Series Review: “The Handmaid’s Tale”
A Feminist Dystopian nightmare serves as exceptional TV and socio-political cautionary tale. Chilling on all counts.
It’s a considered dedication of time and emotional bandwidth to consume The Handmaid’s Tale, which just finished its fourth season on Hulu, with a fifth expected down the pike. But once you’re hooked, it’s virtually impossible to turn your eyes away from this shattering, brilliantly acted show.
Most people (of a certain age) are familiar with the seminal, groundbreaking novel of the mid-’80s by Feminist author, Margaret Atwood, who set her dystopian story of sexual slavery, abject abuse and tyrannical patriarchy in a not-so-distant future America. The series expands beyond the book’s singular focus on its heroine, June Osbourn, to now include a wonderfully complex array of surrounding characters and personal histories. June (and countless others) has been conscripted into the legion of Handmaids, fertile women forced to endure methodical monthly rapes at the hands of infertile Commanders and their wives, throughout the new Republic of Gilead. This unspeakable indignity is thinly disguised under the veil of an obscenely distorted theocratic orthodoxy. Elisabeth Moss (a producer and sometime director of select episodes) stars as June, renamed by her captors as Offred, given she is assigned — and basically the property — of Commander Fred Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy. They are portrayed in exquisitely narcissistic and complex detail by Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski, whose own performance is a master class in cruelty-masking-misery. Absolutely stunning and mesmerizing.
The backstories of June, Fred, Serena and the others are masterfully woven into the plot, which takes place a few years after a civil war within the United States. Gilead has apparently pulled off a massive re-education campaign — exploiting the simultaneous crises of climate change and widespread infertility — in order to overturn the U.S. government in a massive power grab. In Gilead’s self-made idealogy, women have been stripped of their human rights, girls are forbidden to read or write, and lifestyles have been reverted to a pre-digital, pre-mass media age which harkens to an almost pioneer picture of Americana. The subjugation of the female gender has been couched in an eccentric Christian fundamentalism that would be laughable if not for the mass hysteria and mob mentality of the power brokers of this new world order.
As June tries to survive against the most unspeakable assaults on her dignity, her mind and her body, she slowly discovers she is not alone among the handmaidens who know, who remember, and who are desperate to escape the evils of Gilead. And over the course of these four seasons, we witness June slowly transform from victim to stubborn survivor, and eventually into the heroine for her time. The challenge is not to become a martyr for her age.
There’s so much to say about The Handmaid’s Tale, and admittedly, it’s often a tough watch. My husband, for one, simply could not tolerate the scenes of rape and physical abuse. The cruelty of Gilead, the manipulations upon its people, even the sexual/procreating objectifying of its own power elite were sometimes hard to sit through. But it’s such a beautifully crafted piece of television, with such urgency, such pathos, real love stories, heartstopping suspense, abundant examples of courage and righteous fury, with the saving grace of occasional sarcastic humor. . . I couldn’t have enough.
And as a cautionary tale, it’s a show which couldn’t be more timely given the myriad of contemporary social, sexual and political themes which should be abundantly clear as the seasons progress. This may be an extreme manifestation of a world that (hopefully) will never come to pass. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep our eyes wide open.