The Handmaid’s Tale Show Review: Theocratic Patriarchy
Back in 1985, Canadian author Margaret Atwood wrote a novel that was widely considered to be a kind of feminist 1984. Set in a near future dystopia in which a militant Christian fundamentalist group had overthrown the US Government and suspended the constitution, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of a woman named Offred, subjugated because she was capable of giving birth in a society plagued by perilously low birth rates. As such, she is considered the property of the new theocratic state to act as a surrogate womb for the wealthy and powerful women who are barren. It’s a complex story, woven with complex characters, inspired by Puritan New England of the 17th century, and, ironically, has a real world basis in the 1979 overthrow of the Shah and his secular monarchy in Iran.
Hulu’s adaptation of Atwood’s novel seems to be similarly complex and intriguing. I say seems to, because I was only able to see three episodes of the overall ten episode season. However, there is a lot that goes on in each episode. Show-runner Bruce Miller and his writers take their time in peeling back the various layers of this society. Even the characters you’re introduced to have different sides to them that come out from episode to episode. Little by little, more of this authoritarian dystopia is revealed and you’re just left emotionally disturbed by what transpires. Everyone – yes, even men – have their own specific place in the society of Gilead; women are no longer allowed to work, they can no longer be educated and are banned from reading; homosexuality is a crime punishable by hanging. There are even words that you are no longer allowed to say. All monitored and enforced by a government that would probably be the Westboro Baptist Church’s wet dream.
As for the actors, there’s a few fairly well known names on the marquee. Leading lady Elisabeth Moss is Offred, Handmaid to Commander Fred Waterford, who is played by once-upon-a-time-William-Shakespeare Joseph Feinnes. Wife to Waterford is Serena Joy, played by Yvonne Strahovski. There’s a bit of a triangle that is weaved between these three, but I wouldn’t call it a love triangle. It’s something far more complex and sinister and heartbreaking. Alexis Bledel also joins the cast as Ofglen, a Handmaid to another powerful couple and is a kind of shopping partner for Offred. Samira Wiley plays Moira, a college friend of Offred’s and now fellow Handmaid. And finally to round out the cast is Max Minghella, the driver for Waterford and is a character wrapped in mystery.
The cast overall do a great job. No one ever stands out as bad, and even a couple will make you hate their characters by the end of an episode or two. Even those with smaller roles turn in great performances and remain memorable throughout. The writing really is top notch, keeping you invested and engaged and making sure that the characters are all as three dimensional as possible, and that the world is complex and nuanced.
To be honest, I was very skeptical about this show. Not because I’m any great fan of the book (which I didn’t know existed until I started researching the show), but because I’m aware of the pulse of politics (identity or otherwise) and was leery of it’s possible political message. I also had the feeling that this might end up being about as high in quality as a Lifetime Movie (we’ve all sat and watched one with our mom at one point in our lives). But in the end, at least of these first three episodes, The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t take it’s cues from identity politics, and seems to be more preoccupied with the horrors of unchecked religious power. It’s a deeply moving and highly thought provoking show that, at the very least, will start many a conversation. I can’t wait for it to go live.