Offred, the central character who narrates Margaret Atwood‘s 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” often closes a chapter with a pithy summation of her state of mind: “My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech” or “How can I keep on living?” or “So it was worse than I thought.” Offred, the narrator of Bruce Miller‘s adaptation of Atwood’s book, played by Elisabeth Moss, is pithier still; one of the first three episodes of Hulu‘s terrific new show, which will be available to watch on April 26th, ends with her internal monologue whispering just one word: “Fuck.”
It’s an indication that this is a updated take on the story — this ain’t your momma’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ — but the motives the behind the changes do not feel as crassly commercial as they so often do. Here, boasting Atwood’s own blessing per the credits, the stroke of inspiration has been to make Offred’s recent past feel very much like our present — all coffee shops and jogging dates and cellphones — and to make Offred, or June, as she was known Before, feel so relatably one of us. And so the dystopia it imagines is no longer the past’s idea of the future: it’s the future of now.
The show unfolds in the future after the old order has been abandoned and a new, hyper traditionalist structure has been imposed on this part of the one-time U.S.. Women are ruthlessly Old Testament-subjugated to men. Fertile women (because humanity is undergoing a “Children of Men“-style fertility drought) are forced to serve as “handmaids” — “breeding stock” as June’s best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) calls herself, for the childless elite. But there are also plentiful flashbacks to Before, which looks and feels like now, and so the jarring sight of Moss in her red robe with her nunlike white “wings” framing her face is juxtaposed against her old life. This is the cleverest caution that “The Handmaid’s Tale” can offer up to the viewers of 2017: June is a modern, liberated, middle-class woman with a good job and a loving partner, but she is also magnificently unwoke about the catastrophe that’s about to befall her, even as the evidence mounts all around. She is, and maybe we all are, as a lobster in a pot, aware that it’s getting hot in here, but drowsily incredulous, and too involved with the narrow business of living, to believe that it’s about to boil to death.
These first episodes are superbly directed by Reed Morano, carefully shot by DP Colin Watkinson, and the production and costume design is impeccable. Wiley is a warm, spiky presence in her flashback scenes, while Joseph Fiennes, as the commander to whom Offred is assigned, Yvonne Strahovski as his chilly wife, Max Minghella as his beetle-browed, hunky manservant Nick, Madeleine Brewer as the tortured Janine and Alexis Bledel as fellow Handmaid Ofglen are all perfectly cast. But this is Moss’ show — it’s her character’s “Tale” after all — and despite there being so much plot and exposition we could be getting into, it’s a performance that gets all the room to breathe that it deserves. If this were any other actress, we’d probably call the turn “revelatory” but it’s not, it’s Elisabeth Moss and she revealed herself a long time ago.
So there are moments here that happen all in the change in her expression — the fantastic millisecond with the Commander where she feels relaxed enough to make a slightly catty comment then immediately regrets it; the disingenuous, impenetrable half-smile she gives to Nick. These forcibly internalized emotions scud across her face like weather, in contrast to the open expressivity of the June from Before: now the world is all about secrecy and suppression. Looks are coded, just like words, and how she uses them or masks them is as subtle as the slightly changed inference that can make one of religious regime’s stock greetings — “May the Lord open” or “Under his eye”— read not as pious, but as subversive.
There is intrigue aplenty, and the world the show imagines is foreign enough that there’s an almost travelogue fascination to some of its details; demolished churches, public executions, arcane rituals, Biblical punishments. And by its nature it’s a feminist story, as the tide of resistance rises among the Handmaids, and in Offred herself. But it’s also scathingly critical of how women can be with other women: the suspicion and territoriality, the judgement, the complicity. There is solidarity but also psychosis in the extreme segregation the show imagines.
With only the first 3 episodes available, it’s impossible to say if the complete series will live up to its stellar beginning. And the real test will be in how well it manages to close that pincer movement between June’s remembered past and Offred’s treacherous present — at the moment both strands are fascinating, but they exist in parallel. There still feels like a gulf between Offred’s world and June’s and how convincingly they can finally be shown to exist along one continuous timeline will really be the proof of the show’s approach.
But these first episodes are certainly a brilliant, compellingly moreish start, for Peak TV viewers, and for Hulu, who have been bubbling under in the streaming-service rankings for a while now, but who seem poised to make a big play. Recently, they announced an unprecedented partnership with Annapurna, and while their original content has never quite broken out in the way Netflix and Amazon projects have, “The Handmaid’s Tale” could, and by rights should, change all that. It’s a show whose relevance makes it bigger than itself.
At the end of each episode, you come back to the real world (sometimes a bit too jarringly, thanks to the self-consciously arch anachronistic pop tunes that play over the end credits — though I should note that it’s possible those will have changed by the time the show airs). And bleak as the show’s prognosis for our culture may be, there is also something galvanizing and inspiring about it, that urges against the complacency June displays in those early flashbacks. “The Handmaid’s Tale” elegantly feeds the flame of resistance right now by making us realize that even this world, this broken old thing, that is in so many ways less than it was even a year ago, is still something we can lose, and therefore still something worth fighting for. Episodes 1-3: [A-]