The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the Margaret Atwood novel of the same, is as good as the trailer made it look. The acting is as good as the cast—Ann Dowd, Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, Joseph Fiennes—suggests. The first installment, directed by the groundbreaking Reed Morano, is as compelling an hour of television as any produced so far this year. And the depictions of oppression—so, the whole thing—are as scary as what you might be seeing on the news because Gilead, the fictional totalitarian regime that has taken over America in the tale, doesn’t seem so far from, well, America.
I attended a screening of the first episode and during the panel with the creators and cast afterward, they tended to repeat a sentiment I agree with: The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t need a lot of overt promotion or extra input or discussion. It speaks for itself.
So, watch it.
But OK, you are reading a review, I assume, because you want to know a little bit more before you dive in. Fair! The Handmaid’s Tale is about Offred (Elisabeth Moss), a woman who, in an early scene, is kidnapped by soldiers who take her daughter away. Eventually Offred becomes a handmaid, a.k.a. a servant of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). There’s been an epidemic of infertility; women who can have children, like Offred, have been enslaved by the state and assigned to upper-class families. As Offred goes about her day, we flashback to her life “before,” with her husband, daughter, and friend Moira (Samira Wiley), and to her time at The Red Center, where Offred was sent for brainwashing. We see the perverse “ceremony” by which Commander Waterford attempts to impregnate Serena Joy “through” Offred, which in practice means raping a listless Offred on the bed as she lies in Serena Joy’s lap. Like Panem in The Hunger Games, our setting is America postfascist coup. This new society is called Gilead.
The warnings here, the parallels with actual facets of our society, are obvious. At The Red Center a victim of a gang rape is blamed for leading the men on; in addition to oppressing women, Gilead executes gay men and lesbians, as well as anyone who disagrees with its Christian fundamentalism, like Jews or people of science. There’s a streak of Biblical literalism running through Gilead. It’s antiabortion rhetoric run amok, a society built on the idea that women are not in charge of their own body; their bodies are merely the vessels through which others might be born. From that foundational myth comes the idea that any sex that isn’t for procreation, like gay sex, is heretical and that any woman who would have other priorities is a dissident.
Handmaids—and, seemingly, all women in Gilead—are kept mostly at home, though they can briefly gather and chat at the supermarket and the town square. And in true female form, it’s a bit of hushed gossiping that kicks off the great revelation of the first episode. In the square Offred whispers with an old acquaintance about Moira. Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), the handmaiden of a family in Offred’s neighborhood, overhears; on their walk home, Ofglen and Offred speak more openly than they’d been able to before. Ofglen had assumed that Offred was a true believer and vice versa—you can’t trust anyone in Gilead—but subsequently they form a kinship. Ofglen is able to issue a dire warning: There is an “eye” in Offred’s house. Someone is watching her. Possibly reporting on her. She must be careful. She is not safe. The rest of the episodes are even darker.
What’s important to remember while watching The Handmaid’s Tale is that feminism is a sociopolitical movement, not a genre of art. A book, a movie, or a show can all be feminist in their themes. They can traffic in the ideas of feminism, but they do not do the work of feminism. We cannot hold online debates about how sex, abortion, or the workplace are portrayed on TV and call that feminism, even when we win them. The wage gap persists. Our rights are under attack. We live in a rape culture. Directing the “feminist” conversation at the screen does nothing to change these facts unless the conversation comes, at some point, off the screen again. So yes, The Handmaid’s Tale succeeds on its own, regardless of historical context, as art…and also as a feminist masterpiece. But you don’t get feminist participation points for watching it—that’s not how it works.
Where its power lies, I think, is in the conversations it might spark, conversations that are desperately needed. We live in a world where it’s not always easy or even possible to come right out and state a belief, start a dialogue, question the status quo. But The Handmaid’s Tale can function like that bit of gossip in the town square that brings Offred and Ofglen together, it can be the point at which we turn to other women and other people whom we do not know well and enter into a discussion that leads us to the truth.
The Handmaid’s Tale is, in moments, graphic and often upsetting. It will challenge you and likely scare you, whether you think you agree with its message or know you don’t. You will not get a fun kick out of it the way so many of us got a fun kick out of watching the (raped, beaten, oppressed) women of Big Little Lies. Still, The Handmaid’s Tale is often kind of darkly funny. It felt like learning, but it didn’t feel like homework.
There is a lot of TV out there. A lot of good TV. Too much good TV, in fact, to watch all of it. But really, what would it cost you to watch one more series? A few hours of your time and a Wi-Fi connection. Art can be powerful and relevant. The Handmaid’s Tale is both. So stop reading this and go watch it, please. It’s really f-cking good. And then we can talk!
The Handmaid’s Tale is now available for streaming on Hulu.