At first glance, I wouldn’t think a TV series based off Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel would lead to much. However, it seems to be something that looks to be new: an honest-to-God critical and audience hit for an original Hulu series. Besides, if HBO can get three seasons out of a single novel with The Leftovers, then Hulu can do something with The Handmaid’s Tale.
And, quite frankly, it may be more timely than originally intended.
I read the novel back in college and haven’t really touched it since. That’s a good twenty years ago, but the book stuck with me in many ways. Like all good sci-fi, it was no doubt heavily influenced by current events, and seeing the conservative movement in America taking back much of the 60s and 70s cultural pushes, it made sense for feminist like Atwood to react to such a thing. However, the series was in-production at a time when it was generally expected America might get its first woman president. Instead, well, we didn’t.
How much America might be in a conservative pushback against a more socially progressive era remains to be seen. However, it does add to the timeliness of the series. Elizabeth Moss is a strong lead, proving herself after shining for years on Mad Men, a show where there weren’t any real slouches in the acting department. Here, Moss plays a character known mostly as “Offred” (real name, as revealed at the end of the pilot through Moss’ voiceover, June). She belongs–and that is the right word–to a government official named Commander Fred Waterford. She is literally “of-Fred,” and her job is to be submissive and procreate after a plague of some kind left a large portion of the population sterile.
In the new society that rose from this disaster, there are various roles for women. Wives are, well, wives of the Commanders. It’s not certain at this point if men lower down the societal totem pole can have one. Marthas are servants. Aunts ruthlessly train the new Handmaids. And the Handmaids, well, they’re still fertile and are expected to carry children for the Commanders. There’s also the Eyes, spies who keep an eye on everyone. As for men, well, most of the men in this first episode seem to be nameless armed thugs there to enforce the society.
It’s worth noting, obviously, that much like the patriarchy of Bitch Planet, this society isn’t very good for men either. Aside from the nameless guards and the Commander’s driver Nick, the only men we really see much of are condemned prisoners (a priest, an abortion doctor, and a gay man are all left hanging off a wall during one scene), and June’s presumably late husband Luke, a man who was probably shot and killed off-screen somewhere in the opening minutes of the episode. The two had a daughter taken away from June, and given the extreme conservatism of the oppressive government, of Gilead, the fact that June and Luke’s daughter was bi-racial has to mean a lot more than what it appears to at first glance.
This is a society where all women, even the Wives, are to one degree or another dehumanized. There are blatant dress codes for Handmaids and Marthas–headscarves, color-coded dresses–and the Handmaids additionally wear head gear that obscure their faces. The procreative act, as seen in the pilot and one of the more memorable moments in the original novel, consists of the Commander, the Wife, and Offred involved in some sort of completely-clothed threeway, all three mostly dressed, Offred lying between the Wife’s legs while the Commander recites Bible verses until he goes off. It’s sexual assault for a “consent is not necessary” Handmaid, humiliating for the Wife who has to watch it happen, and the Commander, well, he doesn’t look like he enjoyed it much either. As the Wife, Serena Joy, isn’t all that friendly to begin with, well, it just makes things worse.
Near the end of the episode, after the Handmaids have beaten a convicted rapist to death as part of another ceremony (and I wouldn’t be surprised if the “rapist” was just having illegal consensual sex, truth be told), Offred learns her shopping companion Ofglen is not as meek and pious as she thought. It turns out that Ofglen thought the same of Offred until she saw her partner talking to women who she went through training with to find out what happened to a pre-societal-collapse friend of hers. As Ofglen says, rather potently, the society is good for keeping the women isolated and untrusting. As much as the men running things are theocratic monsters, it’s only really possible with the help of women going along with the program, like the hideous Aunt Lydia, a woman who doesn’t have a single problem physically or psychologically torturing future Handmaids into loving their new submissive roles, even if that means taking an eye (Handmaids don’t need eyes to bear children). Offred may have a friend/ally now, something she didn’t before, and her whole purpose for now is to survive and find her missing daughter Hannah. Plus, there may be an Eye in the Commander’s house.
This looks like it’s going to be compelling stuff going forward.
I think I should reread that book at some point soon.