Usually when a new show sparks critical raves, viewers hurry to get onboard. Fans of TV don’t want to miss the next “Fargo,” or “Breaking Bad,” thereby dooming themselves to social exile and deep-seated regret, topped off a few years later by a shame-based bingeing blowout at the exact moment when nobody wants to talk about the show anymore.
Since the premiere of the profound, chilling, and riveting new series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” however, I’ve detected a front of resistance to the Hulu drama, despite — and, to an extent, because of — all the praise. Turns out it’s just too close to home for some people. They don’t want to watch a story about an oppressive, misogynistic, scripture-driven government that demands fertile women be enslaved, raped, and forced to breed — especially if that story is extremely effectively told and driven home with devastating performances by Elisabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd, and Yvonne Strahovski.
Some of the Twitter comments I’ve seen about avoiding the series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel include, “Nah, I’m full up on current events,” “Not really in the emotional space to be able to watch,” and “I can’t watch The Handmaid’s Tale — too close to believable near future.” I’ve also heard, in conversation, that the show isn’t worth watching because it represents an unappealing kind of liberal fear-mongering in the Trump era, despite the fact that the show was in production long before Trump won.
I hear you, resisters, and I feel your pain. It’s a lot easier watching, say, “The Walking Dead,” because its vision of the future is so deeply preposterous we know it will never happen. There’s no point in spelling out here the potential parallels some viewers will make between the United States (known as Gilead) in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the much-discussed, radically different disempowering attitudes toward women by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and their largely male administration. They are obvious. What’s more, Atwood has said she pieced together her novel from historical realities, not least of all the Salem witch trials; more than most upsetting fictional takes on the near future, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” as impossible as its institutionalized cruelties seem, carries with it a distinct whiff of possibility.
And when you add to all that the fact that Gilead initially came into being, and women’s reproductive rights were taken away from them, because of an environmental crisis that caused birth rates to plunge — well, that’s going to strike a sour chord with any viewer who’s concerned about long-term menaces to the planet as well as recent threats to the Environmental Protection Agency. Why submit to more agita?
But still, I say push yourself. You will be rewarded, just like those who’ve made recent bestsellers of Atwood’s book, George Orwell’s “1984,” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” represents the very best of what well-made dystopian stories can accomplish. In a way, it scares you straight, reminds you of what matters. Like Netflix’s “Black Mirror” and AMC’s “Humans,” the series moves ahead of the present tense only a few critical steps, giving us both an alarming future and a future that still largely resembles what we know. An apocalypse may or may not be approaching in the story, as it may or may not in so many dystopias, but “The Handmaid’s Tale” is about what takes place in the meantime, in the pre-apocalyptic world, how a series of incremental changes can suddenly tip the balance toward moral ruin.
That portrayal of the slow accumulation of vanishing freedoms — shown in flashbacks — is one of the most stirring aspects of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Yes, the depictions of Gilead itself are extraordinary in all respects. Watching the first seven episodes available to critics, I was hypnotized by the sets, which are simultaneously sterile and old-world, and by the costumes the “red-tagged” fertile women wear, which are nun-like, face-obscuring, and a crimson color that may have biblical symbolism — the blood of martyrs, perhaps. (Color is deployed brilliantly throughout the show.) The hanging walls, where doctors, teachers, and those accused of “gender treachery” such as lesbians, are put to death and left dangling, are shown on a distractingly human scale.
But the flashbacks — peppered throughout the episodes — portray how these characters almost unexpectedly found themselves in a country gone so wrong. The radical change arrived in a slow creep. One haunting flashback scene has Moss’s June and her friend Moira (Samira Wiley) visiting a cafe. Their regular waitress is gone, and the man who has replaced her claims June’s charge card doesn’t work, and he insults them. It’s a small moment that, in light of what will happen to June and Moira, looms large. Soon, we see, all women discover that their bank accounts are gone. And later they lose their jobs. Their rights and possessions are stripped away before they quite realize it. “This might not seem ordinary to you right now,” Dowd’s cruel Aunt Lydia tells her handmaids as she trains them to be sexual slaves. “But, after a time, it will. This will become ordinary.”
Another reason to watch: It’s just so beautifully acted. Moss establishes herself as one of TV’s best dramatic actresses of the moment. And memories of her as Peggy Olson on “Mad Men,” struggling against professional and romantic sexism, only add to the power of her work here. Moss makes it clear to us, with small eye movements and held-back tears, that June — known as Offred (of Fred) in Gilead — is quietly resisting. In a way, the show takes place in her eyes, which she keeps wide open. She follows orders — which leads to excruciating scenes in which she must have sex with a man while lying between his wife’s legs — but we know she is fighting inside.
In Moss’s hands, Offred becomes a symbol of rebellion, a tiny glimmer in the ashes of hope, a way forward that doesn’t end in moral catastrophe. She is treated as mere flesh in a broken country; nevertheless, she persists.