The incredible thing about living in a an era where our television cups runneth over is that digital networks are forced to up their game. Long gone are the not too distant days where a site like Hulu could get away with showing reruns of network shows and do it for free. Now, everything is a paid subscription and every channel has a signature show worth the price. For Hulu, that show is the mind blowingly good The Handmaid’s Tale and it couldn’t be more timely.
Call it a byproduct of the times or call it human beings wallowing in fatalism but dystopian stories are so hot right now, y’all. In fact, dystopian books like 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 aren’t just being quoted by every pretentious turd you know on Facebook but have all experienced a huge bump in sales since the beginning of the year. So naturally the timing of a big-budget adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel seems perfect. After all, Atwood’s work has always shown a fucked up future where women’s bodies, minds and reproductive rights are devalued. Yeah, that certainly sounds relatable. In fact, it’s hard to divorce yourself from the current headlines while watching this brilliant miniseries, of which I gobbled up the first three currently available episodes this morning. During a scene which showed hanging bodies one of which was that of a gay man, I felt my jaw drop open and chills form on my arm. It’s horrific and made even more so given the current headlines. Atwood’s vision of this future has remained terrifying since it’s publication in 1985 because it doesn’t feel entirely implausible. Clearly, I’m not the only one out there who picked up on this. Even though it was just released last night, The Handmaid’s Tale has already spurned dozens of feminist think pieces and critiques and it’s safe to say we can expect more. Atwood’s work has long been a book club favorite for this very reason and now a new generation is getting exposed to The Handmaid’s Tale and they have a lot of thoughts about it. This is fantastic however I think there’s something we shouldn’t forget as we pull apart and chew on the story’s meaty subtext: it’s just really kick ass television.
Another thing about living in a television era where everything is just so damn good? A show has to nail it in a matter of minutes otherwise they’ll get lost in the digital junk pile. The Handmaid’s Tale does precisely that. Told through the eyes of Offred (played brilliantly here by Elisabeth Moss) the story grabs us by the throat from the first scene and refuses to let go. Written by Atwood and Bruce Miller, the three episodes I watched aren’t just politically thought-provoking, they’re a fast-paced, thrilling viewing experience. The dramatic tension mixed with the sheer “WTF IS GOING ON!?” stress of the storytelling make for a hell of a ride. The writers wisely tease us with plot bits, flashbacks and character histories while moving everything forward at breakneck speed. Plus, they give Offred great inner monologues. In this narration, Offred isn’t just telling us what’s happening but her blunt and often funny thoughts. There’s a well paced “Fuck” in particular that gives us great insight to who Offred is.
Oh but it’s not just the writing. The first three episodes are directed by Reed Morano. Not being familiar with her work, I IMDB stalked her. Her resume as a cinematographer is evident here as each scene looks beautiful, haunting and iconic. For example, there’s a stunning shot of Offred flanked by other handmaids all dressed in red and crammed in a white bus that I won’t soon forget.
Naturally, the acting is equally impressive. Real talk? Elisabeth Moss doesn’t always do it for me as an actor. When the scripts are good (early Mad Men) she sparkles. When the scripts are bad (later Mad Men), I find her grating. But in this role, she’s at once fierce, terrified and funny. She evokes Sigourney Weaver in Alien or Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 while tapping into some very relatable vulnerability. It’s a home run and solidifies her power as a great television star. But the real knockout performance here, so far for me, is Alexi Bledel! Who knew that little Rory Gilmore had such an intense, heartbreaking and beautiful performance inside of her? As lesbian Ofglen, we get to see a side of Bledel as an actress I frankly didn’t know existed. Again, I’m not the only one who noticed.
All this being said, The Handmaid’s Tale is a success for another reason too. I’ve always found Margaret Atwood to be underrated and maybe sluffed off to the female sci-fi writer section. This must-see adaptation will hopefully turn on more people to her work. And perhaps the real gift of this television treasure chest we find ourselves in is that old stories worth telling and stories that still resonate can find powerful new lives.