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THE HANDMAID’S TALE is One of the Best New Shows in Years (Review)

THE HANDMAID’S TALE is One of the Best New Shows in Years (Review)

“I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen.” – Offred

It’s hard to know where to begin with a review of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood‘s iconic novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. There’s just so much to say. The dystopian tale of Offred and her female handmaid compatriots—forced by their own government to serve as incubators for the upper ranks of a new, religiously radicalized post-America unable to conceive—is rife with social commentary that is even more prescient in 2017 than it was in 1985, the year it was published. The parallels? Unending. The fear? Frighteningly relevant. That Handmaid’s Tale can do all of this with visual aplomb, emotional resonance, and incredibly fraught but riveting tension, makes it one of the strongest TV debuts in years.

In all my years of writing about television, no one series has affected me as much as The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaid’s Tale‘s strengths are many. Elisabeth Moss stars as Offred, the series’ protagonist and our narrative entry-point into this brave new world. And, true to form, hers is a performance most affecting. In a distant future, America is no more: a hostile takeover has brought about the Republic of Gilead, a fundamentalist government with Christian origins, hewing an extremely narrow line of Biblical interpretation for the sake of preserving the future, a.k.a. the world’s dwindling population and increased infertility.

And any woman able to conceive has been captured and brought to the Re-Education Center (Red Center for short), where they are taught the ways of this new world. The newly dubbed Offred, her longtime friend Moira (Samira Wiley), and the misguided Janine (Madeline Brewer) all struggle in different ways with how Gilead came to be and the government’s new rules. In this world, women are (once again) property without free will, barred from working, voting, reading, owning things, or having money of their own.

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Skillfully used flashbacks and narration, via Offred, paint the stark contrasts of life before and after Gilead and how easily something so devastating can happen. But it is in her latest assignment where our story begins. Offred is committed to the house of the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). She is forced into a “friendship” with a fellow neighborhood handmaid—because they must always travel in pairs—with Ofglen (played by Alexis Bledel). It is this friendship, at first brimming with distrust, that Offred finally begins to see the reality of her situation.

And it must be said that Bledel takes on a role unlike any we’ve ever seen her in before (this is no Sisterhood of the Traveling Gilmores Tale). And in a rare move of deviation, Serena Joy is no old maid, but rather a vibrant woman of similar age to Offred, further amplifying the tension and nuanced dynamic between the two characters. There is no love between Serena Joy and Offred, both doing their best in the roles in which they’re allowed to exist, and it’s a harrowing thing to watch. A scene of the Ceremony—the moment of attempted conception—is particularly devastating to watch in this regard. Both Moss and Strahovski do some of their most brutally heartbreaking work opposite each other, forced into a bond neither wants, but must submit to in order to survive.

“Better never means better for everyone.” – The Commander

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The brutality of Handmaid’s Tale cannot be understated, even if violence is rarely wrought on-screen—though when it is, it is truly stirring. (A particular moment at the end of the pilot is sure to linger on your mind long after the credits roll.) This brutality is far more insidious and, in turn, true to life in this iteration. It is a psychological wolf in sheep’s clothing. The subtlety of how Gilead comes to be is akin to that of a frog in a pot of water, boiling over slowly, sealing the frog’s fate before it can react to the reality of its impending death. “I was asleep before,” Offred laments in narration. “That’s how we let it happen.” In The Handmaid’s Tale, the true villain is apathy.

Atwood’s novel, a tale of speculative fiction, rises to the ranks of cautionary tale in the hands of an incredibly capable cabal of cast and creators. Bruce Miller (The 100, Alphas, Eureka) and Warren Littlefield (Fargo, My Generation) serve as executive producers, bringing to life a world built on utilizing deceit and distrust to propagate fear and a religious agenda. Rounding out an impeccable main cast include the likes of Ann Dowd, Max Minghella, and O-T Fagbenle, each of whom makes incredible work with their time on-screen (especially Dowd, whose horrifying Aunt Lydia teaches the new world order to the women of the Red Center and continues to cement her place as one of the all-time great character actresses).

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But perhaps the biggest surprise star of the series is director of the first three episodes, Reed Morano. Most notable for her work as a cinematographer (The Skeleton Twins, Kill Your DarlingsMeadowland), Morano was also DP on the “Sandcastles” video from Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade. In this series, however, Morano’s strengths are cranked up to eleven. Using a vibrant-yet-muted palette to transform the ordinary into something that feels mysterious, new, and also familiar, her ability to evoke tension with stillness is used to heroic effect as Offred’s tale unfolds. You are lulled into a false sense of comfort by the natural light and lush imagery, all the while a creeping anxiety looms in the back of your mind, forcing you to the edge of your seat. You know that, for all its simple beauty, something is seriously wrong here. (Remember that sleepiness we mentioned before?) It’s a cognitive dissonance used to spectacular effect—sort of like how Gilead came to be.

If I had my druthers, The Handmaid’s Tale would be required viewing for any and everyone alive and living (in America especially) today. Religious extremism, nationalist tendencies, sexism, sexuality, the power of belief—all these ideas are dissected and wrought to terrifying effect in the series’ first three episodes. How a small but vocal and fervent minority gains control of a nation, revoking the rights of women, ever so slowly, under the guise of belief, is—frankly—too damn timely to ignore. Gilead came about because we were too late to recognize the power of doctrine and fear. Here, the only thing you should be scared of is sleeping on this vital, riveting, explosive, and engrossing new series.

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The Handmaid’s Tale premieres its 10-episode first season on Hulu Wednesday, April 26th, with new installments airing weekly. Are you looking forward to it? Let us know in the comments below.

5 out of 5 Gileadean burritos:

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Images: Hulu

Alicia Lutes is the Managing Editor of Nerdist, creator/host of Fangirling!, and frequent over-user of Twitter.

Still not convinced? See why Dan Casey wants you to watch it, too:

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