The first few minutes of Hulu‘s new series The Handmaid’s Tale start in tense pursuit that might make it seem like an effective but familiar contemporary drama – a family desperately trying to out-run those who would seek to do them harm. Giving no real clue of time and place, we’re immediately thrown in to the story, instantly invested in the family’s welfare but knowing nothing of real context as yet. And in some ways this is the only nod to traditional ‘action’ that you’ll get, at least in the opening salvo. Everything that happens in the first hour of this adaptation is far more quiet and subdued, dripping in sinister oversight and claustrophobic mood, but also coiled like a taught spring in an un-pinned – but not yet detonated grenade – rather than exploding like formulaic gunfire.
And in that sense, it’s a description that sums up this timely adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel – a pitch-perfect endeavour as we slowly begin to fill in the details of a terrible future that feels like the past… and balance it with the scary consequences it has wrought. We are introduced, flashback by flashback and through the inner monologue of our central character Offred (Elisabeth Moss), to some of the moments that have led to this. A worldwide epidemic leaves a majority of women unable to bear children and those who can forced into servitude that the whim of a patriarch-driven society enabled by women of higher status. It might not be immediately clear how the tectonic shift in culture happened so quickly (the series continues to explore this and we can see more in the fuller series trailer below), but in a matter of years humanity takes action and legislation (suspending rights and the basic constitution for ‘the greater good’) and is set back by more than a century in its attitudes. But for Offred, her memories of better times are both a luxury and a necessity – it’s now more a matter of basic survival and finding a way through a daily existence where fertility can’t be resisted and resistance seems futile.
There are those who will point to some of the seismic shifts in modern politics as a reminder of just how quickly rights and regulations can be turned around and there’s no denying that this television adaptation, though taking it several steps beyond and into a more blatant theocracy, speaks to all those feelings about how women – and their health and rights – can be treated. This isn’t a gun-toting heroine quipping her way through the enemy, it’s a woman learning the skills of survival and subversion against impossible odds.
Moss, who viewers will remember from the likes of The West Wing and Mad Men is quite exceptional as Offred, often having to act through brief looks of panic and anger, only her eyes revealing her true feelings as she goes through the rituals of this new world. Some of those duties are mundane – the shopping and household duties, the others truly horrific, legally allowed to be clinically raped by the master of the household (assisted by his wife) in an effort to produce children. Often it’s only Offred/Moss’s internal monologue that shows her true anger and horror, though a violent outburst near the end of the first episode shows just how tightly wound the character has become. Moss also acts as a producer for the series and has spoken to the fact it’s been a passion project to bring to the screen.
There’s also compelling work from the likes of Joseph Fiennes as Commander Waterford, the head of the household and Chuck’s Yvonne Strahovski as his wife Serena. Gilmore Girls Alexis Bledel and Madeline Brewer.
Deep, dark and unsettling, it has its fair share of bad language, sexual assault and foreboding brutality, but its overall intensity is magnified by the choice of subtle emotional power rather than what could have been an easier and lazier ‘shock-value’ explicitness. This is not a show that will ‘entertain’, but it is likely to hold your attention throughout and provoke much discussion in the weeks to come.