There are two nightmares nestled inside one another in Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which debuts Wednesday. The more prominent one, which occupies most of the screen time, takes place in a dystopian near-future where nearly all of America has been transformed into a theocracy called Gilead where women have no rights, and the handful of fertile women left are forced into serving as Handmaids — “We aren’t concubines,” as one of them puts it. “We’re two-legged wombs.” — for the wives of the more privileged men. This is an inescapable, never-ending horror for Offred (Elisabeth Moss), conscripted into Handmaid-dom after her husband was murdered and her daughter taken away, forced to swallow any trace of her personality, lest she be punished for being anything other than a placid, obedient vessel for the needs of her new master and society.
The other nightmare is less relentless, but in many ways more disturbing because of that. Periodic flashbacks show us the events that led to Gilead, where a series of environmental disasters and a plague of infertility have put society on the edge of collapse, not that the woman Offred used to be seems to recognize that. She and her best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) seem startled, then amused, by the rising tide of overt, public misogyny — when a hostile barista eyes their fairly tame workout clothes and calls them “sluts,” they laugh at him in disbelief — and as the news of what the government is doing grows worse and worse, her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) confidently assures her, “We’ll figure it out. This can’t last.”
I expected the Gilead material to be the hardest parts of Handmaid’s Tale to get through, and they are, indeed, as infuriating as they should be. The series — adapted by Bruce Miller, with the three episodes sent to critics directed by Reed Morano — would be unbearable as a binge, which makes it a perfect fit for Hulu’s more traditional release strategy. (Though the first three episodes will all premiere on Wednesday, it will be weekly after that.) As it is, you may need to take frequent breaks within individual episodes, or else slip your neighbors a note explaining, “These screams you may hear frequently for the next hour don’t represent me being in danger, but just my natural response to a story of fascism and misogyny run amok.”
But as good a job as Miller and his collaborators have done of bringing Atwood’s future vision to nauseating life, the most rage-inducing parts of the series tend to be the ones set in the past. It’s a world far more recognizable, and plausible, and as our heroine and her friends tell jokes about what’s happening but otherwise go about their lives, it’s impossible not to draw parallels with the very shaky state of our own reality, where there’s been a rise in fascist candidates and fascist rhetoric, of sentiments — racist, sexist, or otherwise hateful — that wouldn’t have been acceptable if said in public even a few years ago that now fly about freely, and how easy it is to just laugh, or cringe, and, like Luke, assume that this can’t possibly last, because common sense and decency eventually must prevail. In many ways, it’s enough to make characters like Offred or Moira almost as maddening as their oppressors in Gilead, because they should have known better and still did nothing, at least not until it was far too late. (One flashback shows a protest gone terribly awry because traditional legal and social norms have already disappeared.)
The Hulu Handmaid’s Tale is keenly aware of this, and the Gilead scenes are made bearable with a leavening of self-hating black humor by Offred, who narrates her story in a wry, contemporary tone of voice even as she speaks softly and blankly to her master, Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), the female overseer Aunt Lydia (esteemed character actress Ann Dowd) and even, at first, fellow Handmaid Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), who eventually becomes Offred’s only confidante. It’s a stunning performance by Moss, who had to play some of the same thematic notes as Peggy on Mad Men, but in an environment that looks like a feminist paradise compared to Gilead. The narration is delivered barely above a whisper, as if Offred has become so justifiably paranoid that she believes her controllers can read her thoughts, yet through the slightest change of inflection or tiniest shift in micro-expression as she’s addressing us, Moss speaks monologues’ worth of suffering, regret, and pent-up fury.
That Moss, who also has Top of the Lake on her resumé, can scale such dramatic heights isn’t a surprise, even if this is the most powerful she’s ever been. That Bledel — an uneven presence on Gilmore Girls (albeit always better on that show’s serious side) — turns out to be Moss’s equal here is far more unexpected, but the more we get to know Ofglen, the harder Bledel’s performance hits, until a pair of scenes late in the third episode will leave you a puddle on the floor from what she does in them.
The cast is excellent overall, particularly Dowd and Strahovski as two women who have chosen to collaborate in this abomination: Lydia as a cruel true believer who conditions other women to hate themselves, Serena Joy as someone torn between the security of her relatively elevated position and her awareness of how little actually separates her from someone like Offred in a world where even the wives have no real rights.
Again and again, we get chilling examples of how much society has tried to strip the Handamids of their essential personhood. When they are in bed with the masters, the wives are sitting right behind them staring right into their husband’s eyes, as if someone like Offred were merely an elaborate sex toy. (The show’s depiction of what happens when a baby is born is even uglier.) Even their new names aren’t really names at all, but markers of the man to whom they belong: “Of Fred,” “Of Glen,” etc.
Morano and director of photography Colin Watkinson make a meal of the depopulated, sterile world of Gilead, and the way the Handmaids’ uniforms — blood-red dresses and white bonnets designed to literally restrict their view of the world — stand out against the neutral blacks and blues worn by anyone with even a scintilla of power in it.
The series’ past and present are both difficult to get through — intentionally so — and recent events have made it more uncomfortably resonant than when Hulu was first developing it, or when Atwood first published the book in 1985. It was a story about all the terrible places we’ve been, and how dangerously easy it would be to go back to them. Watching the news today doesn’t necessarily create the impression that a real Gilead will arise within the next six months, but it feels far more possible than it should, and that makes The Handmaid’s Tale feel like even more of a Molotov cocktail being hurled at a too-complacent society than anyone could have intended when they started making this riveting new drama.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org