Hulu is about to release its adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.
If you're unfamiliar with the story, it's set in a near-future America that has been decimated by environmental troubles, war and the onset of an infertility crisis nobody knew how to solve.
It’s a harrowing look at could happen when the rights we’ve fought for and won in a democracy are threatened and lost because of complacency.
In other words, it’s a story that could be about our society today if we not careful.
Having never imagined myself a feminist by the traditional definition of the word, but I am so incredibly proud to be a part of television today which is on the receiving end of so many talented women creating spectacular programming. This is how it should always be.
Not only did Atwood write The Handmaid’s Tale in response to her concern about the way the political tide was turning during the Regan era of the 1980s, but she’s very present for the adaptation for her work alongside Bruce Miller.
The first three episodes of the series are directed by Reed Morano whose deft eye brings to life the frightening world through her lens and incredibly close work with the cast. About half of the episodes overall are directed by women.
The cast is led by Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men, The Top of the Lake) with an incredible performance as Handmaid Offred. The bulk of the material is on her capable shoulders, and she easily invites us into the strange and upended life where Offred (formerly June) finds herself.
Her performance is buoyed by Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black) as Moira; Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck) as Serena Joy; Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls); and Ann Dowd (The Leftovers) as Aunt Lydia, doing what she does best – everything.
There isn’t a bad performance in the bunch.
As it’s a cautionary tale in which women find themselves on the wrong side of, well, everything, it’s appropriate that the women are not only the most noteworthy before and behind the camera, but that they take up the lion’s of our viewing, as well.
The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t easy to watch, and it’s even more difficult to sit through if you can find any common ground between what’s happened to the fictional society and what’s playing out in present day America before our very eyes.
The gist of the story is this: Civil war, environmental issues, and other unknown factors wreak such havoc on the fertility rate. If a woman can become pregnant and carry a child to term, the majority of babies die within days of birth. A resulting uprising puts into power an overzealous right-wing government believing controlling women will be their salvation.
That includes seizing all property belonging to women, keeping them in the home and out of the workplace, trivializing their status in society to being nothing more than vessels for men. Their roles are reduced to Wives, Handmaids, Marthas (cooks), and so on.
Gilead, as it's now called, looks like our world, but it's when we see it through Offred's flashbacks that it really takes shape. Because then it's unmistakable.
Offred's life is our frame of reference, and we learn about Gilead the world through her eyes. Before she had a husband and a daughter. They were both taken from her when the world changed. Now she lives on behalf of others, surviving only through her determination to find her way back to her daughter, to hold onto who she once was and never forget.
She sees things in a very specific light because of her uniform and how Handmaids are controlled. We, too, see things through that light, which is both frustrating and illuminating. We need to be in her shoes (and under her wimple) to best understand her plight, and when her world opens, it can just as frightening as it is interesting.
Their sole goal is to bear a child for the family with which they have been placed. All Handmaids are placed with someone connected to totalitarian government, and Offred is with Commander Waterford, played by Joseph Fiennes.
Fiennes' role isn’t well-developed by the time the third episode ends, and it doesn't need to be. His open-ended nature allows for Offred to have a shred of hope for her place in the house, whether it’s something that’s viable or not.
The only other male that’s really of any consequence is Nick (Max Minghella), the Commander’s driver.
Men are the chosen ones, so to trust them doesn’t feel right. Whether they were a part of the overthrow of the government or not, they allowed women to lose everything. It seems they should not be given the benefit of the doubt until it’s been earned time and again.
Every month the Handmaid awaits the “ceremony,” her ritualized rape in which the entire house participates with the hope she’ll bear fruit for the Commander.
It’s as dehumanizing as it sounds, and in between the ceremonies, there is nothing for a woman to do to keep her mind occupied, whether she be a Wife, Handmaid, Martha or Aunt.
Wiley is another Handmaid, one who knew Offred before the world fell apart. She’s a welcome face in a strange crowd at the time of Offred’s capture, but there is so little time to connect in their new roles that we get to know her much more in Offred’s memories than we do in the present.
A lot of time is spent inside of Offred’s mind, getting to know her life before, what her family was like and how she keeps herself going. There are infrequent voice overs, too, and they’re welcome when they arrive, which cannot be said for most of those we encounter.
Because of them, we get to know what Offred is thinking at times we’d otherwise be in the dark, such as her initial feelings about Ofglen (“pious little shit”) which are welcome over the droll conversations that otherwise start and finish with "praise be."
When there are not voice overs, we are left the mistaken comments that come from Offred (which could mean trouble) or with the emotions playing across Moss’ face. For as infrequent as the words come, Moss could have been a silent movie queen for the way she expresses herself so subtly and beautifully with expression.
To be honest, when Bledel was cast as Ofglen, I had reservations about her inclusion in the production.
She has earned well-deserved praise here because the character for which she is so famous finally drifts away and some of the darkest scenes early in The Handmaid's Tale fall on Bledel's shoulders, and she pulls them off as if she’s been standing amidst this crowd of women for years.
As Aunt Lydia, Dowd is required to train and punish the Handmaids, to show them the new regime means business. Yet, she’s unable to be a perfectly horrid taskmaster, layering into the character enough uneasiness with her role in the affairs to leave open to interpretation on what side of the whole operation her heart lies.
The woman most difficult to make out is the Wife, Serena Joy. Strahovski has roller coaster material to play with so far, and perhaps that’s exactly where her character should be – the unknown.
What’s interesting about The Handmaid’s Tale is that women are responsible for the poor treatment of women. Somehow, men are painted in a kind light, from the man who initially fires June (now known as Offred) and her coworkers to the Commander to an interrogator asking innocuous questions of Offred.
It's Serena Joy who is brutal and Aunt Lydia who pokes Offred with a cattle prod when an interrogator is unhappy with answers that Offred provides him.
But it's also easy to understand why these women would want to harm Offred (or any Handmaid). In this world, women are pitted against each other. It's like the WWE of women that men have created to continue their lineage after they caused infertility by ravaging the planet with their warring factions and toxic waste.
Of the three episodes I've seen, the best embellishments entailed bringing details of the life before the novel began to our more modern, updated way of life and worked very well. So, I’m not going argue the merits of the book versus the series. It's always worthwhile to read any book, so do it if you want.
The music choices are surprising and well placed, adding weight to some key scenes that wouldn't necessarily have suffered without it but packed more of a punch because of it.
I can't think of a scenario in which I'd have expected a Blondie tune to be included in The Handmaid’s Tale, but where, when and how one is featured is beautifully done and timely.
If watching The Handmaid's Tale can do anything to get viewers to re-examine the way they discuss the very important issues that are featured in the series, that's a step in the right direction.
Nothing changes in an instant. "In a gradually heating bathtub, you'd be boiled to death before you knew it," Offred says in the series.
Viewers are being given a work of art with which to generate political discussion, to consider whether the way they view the world is in the best interests of those living in it or if there is room for change and growth. Maybe it will help motivate political parties to lean into one another and cross a divide.
You never know. But with a show as superbly done as The Handmaid's Tale is so far, it would be a shame for the amount of work put into it and the resulting art to be for entertainment only, don't you think?
Will You Be Tuning Into The Handmaid's Tale?
The Handmaid's Take drops the first three episodes on Hulu, Wednesday, April 23rd, and one per week for the remainder of the 10-episode first season every Wednesday thereafter.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.