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The Handmaid’s Tale is an incredibly difficult show to watch. And that’s meant as a compliment. It is visceral, unrelenting, and unafraid to push its story, cast, and characters to the breaking point, and, in turn, force its audience to watch just how horrific this alternate dystopian world is. But, after watching the first three episodes that were made available for critics, it’s clear that this isn’t a series that joys in the darkness of the world its characters must traverse. Rather, The Handmaid’s Tale uses its conceit to churn out some of the best performances on television. It uses its dark American setting to shine a light on how seemingly small steps to remove autonomy from individuals can snowball into something terrible.
Closely adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name under the strong guiding hand of showrunner Bruce Miller, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of a United States that is now under a strict totalitarian rule by a conservative religious government and rechristened Gilead. Women are considered the property of the men in their lives. Homosexuality is back to being a disease to be cured or punished by more severe means. And something has occurred that has made nearly all women in the country barren.
Those women who are married to the wealthy men of the land (who are referred to as “Commanders”) enjoy some high society freedoms (the ability to come and go as they please chief among them). Those who are of the lower classes and infertile are called “Marthas” and forced to work as household servants for the rich (that is, if they aren’t part of the resistance, which will resign them to a much worse fate). Those few who are still able to conceive are given the title “Handmaid” and assigned to one of the high class households to produce a child for the family (the process of which is unflinchingly shown in the series).
The society at the center of The Handmaid’s Tale may be ruled by men, but the series is focused on the women of Gilead. As Offred, the titular Handmaid and the show’s narrator, Elisabeth Moss is giving the performance of her career, which is saying a lot considering her career includes some truly spectacular work on both Mad Men and Top of the Lake (and, shockingly, zero Emmy Awards). It’s not an easy role, as the story weaves in and out of both the past and present, but Moss is more than up to the task. Reed Moreno, the show’s executive producer and the director of the first three excellent episodes, uses extensive close-ups of Moss to help us further delve into Offred’s psyche. And with a simple quirk of the lips or raise of an eyebrow, Moss can communicate enough to elevate a seemingly inconsequential moment into a major character beat. Moreno’s expert eye has found its muse in Moss, turning Offred into a heroine one is hard pressed not to trust.
While Moss anchors the series, her fellow cast members are just as skilled. Of particular note are Yvonne Strahovski, who plays Serena Joy, the wife of Offred’s assigned Commander, and Alexis Bledel as Ofglen, Offred’s shopping partner and potential friend. The casting of Strahovski raised some eyebrows among fans of Atwood’s novel, as she is significantly younger than her literary counterpart, but making the character younger pays dividends. Having Offred and Serena Joy roughly the same age highlights the jealousy Serena Joy possesses toward the Handmaid. This other woman, so alike her in so many ways, is ostensibly able to give her husband the one thing Serena Joy cannot- a child. But the character isn’t solely defined by jealousy. Rather, Strahovski makes it clear that Serena Joy has additional reservations about the use of Handmaids. There’s a deeper insecurity within the character that comes out during her interactions with Offred, and even a level of empathy for what the Handmaids must endure. I came away from the three episodes with far more sympathy for Serena Joy than I ever had while reading the novel, and a great deal of that comes from Strahovski’s performance, which highlights the conflict in the character. While Serena Joy might have more power than Offred, she is just as trapped in this world. After all, without her husband, she would simply be another Martha, forced to tend the house without any agency of her own.
But it is Bledel’s performance that cut me to the core. If you read my review of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, you might recall I wasn’t a big fan of Bledel’s work. However, her work as Ofglen is layered and emotionally resonate. Without getting into her early arc, the character has been expanded from her role in the novel. As with Serena Joy, one of the highlights of the series is that we are given the chance to see how various characters respond to the world around them, rather than just having Offred’s viewpoint. This opens up the world and provides the chance for us to better understand the different characters’ journeys. And nowhere is this expansion more felt than with Ofglen. Bledel provides the character with the requisite fire needed to spark hope in Offred that there might be a way out of her current lot in life, along with enough emotional layers to make you fully invest in Ofglen’s deeply moving story. The third episode, which is Bledel’s showcase, is absolutely haunting and terrifying. I found myself in tears at its conclusion.
While I’ve singled out these performers, there really isn’t a weak link in the cast. Joseph Finnes (the Commander) and Max Minghella (Nick) aren’t given much to do in the initial three episodes, but I suspect that will change as the season rolls out. Ann Dowd (Aunt Lydia) is particularly horrific, as required by her character, and Madeline Brewer (Janine, a Handmaid) and her former Orange is the New Black co-star Samira Wiley (Moira, Offred’s friend from before) also do moving work in their roles. The show’s cinematography is also spectacular, washing out the landscapes and backgrounds to emphasize the color-coded clothing of the different castes within the society (the Handmaid red pops throughout, offering brightness while also highlighting how each Handmaid is isolated from the greater world around her).
The Handmaid’s Tale tells of a world in which women are valued only for their ability to birth children. It’s a world where one class of men hold all of the power, and lord it over those under them. Otherness and rebellion are punished in the most severe ways, and even thinking that there might be a way out can be enough to get one killed or worse. But it also presents a message that can resonate, particularly in a time when there is much uncertainty and fear in our own world. It warns us not to become complacent in our way of life. To question those in power and take steps to fight against those who might wish to strip rights from those without a voice. And while it is hard to watch the brutality and suffering the characters go through, it also allows us to take stock of all we have to protect and fight for.
The Handmaid’s Tale premieres on April 26th on Hulu. The first three of ten episodes will be released on the 26th, then one episode each week after.