In the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood herself shows up to slap our heroine in the face. The grande dame of dystopian fiction plays an aunt, one of the abbesses in charge of a new order of so-called handmaids: women conscripted into bearing children to the barren powerful. Frankly, she looks a little nervous about laying a hand on Elisabeth Moss. The smack looks less like a punishment than a wake-up call: Snap out of it, sister.
Back in 2016, when the Hulu series was filming, that cameo must have seemed cute. Now it plays like a dark joke about the novelist’s revised cultural status. At the Women’s March in January, signs declared: “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again.” Since the election, readers have returned to her 1985 book (and to titles by George Orwell and Sinclair Lewis) to study up on political lessons that should have sunk in back in high school. It sometimes seems like these works are being held up not just as a warning, but as a ward against things getting worse.
Moss plays Offred, a handmaid assigned to a man called the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his imperious wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), in what was once Boston. Now, the city is part of the Christian theocratic state of Gilead, which is facing a fertility crisis. Women are defined, uniformed and even renamed according to their utility to the household: Ruling-class women are wives, and they wear blue; their female servants are Marthas, and they don gray. Those with functioning ovaries are re-educated and dressed in crimson. They endure weekly rapes, called “Ceremonies,” giving up their infants once the children are weaned. Law breakers – followers of other religions, doctors who perform abortions – are exiled to hard labor in toxic wastelands, when they’re not executed.
It’s the contrast of that present reality with memories of ordinariness, like a visit to an aquarium, that catches in the throat. The effect isn’t dreamy but jagged.
The series stays mostly within its white-bonnet-clad narrator’s perspective. What we know about this world is limited to the radius of her daily errands, or news that comes as whispered rumors. Episodes toggle between her nightmare present, as Offred, and her vanished past, as a book editor named June. Scenes flicker from a public execution to a day lazing on the campus quad with her friend Moira (Samira Wiley); from clambering into a red ambulance to inhaling the scent of her newborn. The producers aren’t afraid to get lurid: In the third episode, Offred’s friend Ofglen is punished for being a lesbian, and wakes up in bloody bandages in a blindingly white hospital ward. But it’s the contrast of that present reality with memories of ordinariness, like a visit to an aquarium, that catches in the throat. The effect isn’t dreamy but jagged.
At times, the storytelling feels over-engineered. The episodes trip over dopey moments, glib musical outros and portentous shots that lay pipe for future plotlines. The voiceover sometimes talks down to the viewer, offering redundant précis of Offred’s interior life, or explainers of basic events. (“I had another name, but it’s forbidden now. So many things are forbidden now.”) The commentary gets more interesting when dialed down to a mutinous mutter, a pressure valve of thought that’s been allowed to escape. When she calls someone “a pious little shit,” Moss bites off each syllable.
Through Mad Men and Top of the Lake, Moss has come to rival Gillian Anderson as our most GIF-able avatar of empowered womanhood. Her being cast as Offred therefore risked seeming merely clever. But Moss has a birdlike (or is that raptor-ish?) intelligence that comes alive in alien environments – no one else makes wariness this watchable, or responds so precisely.
Watch her draw her skirt deliberately down her thigh or stroke a Scrabble tile or let a chewed pink macaron fall from her mouth and into the bathroom sink, an indulgence rejected, her queasiness overcome with a sneer. A handmaid’s movements are so constrained and surveilled that Offred’s slightest gesture feels huge, almost theatrical. That holds true even when she’s performing just for herself.
The Handmaid’s Tale is especially sharp in observing woman’s cruelty to woman. The characters bruise each other’s arms and make snide asides: “I wouldn’t debase myself like that”; “We do all the work, and they pig out.” This behavior feels like the automatic recoil of their society’s baroque rituals of procreation, which force emotional identification on the participants. During childbirth, the wives gather in the parlor, encouraging the expectant one to breathe while she lies back and groans. The pregnant handmaid labors separately until the last minute, when the two women are positioned in parallel on a stool with two berths. Both of them scream. This is empathy so radical it’s actually theft.
The Handmaid’s Tale extends surprising sympathy toward the supposed beneficiaries of this system. Its camera sees Offred smirk at this pantomime, but it also follows the gaze of Serena Joy, who softens at seeing the handmaid cup a protective hand around the baby’s skull. The Commander’s wife recognizes, in the other woman, the mirror image of her maternal longing. Poignantly, she tries to frame their arrangement as a collaboration. “What you do, what we do together, is so terrible,” she says. “It’s – it’s terribly hard, and we must remain strong.” Their twisted sisterhood, a rivalry neither wants, is the show’s most compelling relationship so far.
To be fair, the series itself provides only a fuzzy account of how that takeover happened. (Things might feel clearer if, as in the novel, the setting resembled Boston – all blue laws and red brick, Brahmin airs and atavist guts.) Flashbacks fixate on everyday misogynist incidents, then careen to bombs going off in the streets. This makes a broad associative argument about how the free world ends. But those scenes of violence have a popcorn-movie flavor that cheapens the political notes. They condescend to the viewer, assuming a limited attention span even as the show calls for us to stay sharp-eyed about the creep of oppression. Fans may hope that exposure to this tale, on page or screen, might inoculate its audience against complacency. As Offred puts it: “Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before.” But to take back a term from the MRAs: At times it’s hard to tell whether we’re being handed a red pill or just a sugary placebo.