Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale commences with a failed escape, with thirtysomething Jane (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), and their daughter, Hannah (Jordanna Blake), scrambling through the woods of New England toward the Canadian border, pursued by a militia that’s just overthrown the United States government. Jane and Hannah are separately apprehended and Luke is killed. It’s a grim start to a grim series.
Now a handmaid with a new name, Jane belongs to a class of women drafted into service by America’s new totalitarian regime. Jane’s nonsensical moniker, Offred, is a utilitarian designation—“Of-Fred”—bestowed by her captors to reflect her ownership status: Fred (Joseph Fiennes) is Offred’s assigned commander. The coup has been accompanied by a coincidental plague of infertility, and handmaids function as reproductive vessels for their commanders. The series tries with middling success to balance the story of her subjugation with a sprawling allegory of female persecution.
The Handmaid’s Tale is tonally, unrelentingly dread-inducing. After the ascension of a government based on the most horrifying and cruel tenets of the Old Testament, America has yielded to totalitarian rule. In the show’s first three episodes alone, characters are tortured, raped, murdered, genitally mutilated (as punishment for homosexuality), and viciously reprimanded for infractions as trivial as a whisper. The dehumanizing role of handmaid is apparently favorable compared to alternative fates in this society.
Adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, the decades-old story is unexpectedly resonant in 2017. As such, The Handmaid’s Tale will surely be declared “timely,” “relevant,” and “necessary.” Truthfully, though, socially conscious criticism is destined to reduce the series to its worst qualities. The proximity of The Handmaid’s Tale to America’s culture war obscures the personal story unfolding within the show’s dystopia. Flashbacks to the installation of a new regime arouse a morbid curiosity: Could this actually happen? And if it did, is this how it would unfold? Offred’s personal drama is consumed by the institutional drama of a zealous ideology at work.
The Handmaid’s Tale is at its best when focusing on the oppressed, instead of the oppressors.
As a social allegory, the series is unfocused and without nuance. More than that, the allegory feels calibrated for a distinctly different time. Decades before the idea of social media echo chambers shaping a presidential election, Atwood’s book presented a radical and urgent message. It meant to force a conversation about systemic oppression that wasn’t being had. In 2017, the message feels late to a conversation that’s overtaken niche status, has been underway for some time, and has in fact come to an impasse. The show’s politics simultaneously preach to a likeminded choir and scream into the void left by arch conservatives who would likely dismiss the show’s dystopia as nothing more than a fever dream of the perpetually outraged.
Buried beneath all of this is an intimate psychodrama capable of rescuing The Handmaid’s Tale, rendering the series bearable, if not outright bingeable, while still appealing to the larger cultural conversation. It’s in the mechanics of Offred’s survival that the series is able to direct the audience’s attention away from bawdy social commentary and toward its most compelling subject: the psychological damage of oppression.
Moss molds her performance from moment to moment, alternately detached and passionate, passive and authoritative, composed and frantic. The series capitalizes on her gifts as an actress, featuring a liberated, modern Jane in flashbacks, and a suppressed, nondescript Offred in the story’s present. Moss also has a unique look, one that starkly contrasts the Stepford-wife profiles cut by the commanders’ wives. She’s styled plainly and forced into an unadorned uniform; but she’s still unmistakably, through disposition and appearance, an unwilling participant, a forbidden remnant from the time before. Fred is indifferent to Offred at first, but as time passes he appears to warm to her, either as a holdout to convert or a flame to extinguish. Offred’s survival will largely depend on her ability to take advantage that attraction, to turn the wants of men like Fred into weaknesses to be exploited.
The finest sequence from the early episodes that were previewed for press unfolds in Fred’s office, after he summons Offred to a clandestine late-night meeting. Offred, aware that such a solitary rendezvous is strictly forbidden by the new framework, is rightly terrified as she approaches the office. A simple game of Scrabble waits behind the door, portrayed as an impossibly tense psychological contest. Fred barely bests Offred, who returns to her room, delirious and relieved that the meeting was merely a harmless board game but trying desperately to identify what she may have sacrificed in a moment that hovered between civility and downright collusion.
The Handmaid’s Tale illustrates the nuances of abusive relationships that exist not as uninterrupted abuse, but as cycles reliant on brief flashes of humanity that draw victims in. Offred seems to understand this. She’s determined to survive until she can reunite with her daughter, though to do so she must compromise—because even minor rebellion would be met with torture, exile, or worse. Offred is surrounded by the consequences of those compromises, and the dire results of rebellion. One handmaid, Janine (Madeline Brewer), births a healthy child for her commander and subsequently deludes herself with a false sense of invulnerability: As a now-proven commodity, she surely can’t be mistreated anymore. Offred confronts this delusion with sympathy and a knowing skepticism. She seems to understand that the biggest threat to her survival isn’t pain or indignity, but rather the unstoppable creep of normalization. Even a familiar diversion, a simple game of Scrabble, can’t possibly be innocent when played amid systematic oppression. The series’s true importance is forged by the endurance of Offred’s survival, by her illicit communications and hushed conspiracies. The Handmaid’s Tale is at its best when focusing on the oppressed, instead of the oppressors.