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The Handmaid’s Tale

CREATED BY BRUCE MILLER
BASED ON THE NOVEL BY MARGARET ATWOOD
PREMIERS APRIL 26, 2017 ON HULU
FIRST 3 EPISODES WATCHED FOR REVIEW

Set in a dystopian near-future where women are forced to live in total subjugation, The Handmaid’s Tale is an urgent, stirring thriller that eerily captures the current ultra-conservative state of the world far too perfectly. Based on the classic 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, Bruce Miller’s frighteningly relevant adaptation brings to life a story that has always felt much stranger than fiction to begin with, but feels especially terrifying considering its real-life parallels in 2017, when women fear for their health and safety on a regular basis.

Perhaps if things had gone differently on November 8, 2016, the show would feel much different than it does today, serving as a cautionary tale as opposed to a horror show about how things have become, or are becoming. However, the series opens simply enough, with a suspenseful chase that introduces the main heroine in an obviously different time and place than where she ultimately ends up. With her husband (O-T Fanbegle) and child (Jordana Blake) in tow, she’s on the run and in a state of crippling fear, but what from that is only becomes unnervingly clearer as the series unfolds, rarely letting up on the suspense.

Elisabeth Moss — who has quietly, yet expertly curated the most exciting career of the Mad Men cast since her brilliant turn on the show — leads the pack as Offred, one of the few fertile women remaining in the nation of Gilead, where fundamentalism is the law of the land and women have been forced to surrender to their most essentialist of traits. Fertility is much less a blessing and more of a curse, as Offred is reduced to nothing but a “vessel” for a high-ranking official (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife (Yvonne Strahovski). If Offred were to become pregnant, she’d be treated like royalty, but she’s otherwise looked down upon and spit at. Her value is merely dependent on her fertility, heavily scrutinized and in the hands of anyone but her own.

During the day, her tasks include fetching the groceries, but not unless she walks alongside the close eye of a companion, a fellow handmaid, hers in the form of Ofglen (Alexis Bledel). The handmaids are assigned to walk only in pairs and never alone, instructed to serve as companions to each other, but are instead ultimately made to be pitted against each other. They must always save face and never hold any conversations that exceed the most menial of small talk. They must be suspicious of any strange behavior from their fellow women, not leaving any breathing room for trust or any chance for a sincere friendship. Instead, they are obligated to spy on each other, judge each other irrationally, but all while doing so as they hide behind fake smiles and niceties.

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The current state of the world is as bleak as it could possibly be, especially without anyone to confide in, but Offred tries her best to keep it together by constantly keeping herself as close to the past as possible, recalling memories of her family and college best friend, Moira (Orange Is The New Black‘s Samira Wiley). Nothing at all is as it used to be; gone are the days of equality (or what would most closely resemble such a thing), as the darkest, most villainous of cloud of misogyny shadows over years of progress and basic human decency. Women are forbidden from working, possessing their own rightful property, and stripped naked of any free will.

For the first batch of episodes to be released together, veteran cinematographer Reed Morano (Meadowland, The Skeleton Twins, Kill Your Darlings) proves an excellent choice to take the wheel as director, emphasizing the building terror with the eye of an expert. In front of Morano’s camera, Moss is predictably nothing short of compelling with her unwavering commitment to the role, adding yet another layered heroine to her already impressive list.

As Morano switches between Offred’s past and present, each scene adds another revelation, serving as puzzle pieces that sate the curiosity for what in the world happened and how, little by little. After all, as Offred once says, “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”

With The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu may finally be onto something here, joining the ranks of prestige television with a riveting, emotionally arresting, and visually striking powerhouse. It shouldn’t feel as scary as it does, but the context of reality does the series a great favor, amplifying the harshness depicted on screen by unintentionally reminding us that it isn’t too far off from what happens just outside our own windows nowadays.

“Now I’m awake to the world,” Offred says, acknowledging the cruel epiphany she was forced into. “I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen.” Nothing should hit this close to home, and yet.

Grade: A

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Nix Santos is a writer based in Los Angeles. You can find her on Twitter @_nixsantos.