A hauntingly engrossing, evocative and vivid rendering of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale is compulsive television that presents many terrifying possibilities and ideas that will leave you glued to the screen but shaken. Be warned, spoilers may follow in my review of this season. Plus, I’ve just read that the show has been renewed for a second season which should be interesting.
In a future version of what was North America, the Republic of Gilead has come into power through unjust and harsh means. It rules with totalitarian authority and oppresses all, particularly women. They are divided into various ranks and treated as second class citizens by a male dominated world that uses religion to justify its regime. It is seen as a return to ‘traditional values’ by those in power, but is upheld by extreme brutality. Over the years, birth rates have plummeted and only a handful of women can bear children. Offred(Elisabeth Moss) is a handmaiden who represents the main character. She had a different name and a life before the rise of Gilead, but it is forbidden to talk about it now. She also had a husband named Luke(O.T. Fagbenle) and daughter, who we see was snatched away when they attempted to escape Gilead for the border. We hear her thoughts as she leads us through her terrifying circumstances. The main job of a handmaiden is to provide offspring for the household they are assigned too, as a sexual slave to a high-ranking official known as a Commander. The ceremony is a forceful one in which the women have no choice and are basically victims of institutionalized rape. Earlier, the handmaids are conditioned and brutalised by The Aunts, a group of women who drill into them the horrifying duty they must perform and use violence if disobeyed. Offred is stationed at house of Commander Fred Waterford(Joseph Fiennes). His wife Serena Joy(Yvonne Strahovski) , who was one of the instrumental figures in crafting Gilead, is desperate for a child and often acts in a cold manner to Offred due to her being barren. Navigating her way through this horrible existence, Offred slowly chafes at it and with the memories of her daughter and husband still with her, stiffens her backbone. For she intends to survive the hellish universe and with help from other handmaid’s who are part of a form of resistance, she may just do it. But in this tormented and oppressive world, can anyone truly escape?
Right off the bat, The Handmaid’s Tale is loaded thematic meat and backbone in the most eye-opening way. What definitely strokes the hardest is that the events depicted don’t seem that far removed from genuine reality and can be read as highly topical too. We live in a time where the future could go either way in terms of attitudes and God knows what else, so The Handmaid’s Tale functions as something of a wake up call to many. Themes of female subjugation, physical, sexual and emotional abuse along with rebellion, dictatorship and corrupt power flow like a river in this horrifying but compulsive series. Having Offred be the guiding force of the narrative, particularly her narration, is a well employed tool for framing the show. Often, her voice is at odds with her actions due to the way that the society has forced her into submission. But crucially it places right into her mindset and how the world is seen through her eyes. We are privy to important information that moves the story along and allows us to be witness to her growing strength and rebellion.
On the visual side, shallow focus is supremely well employed in capturing the conflict of the world and just how much it takes a toll on the much abused women. Offred is the main window into events and intense close-ups that frame her are some of the most piercing moments in this disturbing tale. Bright lighting for exterior shots is one example of a pointed irony that permeates from the series throughout. The blinding sunlight is very much the opposite of what life is like for Offred and her fellow handmaid’s and that juxtaposition is palpably terrifying and cloistered. When inside, only a shaft of light creeps into the spaces which benefits the growing hope inside Offred as well as the dire situation at hand. In fact, irony is one of the shows greatest assets as it horrifies and disturbs with how the world has fallen. From the handmaid’s being coerced into beating a man supposedly guilty of rape to death and a ceremony of sham for visiting dignitaries, the unfairness and hypocrisy of Gilead knows just how to unnerve the audience and shock with deep intent. The low murmuring of the sinister score echoes throughout the episodes, with a definite haunting quality that is both futuristic and spooky.
Leading the cast is the exceptional Elisabeth Moss as Offred. A mixture of desperation and steely gumption colours the work, with Moss hitting the notes and beats excellently in conveying the situation of a woman trying to persevere in a world of horror. so much is displayed through her eyes- fear, determination, pathos and defiance largely due to the fact that her character is trying to survive a regime that keeps everyone oppressed and silent. Elisabeth Moss has a gift for subtlety that is nonetheless expressive and nuanced, a string in her well armed bow that strikes to the heart of Offred and explores her beautifully. It’s a remarkable piece of acting that highlights just how talented an actress Moss is as she charts a gathering storm of feeling Offred goes through. Joseph Fiennes finds a deep ambiguity in the Commander, who is one of those responsible for the rise of Gilead. He manages to be both creepy and strangely charismatic, you never quite know what to make of him as he is a layered character. Yvonne Strahovski is cruel, cold and ever so desperate behind it all as the melancholy wife of the Commander. Chinks of humanity lie behind her nasty facade of devout righteousness as she knows that she is essentially a prisoner of what she wanted, but she’s best when being vindictive and callous.
Alexis Bledel is another fine addition to the series, essaying a tragedy and alternating will. Playing a seemingly pious handmaid who is in fact a member of resistance against government, Bledel, much like Moss and her eyes, uses her orbs to enact her varying emotions to amazing degrees. I ask anyone to not feel intense feeling when she is put through the wringer of sadness and possible hope as Bledel is so good at making a very lasting impression. Madeleine Brewer, with alarming and childlike mannerisms, gets to the core of her part, who has been ground into near madness by conditioning and trauma. She has some of the most eventful moments in the series and delivers the goods. On scene-stealing form is Ann Dowd, who makes the absolute most of her time on screen. Starring as one of the Aunts, she is severe, abusive and authoritative. But Dowd goes beyond just the temptation to make her a simple villain by unearthing that she too is somewhat brainwashed by the cause and seriously believes she is doing God’s will. Samira Wiley, with her strong face and intense demeanor, compliments Moss when she appears largely in flashback as her best friend. Her sense of attitude and sarcasm are a welcome relief in a series that is largely dark. Max Minghella is another ambiguous presence, portraying the driver to the Commander who may or may not have bad intentions. He is most explored through his tenuous relationship with Offred, that shows that he’s got some good in him yet we still don’t know whether he is trustworthy or not. O.T. Fagbenle rounds out the cast as the husband of Offred, who appears for a big chunk in flashback. He is a welcome reminder that there was once goodness within man before Gilead totally took over.
A truly disturbing yet completely compelling series that benefits from its execution, visuals and acting, The Handmaid’s Tale truly stays with you for a long time after viewing it.