Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Offred is a protagonist who lives in a world gone crazy. In a cautionary tale that borders on post-apocalyptic mania, The Handmaid’s Tale pulls a Planet of the Apes and seduces us into the horrors of Offred’s world and then reveals them to be our own. Offered is us. This is meant to terrify us and indulge our worst slippery slope fears. Rarely does that make for enjoyable entertainment, though. Thus, I blooped my way to Hulu’s new series, with my dog-eared, annotation-scribbled copy of the book still on my nightstand, wondering if I even wanted to spend hours of my life sucked into a vortex of depression. What I found, though, oddly delighted me. It turns out my paranoia enjoyed being indulged.

After an alleged terrorist attack on U.S. Congress, martial law is declared in Offred’s America, and there is a public movement for a return to basic values–which includes women staying in the home and owning no property. This would be terrifying enough, but Margaret Atwood, author of the book from which Hulu plucked its content, chose to add a special science-fiction twist: For reasons unstated, women and men face obliterating infertility rates. This warps the nightmare into a nation with a breeding program in which the “lucky” women are turned into procreational sex slaves.

This is the turn of the screw that is supposed to draw you in. Hook you. Women as forced breeders, wearing wimples and enslaved under such miserable conditions that most opt for one form of suicide or another. As a book reader, I was almost a bit disappointed that Atwood took it to this level. Sure, it makes the story stunning and tragic, but takes it just slightly beyond the grasp of what feels realistic. It disconnects us from feeling the likelihood that this could happen to us.

And it could. Atwood has warned of it herself. Were it not for the fertility plot line, this forced female servitude feels like it is only one international crisis away. One cry for a return to our “values”. One coordinated and well-funded grassroots movement away from decrying that women are not permitted to work outside of the home because, the children. Because the 1950s was when we were a pure and righteous nation, right? When men were men, and women knew their place. So the movements call and chant and wail that we need to go back to our roots, and they share it feverishly across social media. And in turn Facebook and Twitter accounts and voter registration records are used to identify who is a “patriot” or a “believer”, whichever bent the crusade takes. Add a pinch of racism and misogyny, a whirlwind of fear, and some financial incentives, and you’ve got yourself a real modern dystopia.

This is why I am so grateful for the updates and tweaks that Hulu has thoughtfully provided to Atwood’s mad world. It warms the world and makes it feel like it could have been our own once. Yes the show preserves the infertility thread–no way to avoid that– but it takes care to modernize the technology and add some haunting (an sometimes jaunty) soundtracks. I know those songs. Pre-Offred Elizabeth Moss knows those songs. And she orders pretentious coffee, swipes on Tinder, and worries about her profile pic. Sure the original names are still very 1980s, which is when the story was originally penned. Lydia. Janine. Angela. But there I am with Pre-Offred, believing I could hang out with her, or that I could at least pass her on the street. She is a real, modern flesh-and-blood American.

Handmaids Tale Illustration

And Hulu does something extra bold–they give Offred more of a backstory, and symbolically give her a name–something which the book very poignantly chooses not to do. Now, of course, the book tries to use this as a device to show how all-consuming her handmaid life is, and how lost her previous existence is to her. But, again, that creates a disconnection and distance. I never like Book Offred. I don’t relate to her, and I don’t especially root for her. I pity her is all.

June, on the other hand, the pre-Offred woman who drinks wine and takes her daughter to the aquarium, she is worth rooting for. And Elizabeth Moss plays her well as a calm, collected, rational woman who does her best to go with the flow. She is not invincible; she only pretends to be on Tinder. The Moss performance is beautiful and sedate. (Even if I wonder exactly how de-wimpled Offred manages to curl her luxurious and bouncy tresses.) The luxuriously coiffed Moss is brooding in all the right ways and makes her feel like “everywoman“. No doubt, she was an elegant casting choice.

However, Moss is outshined by the steely, watery-eyed Alexis Bledel (oh, Rory Gilmore, how you have fallen!). Bledel’s Ofglen is much more tragic, beaten down, and passionate. More haunting. She is not “everywoman”. She is uniquely Emily. You can keep your bland, coffee sipping Junes of the world; I’ll take an army of Emilys who feel and fight and love until their last breaths. I crave to know her more.

Late

Instead we are served up more of June and Luke, and even Nick. Their backgrounds are the ones that get fleshed out, supposing that they are harder to understand. Their compliance and their struggles. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am quite grateful that we do at least get these bonus backstories, which Atwood almost entirely withholds in her efforts to keep us yoked to the present with the tunnel vision of a wimple. But the narrative structure of feeding us these backstories is where the Hulu adaptation seems most flawed. The series is entirely bottom-heavy in flashbacks. They smacked us around with the catchy dystopian concepts before entreating us to get to know the actual characters. To this extent, the miniseries writers didn’t trust us enough that we would want to get to know June and Luke and Commander Fred early on. As a result, the flashback bog feels like filler, stretching the story out to the extent that it drags at times. Sorry, I just don’t care that much about Nick. And if Hulu writers wanted me to, they failed.

This pacing complaint aside, Hulu has a real story on their hands. Gorgeously executed, flawlessly acted, and sparing no budget. It is simply haunting. This was a triumph of a book adaptation. But…there is a part of me, (maybe my inner-Emily?), that wishes someone had taken a swing at this with out being so faithful to Atwood’s much duller text. They should have reinvented her story instead of just updating and stretching it out. Make it more epic. Where is the rest of the world? What are the politics? Take us deeper into the resistance. Yes, Canada was a nice start, but there could be so much more. If you want to de-wimple the viewers/readers, then do it, dammit! Crack open that world and show us its blood and guts. For such a big topic, they were still lamentably restrained and myopic. Consequently, their devotion gives us a beautiful and devastating water-cooler series that will be forgotten five years from now. The series has been renewed for a second season, but I cannot imagine it will last long beyond that. They fell short of the brilliant cautionary tale that is waiting to be told. Still, for Ofglen’s audacity alone, I’ll don that red cloak for a second season and watch to see what kind of trouble June can get up to.

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