categorized at speculative fiction, but might be whittled down into something akin to a kind of futuristic horror story. The show follows the premise of the book wherein a militant theocracy captures women with reproductive potential and assigns them to function as reproductive slaves, known as handmaids, to the upper echelon of society to bear their children and then be retired — if they are lucky. Biblical references ripple throughout with the story extrapolating from the tale of Jacob and his barren wife Rachel.
The heroine of our story is Offred (Elisabeth Moss). She is kept in the home of ol’ Freddy who is known as The Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). They fuck all together in a very prescribed manner. With all in the household, including the Martha named Rita (Amanda Brugel) a housekeeper of sorts, and the driver Nick (Max Minghella) present for a reading of biblical scripture Offred is conscripted to lie between the legs of Serena Joy as The Commander unemotionally seeds her.
This Offred is given the name “June”, which literary nerds felt was her name in the before time, yet in the novel she never divulges her past life’s signature. Moss is captivating as a slightly more daring and self-assured Offred, clinging to her will to survive. Moments with voiceovers are punctuated by Moss’ ability to infuse anger, joy, frustration, and devastation in a single nod of the head. This fits into what is part and parcel to what makes the televised adaptation so intriguing. Although the show is fairly faithful to the book, it looks beyond the account of one woman and the tales of more than one handmaid bloom before us in a delicately orchestrated and deeply impactful way. Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) is one such maid, a friend to Offred, but is she to be trusted?
The story is non-linear with flashbacks to June’s past when she was free to attend university and hang with her best friend Moira (Samira Wiley). Wiley plays the openly lesbian Moira (in the time after gay is not a permitted word, but rather homosexuals are referred to as gender traitors and are often put to death) who, along with June, witness the slow and eventual devolution of civil society.
The two are eventually captured, June’s daughter taken from her, and her husband most likely shot. They are taken to a kind of school where a terrifying Ms.Trunchball type character Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) equipped with a cattle prod to educate the women on their new task as sex slaves. Gang raped — you’re fault. Assaulted by men — you’re fault. You were probably asking for it, and now it’s time to return to a more wholesome time where you respect your bodies by having a stranger make a child in you. It’s an honour bestowed upon you. This shit is fucking chilling, but there’s quite a delightful moment in the first episode when we get a cameo from Atwood herself.
Although some would dismiss the description of the story as too dark to digest, there is entertainment and intrigue to in this story set in a bleak time. Is The Commander as one dimensional as he seems? Who is Nick really allied with? What happened to Moira? These questions keep the viewer on the hook, following the weaving tales of past and present endearing us to the complex humans who inhabit this world, as opposed to simply stoking the fires of unease about our own futures.
The Handmaid’s Tale is an exceptional piece of television, serving as allegory without being preachy, dark without being gloomy, with stunning visuals, enrapturing and even hilarious music cues, and overall just a damn good story.
The Handmaid’s Tale will premiere on Hulu Wednesday April 26th. Bravo will show the 10-episode series beginning with a two-hour premiere Sunday, April 30 at 9 p.m.