This article contains information that could be considered too revealing according to our spoiler policy. Proceed with caution. You can't unsee it!Reason The show's first three episodes don't premiere until the day after this post's publication; we got screeners.
Should You Hearken To The Handmaid's Tale?
Hulu's series adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel is a...very upsetting storytime. But is it one you shouldn't miss?
What Is This Thing?
After a theocratic coup falsely represented as an ISIS attack reduces America to just two states (the rest known as Gilead, governed by a fundamentalist Christian junta), Offred secretly struggles against her new reality: forced into obstetric servitude to a powerful Commander in the new regime, and his infertile wife.
When Is It On?
The first three episodes will premiere on Hulu April 26; the first season's remaining seven episodes will appear once per week, on Wednesdays.
Why Was It Made Now?
The world was a very different place when Hulu announced, last April, that it was adapting Margaret Atwood's novel as a series. Since then, actual current events since Donald Trump was elected president -- from xenophobic anti-Muslim fearmongering to legislative attacks on women's reproductive health and workplace protections -- have made the timing of the show's arrival eerily prescient.
What's Its Pedigree?
Credited as series creator is Bruce Miller, previously a producer on The 100 and ER, among many others. Reed Morano, a feature film cinematographer (Frozen River) turned multiple award nominee for her directorial début Meadowland, is an executive producer here and directs at least the first three episodes; Warren Littlefield -- known for running NBC in its '90s golden age, but more recently an executive producer on Fargo -- is an executive producer here as well. Atwood, who published the novel on which the series was based in 1985, is credited as a consulting producer -- a title that was not granted her on 1990's (crappy) feature film adaptation.
In front of the camera, Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men; Top Of The Lake) plays our heroine, Offred. Samira Wiley (Orange Is The New Black) is Moira, Offred's friend since college, from "before"; O-T Fagbenle (Looking) plays Offred's husband Luke. Commander Fred Waterford and his wife Serena Joy are played by Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare In Love; American Horror Story: Asylum) and Yvonne Strahovski (24: Live Another Day; Chuck). Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls) plays Ofglen, Offred's fellow Handmaid and shopping partner; Max Minghella (The Social Network; The Mindy Project) is Nick, the Commander's driver; and Ann Dowd (The Leftovers, Compliance) plays Aunt Lydia, an instructor at the Rachel & Leah Center who teaches the few remaining fertile women how to be post-apocalyptic Handmaids.
If you've read the book (and you should; it's tremendous), you might doubt that a TV series could do it justice. First, there's its extremely tough subject matter: Offred is telling this story because, in an era in which female fertility has declined precipitously -- men's may have too, but in a patriarchal theocracy, that's not likely to be investigated -- the fact that she might still be able to get pregnant is the reason she's been abducted, brutally trained as a "Handmaid" (obstetric concubine, basically), and assigned to the Waterfords. And the fact that she has already been pregnant -- her eight-year-old daughter Hannah has been taken from her and placed, she presumes, to be raised by another powerful family -- is the reason Offred hasn't tried to end her suffering in suicide; she's staying alive in hopes that she and her daughter will be reunited someday. For love of Hannah, Offred endures even as all communication must be carefully self-censored at risk of arrest (or worse) by the Eyes, the regime's Gestapo; as other Handmaids around her are being emotionally and physically tortured; as the terms of her enslavement as a Handmaid means that she submits to regular state-sanctioned rape by the Commander, the back of her neck in Serena's crotch while Serena grips her wrists (to approximate Leah's directing her husband Jacob to impregnate her maiden in Genesis 30:18). When an understanding of the action and characters requires an explanation for why the protagonist hasn't killed herself yet, you can expect that it will be heavy going.
The other aspect of the novel that could have made it hard to film is how much of it is told through Offred's narration -- but since a good Handmaid is supposed to be impassively blank, Moss's expressionless face and Offred's clinical description of her silent rage, terror, longing work together very effectively. It's also easy to tell when we move from the horrific present to the merely foreboding past thanks to...well, the costuming. And how deeply the legal misogyny has rooted itself.
I'll be interested to see how much viewers who haven't read the book see it as a specifically anti-Trump polemic, because allllllll the political stuff is straight from the thirty-two-year-old text. (It's so old that when it came out Trump not only hadn't divorced Ivana yet but wouldn't divorce her for seven more years.) The depressing, awful fact is that the nightmare scenario for a liberal democracy (takeover by a ruthless authoritarian regime), the credible pretext for suspending the Constitution (threat of radical Islamic terrorism), and women's ultimate fear (the state seizing control over their bodies and autonomy) are the same now as they were in the Reagan years. ...LOL??? Sorry. I just really can't overstate how very grim this is.
All that said, rereading the book in 2017, my brain insisted on picturing the Commander as Mike Pence, so seeing him in the comparatively attractive person of Joseph Fiennes was a bit jarring. In the movie, twenty years separated Natasha Richardson (Offred) and the Commander (Robert Duvall); here, the age difference between Moss and Fiennes is just eleven. Fiennes does what he can to make himself less appealing -- producing a cloth handkerchief and furtively wiping off his genitals after his first sex scene with Offred; but the Commander of the book is hard to pin down in terms of how he feels about the Gilead regime, so while that gives the show a lot of latitude with regard to how it portrays him while still staying true to the book, I worry a little that casting someone relatively young and certainly physically attractive -- those mournful eyes! plus he's friggin' Shakespeare!!! -- may mean the Commander may get a sympathetic slant here.
As to the book/show relationship, generally: the first three episodes -- which were made available for critics, and will all drop on the show's premiere date -- hew very closely to the novel's story. Where the story deviates most widely, so far, is in showing us events from the perspectives of characters other than Offred, most notably Ofglen, who's revealed at the end of the first episode to be a revolutionary working to undermine the regime, and whose story later branches off from Offred's in a way that doesn't involve her directly. I can understand the interest on the creators' part to broaden the scope of the story and show us angles on Gilead other than those that are visible from the Commander's house -- the third episode, "Late," ends on a powerful scene that couldn't have existed in the book; however, the book is so perfect that it's hard for me not to be worried that the show's world is going to get too large.
TV shows love injecting action even into stories where it might not make sense -- I was very interested in the concept of The Affair until it also had to be a murder mystery for some reason, to name but one bad example -- so I am kind of worried that someone might have decided that Offred's tense torture might have required a supplementary plotline involving Ofglen Sydney Bristowing around elsewhere. Nowhere in the show's marketing does it state that it's a Big Little Lies-esque limited series (not that any such claims are ever firm anyway, UNDER THE DOME...and Big Little Lies, for that matter). Are the show's writers working off a five-season show Bible that picks up after the last scene in the book? Nothing's stopping them from doing that, but I really, really hope they don't.
This will be very hard to watch for anyone sensitive to portrayals of violence (sexual and otherwise), miscarriages, slavery, misogyny, homophobia -- basically, the things we've all been protesting the past three months, taken to either a science-fiction extreme or their logical conclusion, depending on how pessimistic you may be. But it's extremely well-made, bracing, and necessary. You should watch.