Friday, November 17, 2017

"The Handmaid's Tale," Year One

I never read Margaret Atwood's "A Handmaid's Tale."  It was one of those books that simply fell through the cracks, one I knew was a classic and would probably appeal to me, but I just never got around to.  When the new Hulu adaptation was announced, I debated whether I should finally read it to be on the same page as everyone else, but ran out of time.  So I'm embracing the ability to go into the series totally blind with no preconceptions.

"Handmaid" presents a grim dystopia where the United States has become a radical Christian country called Gilead.  Women have been reduced to second class citizens, whose rights are severely restricted.  Fertility declines have spurred the enslavement of the few fertile women left, who are forced to be breeding stock, or "handmaids," to the ruling elite.  Our protagonist is Offred (Elizabeth Moss), the newly assigned handmaid to Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).  As Offred navigates her tightly restricted life, we learn about her past and family, how Gilead was created, and the stories of some of her fellow handmaids.

From Offred's POV we learn about her world, the camera often keeping her face in close-up, even as she's rendered all but invisible from everyone around her by the wings of a starched white bonnet.  So much of the storytelling comes down to Elizabeth Moss, her carefully guarded reactions to the horrors she witnesses, and the roiling fury of her inner monologues, often provided in sarcastic voice-over.  She carries the entire series effortlessly, and I think the series is worth a watch for her alone.  It's largely thanks to her performance that some of the show's weaker writing and pacing issues aren't as glaring as they could be.  While this is clearly a prestige project for Hulu, and they put an impressive amount of resources into it, there are some fundamental weaknesses to the first season.   

The biggest issue is that the ideological construction of this world is fairly flimsy, and it was never explained to my satisfaction how the U.S. went from relatively sane to a color-coded Puritanical nightmare so quickly.  However, the dystopia itself certainly feels genuine on a personal level, where every social interaction is governed by dehumanizing rules and rituals, with plenty of real world parallels.  Beautifully shot, with striking costuming to delineate the hierarchy of every character in every scene, "The Handmaid's Tale" looks absolutely fantastic.  The look of the handmaids in particular are instantly iconic.  The cast also boasts a bumper crop of excellent performances, that go a long way toward selling the paranoid oppressiveness and misery of Gilead's society.  Moss and Strahovski are the MVPs, but well-drawn secondary characters played by Alexis Bledel, Samira Wiley, Ann Dowd, Max Minghella, and Madeline Brewer also help make the world feel more plausible and immersive.

So it's easier to forgive the occasional creative missteps, like centering two episodes on male characters in a way that makes those installments feel like filler.  Or the ironic use of pop songs to underscore some of the big emotional moments.  The show's creators get the important things right, like the infuriating little hypocrisies of the Waterfords, Offred's complicated relationships with the other handmaids, and the small but meaningful acts of resistance.  For those who might be wary of "Handmaid" because of the subject matter, the series is far from all doom and gloom.  There are plenty of intense emotional moments, and some jarring violence, but also welcome instances of humor and triumph.  Ultimately, I found the show very uplifting.
Also, though I understand that the first seasons covers the entirety of the source novel, "The Handmaid's Tale" feels like it could easily spawn several more seasons.  In fact, I'd have been very disappointed if the show ended after only one year, because I feel like it could significantly improve in the future.  I would love to see a spotlight episode for Ann Dowd's character, for example, and the worldbuilding gaps could be easily patched.  As alien and frightening as the world of Gilead is, the show got me to care about the characters enough that I want to follow their stories for a while.

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