I am not one who usually watches a lot of TV; maybe I get through two or three shows year typically. In fact, for most of the past two months I have been watching Star Trek: The Next Generation again. However, luckily for me, I have my fiancee, Eva, who occasionally makes me watch new things. One evening, she suggested The Handmaid’s Tale, the Hulu (What is HULU?) original series. Having read the book nearly fifteen years ago and with the vague premise in my head, I decided to give it a go and what I found was that it is probably one of the most intriguing stories I have had the good fortune to see in the last five years since starting SWN?! and writing these reviews.
The Handmaid’s Tale is about a Handmaid – a fertile woman – in a dystopian future where the United States was overthrown and in its place the Republic of Gilead has emerged. A quasi-theonomic military dictatorship. It is a society where men hold all the power, and they want to restore the country back to the founding principles of Christianity making a truly Christian nation out of the remnants of the Union. The story is told through the current timeline and flashback of Offred (Elisabeth Moss), the titular Handmaid, and her life as one of the very few fertile females left in the world. As you can probably tell from all my other writings, I am about to gush about the world building and setting, however, unlike other shows/movies or games I have written about in the past, the world does not develop off-screen or via small glimpses scattered amongst long verse of dialogue. Instead, it is done through the eyes of some truly magnificent characters and superb acting.
Let us start with the obvious, I love the world that The Handmaid’s Tale has created. The Republic of Gilead is unsettling in that you could be fooled into thinking you are watching a period drama for long parts of the show until suddenly you realize that there is armed military personnel just out of site of the main area the show is set. The world is full of intrigue and mystery; with spies, counterspies, international resistance, underground movements and of course the Republic trying to maintain its tight grip on its all. The story, as mentioned, plays out slowly, revealing a little more about how the Republic of Gilead works. Whilst slow it allow us to understand that politically and militarily, Gilead took control of the United States and its key resource, fertile women. For unknown reasons, infertility rates and infant mortality rates have both been increasingly on the rise. Though it is believed that this is only true amongst women, it becomes more apparent that this equally affects men.
Those in charge of Gilead seem to think this is due to the degradation of religious morals of the United States and set about setting up a new world order where the elites have their wives, and a handmaid to produce children. They run their house much like a 17th or 18th-century lord would, only with 21st-century technology to keep their picturesque ideal protected. The way this is told through flashbacks and strong acting presence of Offred’s Commander (Joseph Fiennes), his wife Serena, (played by one of my Editor’s favourite actresses, Yvonne Strahovski) and their driver Nick (Max Minghella). None of them seems happy in this new world, which some of them helped create, but all play their roles, despite all offering resistance to it in their own ways. The tense atmosphere and nostalgic feeling for the world that appeared strong in all of them and the cast capture this so perfectly; always seeming to wear a mask to hide their true feelings. The voiceovers from Offred offer more insight, with her paling role as a Handmaid but realising she could simply kill Serena or the Commander and analyzing what could happen, what would happen, and whether she is strong enough to cope with that.
In a way, the Handmaid’s Tale is very much a prison drama, only that the prison is the new society itself. It wasn’t until writing this article that I came to realize how true that is, down to the fact that everyone in Gilead even has a colour-coded uniform to indicate their role within the society. While the society’s ultimate goal is to produce healthy children, something that much of the rest of the world cannot do, it becomes clearer that those in power, will not give up what they had in the previous world, constantly bending or outright breaking the rules of this new order to fulfill their own personal goals, whims and desires. In many ways, those such as the Commander are the prison guards who hold all the keys, yet are also trapped inside the prison as well.
The show at times has made me extremely uncomfortable with topics such as sex as a weapon of control and rebellion, sexual assault, sexual mutilation and morals so grey that I’m not sure I could say I root for any one character. One of the cardinal rules in writing is to create characters the audience can root for, however, with very few exceptions, the Handmaid’s Tale makes it hard to support any character. However, it still has me coming back to watch over and over again. Not that being uncomfortable is necessarily a bad thing. As we’ve seen from the recent issues in Hollywood, willing consent and consent under duress are very different and has even led to Eva and myself having conversations about where the line begins to blur and realizing that men and women see that line very differently. This is something that I think the team behind The Handmaid’s Tale do incredibly well to make me even have those kinds of conversations. Sex is a topic that we as a society do not often go into deep detail about – especially the darker depths of the subject – but The Handmaid’s Tale does so in a way that is disturbing and revealing about the human condition at the same time.
While trying to think of criticisms, the only thing I can think of is the odd pacing of parts of the story. The later episodes feel much faster paced while ratcheting up tensions, it loses the dread that slower creeping earlier episodes have. However, this is also reflected in the main character of Offred as her character grows more and she becomes less meek, but that creates more danger. As the series goes on, we see other stories from before the rise of Gilead which is fantastic for world-building but does have the issue of seeming to lose focus the core ideas of the show. It is also very very intense as you can imagine, which while a good thing for a weekly show, can be emotionally taxing if you are binging the entire series like I am.
Though these are minor points, I will highly recommend this show to anyone and with the 2017 SWN?! Awards around the corner, The Handmaid’s Tale will be at the top of my voting card for best show of the year!