“The Handmaid’s Tale” (2017-present), Hulu’s original series based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, creates a terrifyingly resonant horror story in which women have absolutely no control over their lives or even their own bodies.
The show takes place in a dystopian future where the human race is facing extremely low conception rates and very high infant mortality rates due to environmental pollution. As a result, the totalitarian government of the future forces the few fertile women into an enslaved existence as surrogates for elite families. The role of these “handmaids” is to bear children for the “barren wives” of powerful men in order to ensure the continuation of the human race.
The Christian fundamentalist government of Gilead (formerly the United States) reigns over this repressive society, using biblical punishments – such as “an eye for an eye” – and modern military tactics in order to control the population. The series draws close parallels to issues in the United States’ current political climate, making the show scarily relevant.
Elisabeth Moss stars as the show’s protagonist, Offred, the handmaid of Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). Her inner monologue connects the audience to the reality of this dystopia; the audience follows Offred through her confusion and suffering while trying to survive in this new world. Her reactions echo those of the viewer, lending her perspective a deep resonance and making the show seem eerily realistic at times.
Moss excels as the lead, portraying Offred as a bright, determined woman willing to live through every second of her agony if there is any possibility of one day reuniting with the daughter who was taken from her. The complexity of her character is presented in every scene, always nuanced and never melodramatic.
Another breathtaking portrayal comes from Alexis Bledel as Ofglen, Offred’s shopping partner. Ofglen’s character is a huge departure from Bledel’s recently reprised role of funny and lighthearted Rory Gilmore in Netflix’s “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” (2016). Bledel is astonishing in this dark and mature role, capturing Ofglen’s bravery and profound anguish as a lesbian in a society in which homosexuality is punishable by death. Moss and Bledel have thus far carried the more heart-wrenching scenes, but the remainder of the cast has held their own.
The plot of this show is a nightmare for many women, as the handmaids are stripped of all rights and humanity. For example, the handmaids are given new names that distinguish them as property of men: Offred is meant literally as “of Fred.” Further, the blame for the human race’s new difficulty in reproducing is placed unwaveringly on women – it is always the wives who are referred to as infertile while the fertility of the husbands is never questioned. The handmaids are slut-shamed because of their role in society and are forbidden to read or write.
At the heart of the horror of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the verisimilitude of the entire story. The creators of the show, working from Atwood’s source material, are highly successful at drawing their viewers in and making this dystopia seem like a near-future possibility rather than a distant implausibility. The story is told in a way that truly emphasizes how a dystopian and seemingly imaginary world is actually very close to reality. While the majority of the plot is told from Offred’s perspective during the peak of Gilead’s reign, flashbacks take place in a world that is almost exactly identical to the present-day United States – reminding us where this dystopia originated.
The first three episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” are available for streaming on Hulu, with new episodes released every Wednesday. If the beginning of the series is any indication for the direction of the rest of the season, there is no question this show will be a chillingly relevant and captivating work of television.