It must have been awfully tempting for the folks at Hulu to hurry up and release their magnificent and effectively haunting 10-episode version of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on Margaret Atwood’s novel about an America that has become a fascist, fundamentalist Christian theocracy that strips away the rights of women. Back in January, say, when women across the country marched the streets in knitted pink hats to protest the arrival of the Trump administration and sales of George Orwell’s “1984” saw an impressive jump, I thought Hulu might try to catch the wave and release the series ahead of its April 26 premiere.
But the streaming network waited, and smartly so. The combination of anxiety and scorn that preoccupies half (or more) of the nation’s attention is best dealt with as a marathon rather than as a sprint, which is hard to remember when the incessant social-media machine chews up and regurgitates politics, news and culture into one continuous mush. While the president agitates to wall off the United States, media consumers have torn down whatever flimsy barriers remained between entertainment and dire fact. Now John Oliver’s humorous diatribes and Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impressions are part of the day’s headlines.
It’s not enough to simply say that “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which went into production long before last year’s election, has arrived at a vital moment; the novel, first published in 1985, has been relevant again and again to different generations of readers, both female and male. This series, which is worth every penny of a Hulu subscription, would be must-see TV in any context, including one with a woman as president. Our fractured culture needs it.
In the current mood, “The Handmaid’s Tale” comes across as a quiet, profoundly unsettling what-if. The first three episodes made available for this review are an admirable work of adaptation and execution; Atwood’s premise, then and now, describes a situation that seems at first outlandish, yet its plausibility has a way of creeping up on the viewer, much as it crept up on the society it depicts. “The Handmaid’s Tale” sets off an alarm in the viewer, showing how the smallest freedoms are the first to disappear, followed by a radical reordering of one’s world.
The first two hours lay a groundwork that mostly adheres to the novel: After a mass slaughter of elected leaders, martial law is declared in America, the Constitution is suspended and a paramilitary force takes power. In a pious locked-down nation now called Gilead, court cases are decided by biblical scripture; women are not allowed to work or have money; gay men, lesbians and others accused of “gender treachery” are hanged — along with doctors, priests and professors. Their hooded corpses are strung up and displayed for all to see.
A woman named June (“Mad Men’s” Elisabeth Moss) and her husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), are caught on the back roads of Maine while trying to cross into Canada with their young daughter. Knocked unconscious, June is taken to a re-education center where women who have been “red-tagged” as fertile are brainwashed by a ferocious unit of matronly minders led by Aunt Lydia (“The Leftovers’”Ann Dowd). Once they are sufficiently reformed, the women are assigned as “handmaids” to the homes of elite commanders of the new regime, where, in a scenario taken from the Rachel and Jacob story in the 30th chapter of Genesis, they serve as surrogates to bear children for the commanders and their wives.
Stripped even of her name and the right to read, June, now wearing the official red gown of handmaids, is assigned to the house of Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). June temporarily assumes the name Offred (literally “of Fred”) and must submit to a regular ritual in the couple’s master bedroom, in which she lies on her back between Serena Joy’s knees, while the commander attempts to impregnate her. (As it is written in Genesis: “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.”)
“The Handmaid’s Tale” has envisioned a future in which pollution caused fertility rates to plummet, thus Offred’s fate hangs on her ability to become pregnant and carry a child to term. Many handmaids get pregnant but deliver what is ruefully referred to as an “unbaby” (the show makes great use of Atwood’s ear for creepy newspeak, which rivals Orwell’s). If she fails, Offred will be reassigned or, if judged infertile, sent away to the toxic cleanup camps known as “the colonies.”
Interpreting “The Handmaid’s Tale” for those who haven’t read it is a tricky business; the basic plot has a way of seeming ludicrous and even strident on any page except one written by Atwood. A 1990 film version starring Natasha Richardson (with a screenplay by Harold Pinter) was faithful to the book but failed to fully access the story’s urgency and deep sense of paranoia. A decade later, a Danish composer turned it into an opera, various stagings of which were met with mixed reviews.
This time, creator/showrunner Bruce Miller (whose credits include work on NBC’s “E.R.” and CW’s sci-fi adventure “The 100”) and his co-producers, writers and directors have found just the right way to bring the book to life. By expanding it into a series, there is more time to linger on the everyday horrors of June’s life in dystopia.
In the lead role, Moss has easily won whatever bet “Mad Men” fans might have made regarding the futures of that show’s cast. The trip from the sexism experienced in the 1960s by Peggy Olson to the religious enslavement of Offred is shorter than one might expect. As with the novel, the script relies on Offred/June’s internal dialogue with herself, which doubles as narration. Moss’s impressive performance rests in the slightest facial expressions as June suppresses her urge to rebel. She has no idea what became of her husband or daughter, and tries to keep her memories of them in check.
Broadening the story allows “The Handmaid’s Tale” to elaborate on some of Atwood’s other characters, including Ofglen (a subtle yet stunning performance from “Gilmore Girls’” Alexis Bledel), who is the first to surreptitiously inform Offred that there is a resistance movement afoot. Captured by Gilead’s surveillance patrols (a.k.a. “Eyes”), Bledel’s character experiences a horrifying round of discipline that wasn’t depicted in the novel, which was limited to Offred’s narrative point of view.
Offred/June’s flashbacks to life before the revolution are similarly expanded, allowing this “Handmaid’s Tale” to elaborate on the backstory of June’s best friend, Moira (“Orange Is the New Black’s” Samira Wiley), who is also sent to the handmaids’ training center. The third episode includes some of the show’s most unnerving flashbacks, when June and Moira are out for a jog. They stop for coffee to find their usual barista, a woman, has been replaced by a man who informs June that her debit card doesn’t work. He calls the women crude names and kicks them out of the cafe.
June and Moira and all American women simultaneously discover that their access to bank accounts has been frozen. The next day, armed guards show up at June’s workplace, where a nervous male supervisor tells the women on the staff that they’ve all been let go. “It’s the law now,” he says.
As the women are given 10 minutes to pack their things, not one man rises to their defense. At home, Luke assures June that he can take care of her, which, as Moira angrily and correctly points out, is just the sort of patronizing, dehumanizing tactic that the de-facto government is counting on — men treating women like property to protect. Not too many days later, the new regime’s army opens fire on a rally of protesters. It’s remarkable how quickly the country falls apart.
To some viewers, I suppose, this will all seem like liberal, feminist fearmongering that borders on (to use the worst term at hand) hysteria. The phrase “now more than ever” has become a tiresome cliche in the past few months, but so what: “The Handmaid’s Tale” is here and it demands our attention, now more than ever.
The Handmaid’s Tale (10 episodes) begins streaming Wednesday on Hulu with episodes 1-3. New episodes will follow weekly.