For the past few years, Hollywood has been enamored with dystopias pulled from young-adult fiction — stories like The Hunger Games and Divergent, where the evil government provides a structure for our heroes to rebel against, a set of villains for them to defeat.
The Handmaid’s Tale is something else entirely. I’ve only seen the first three episodes (the same three episodes that premiered on Hulu today), but I have a suspicion that Offred, played by Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss, will not be overthrowing anything. The best she can hope for is survival — and just maybe, escape.
Adapted by television writer Bruce Miller from the novel by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in Gilead, a near-future New England controlled by Christian fundamentalists. As the series opens, Moss’ character (one of the few women who can still become pregnant) is captured by the government and enslaved as a “handmaid” — which means she’s forced to have sex with one of the regime’s commanders (Joseph Fiennes) in the hopes that she will bear his child.
Sounds pretty grim, right? The show certainly is bleak at times. But there are also moments of humor, particularly as you see the strange, absurd rituals of Gilead. And even when it gets dark, it isn’t a slog. It’s far too tense for that, as you wonder how things could possibly get worse for Offred and the other characters. (Almost inevitably, they do get worse.) At least once or twice each episode, I found myself shouting at my laptop and/or covering my eyes.
Moss is predictably great as Offred, giving us a woman whose life is full of fear and pain and degradation, but who remains determined to survive and find the daughter who was stolen from her. Ann Dowd also brings charm and conviction to the role of Aunt Lydia, the woman overseeing the handmaids. But the show’s MVP might be Yvonne Strahovski, who plays Serena, the commander’s wife. We see her inflict many petty torments on Offred, but we also see how Gilead imprisons and demeans Serena at the same time. The show never lets us forgets her complicity, while never making her seem less than human.
As harrowing as the scenes of Offred’s life as a handmaid can be, we might still be able to hold them at arm’s length, to treat them as a purely speculative exercise — if not for the flashbacks, which depict life “before,” showing how the world got from here to there. That’s where The Handmaid’s Tale really gets under your skin.
At first, the world of the flashbacks looks much like our own. It’s disarmingly mundane as we see Moss laughing with family and friends, trying to get a table at a popular restaurant, buying coffee — except with vague rumblings about growing infertility and political unrest in the background. Then, with astonishing swiftness, we see women stripped of their independence, and any resistance violently squashed. The show doesn’t show us exactly how this happened, but we experience it as regular people who are suddenly overtaken by horrifying political events.
This plausibility, this feeling that you are there and this is happening, might be the show’s greatest strength. (It helped me overlook some of the shortcomings — particularly a reliance on long, pregnant silences and voice-overs). Even after I finished watching, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there isn’t much separating the contemporary United States from Gilead. At least, not as much as I would like.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, dystopia isn’t just an interesting or dramatic idea, and it doesn’t require a nuclear war or some other catastrophe for us to get there. It’s the world we know, after a few more bad decisions.