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.”