5 years ago if someone asked, you would probably have said that in the future, things could only be better for women. But we now live in a world where organizations which provide healthcare services to women are being rapidly defunded, health care bills in which pregnancy and rape could count as “pre-existing conditions” which could make it difficult or at least very very expensive in obtaining medical insurance, where the barest of protections for transgender persons has been revoked, and where sexual assault is normalized to the point where persons who brag about it can hold elected office. It’s starting to feel like we’re living in a dystopian future. So Hulu must be feeling pretty prescient about their decision (from prior to April 2016) to air a series version of The Handmaids Tale.
Based on a novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood, the Handmaids Tale is set in the near future. The United States has been overthrown as we know it by a ground of what seem to be fundamentalist Christian men. Additionally, something has happened with the environment where fertility has decreased dramatically, and many of those men in power (it’s all men – because of course it is) and their wives are not able to bear children naturally. So women with proven fertility are chosen from the lower class of society (those who were not married, those who were involved in second marriages, those who are lesbians, or had abortions) were scooped up and trained to become “Handmaids”. These women would be trained to be obedient, and then placed in the households of government men to bear them children. Even their names are taken away from them – they become the property of the man of the house. Our main character is Offred, because she is “Of Fred”.
The process of bearing children for the government men is as horrific as you would think. Each month around the Handmaids fertile time, there is a “Ceremony” – all the staff and family members in a household gather to listen to a reading about how this lack of fertility was handled in the bible through the story of Rachel and Bilhah. Then the Handmaid and the Mistress of the household go to the master suite, where the Handmaid lies between the legs of her mistress so that both women are “participating” in potential conception. The husband comes in, does his physical duty without touching the handmaid (who is also not meant to look at the husband while this all happens), and that’s it. It’s horrific, and clinical and if you’re thinking “rape-y”, you’d be super right!
So that’s the background of the show. As of my writing this, it has aired 5 episodes on Hulu, and as I did with Westworld, I’m so into it that I’m not even waiting for the end of the season to write about it. This is another beautifully shot show, but instead of the epic Western landscapes, we are given a grim, de-saturated future, where we are frequently shown how traitors are dealt with, and how the women are trained to think a certain way, because to think for oneself is against the government. Whoever did the design for the decorating, costumes and cinematography were all in sync, and the world of Handmaids Tale has a distinct look that is both beautiful, cold, and frightening.
It helps that the acting on the show is also first class. I’ve loved Elizabeth Moss since she was in the remake of the movie “Escape to Witch Mountain“, but she’s also been in other longtime favorites of mine – The West Wing and Mad Men. Vulture recently called her “The Queen of Peak TV“, and they’re not wrong. She has this very relatable face, and she’s able to play forced docility, and pain and desperation, and every other bleak emotion that this story asks her to portray. So much of the story is told in her voice overs, and we get to see how she got to where she is today through a variety of flashbacks which just deepen the pain and emotion that she shows in the “current” world she’s living in. Her life before was so free, and you get to see just how broken she has become in the world she lives in now.
The supporting cast is also terrific. I loved Samira Wiley on Orange is the New Black, and I get to be doubly proud of her because she’s also a DC-local! Here, she has one of the more rebellious characters with a mysterious fate. We find out in the first episode that she’s not with the same “class” of women who came out of training, so something has happened. As the show has progressed, we begin to see glimpses of what may have happened. I’m eager for more of her character – Moira – and to find out what her fate is. Additionally there’s Alexis Bledel, who you may know better as Rory Gilmore, but this is a role that plays more into her short stint on Mad Men as an unhappy housewife in the 1960s. But here she is given such a meaty role where things are just always bubbling to the surface. Her character – Ofglen – leaves the viewer with more questions than answers in the episodes that have aired so far.
And those are just three of the leads. Despite the fact that the show is one where the women have been subjugated at every level of society and the men are in charge, this show is women’s stories. It’s so important for us as a society to have these sorts of stories out there, and to be popular because too often women’s stories are denigrated and not produced at all for being “niche”. And while the cast and crew may have stumbled over whether or not the series is feminist, I don’t think it really matters – the fact that we are having a cultural conversation about this at all is important and necessary. So whether you are feminist or not, if you are interested in dystopian stories, in creepy near future depictions, or in really great acting – this is a show for you.