Margaret Atwood published her award-winning dystopian work of feminist empowerment, The Handmaid’s Tale, in 1985. Now, thirty-two years later, after a lame attempt at a film starring the late Natasha Richardson and Robert Duvall, Hulu has brought us a stunning, terrifying, and bleak original series adaptation of Atwood’s novel. Elisabeth Moss, who should have won Emmys for her work in Mad Men and Top of the Lake, delivers one of her greatest performances as the handmaid named “Offred” in Reed Morano’s (Kill Your Darlings) pilot episode. Not only does the performance demonstrate Moss’s incomparable range as an actress–reminiscent of Meryl Streep or Viola Davis.
The story is set in the not too distant future. A right-wing fundamentalist Christian sect has taken over the US government by violence and has forced their twisted brand of Christian teaching on all of the citizens of the newly titled Republic of Gilead. Women all over the world have been struck with a “plague” prior to the rise of the new Republic, which has made most of them infertile. Offred, however, is one of the fertile few. She is a handmaid, a young woman forced to wear a red robe and a large white bonnet. Never have I been so captivated by the use of the color red since Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. She ceremonially sleeps with her wealthy, white male commander in order that she might bare him children and lives a life of quiet obedience. As the brilliant and harsh Ann Dowd (The Leftovers) reminds the handmaids she supervises, “Blessed are the meek.” The pilot opens with Offred, her spouse, and eight-year-old daughter fleeing masked and armed men. They crash their car in the woods. We are led to believe that Offred’s husband is shot and killed as she and her child run into the thick of the woods. The scenery and cinematography is breathtaking as the men tackle Offred and separate her from her child. This, apparently, is how it all started for Offred.
Offred is constantly narrating her thoughts to the audience, but only in her head. This is not without humor, which I imagine Offred uses to combat the sheer terror of her existence. For example, Offred believes that Ofglen (a haunting Alexis Bledel) is a “pious little shit with a broom handle shoved up her ass,” which she tells the audience through her thoughts but then greets Ofglen in the approved manner, “Under his eye.”
The show is brilliant. But, it is not brilliant just because of the remarkable performances and stunning cinematography. It is also brilliant because it is terrifying and relevant. I wanted to get my wife’s perspective on a story which is by a woman, about women, and for women, primarily. She couldn’t make it through the first twenty minutes. Maybe I made it through because I am a young white man? I could quite easily be given the same respect that is given Commander Waterhouse (Joseph Fiennes), and that is equally as terrifying.
Make no mistake; Atwood’s story is one that is used for the purposes of waking us up. In the era of Trump the possibilities revealed in Offred’s fucked up world don’t seem too far out of reach. If something like The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t wake us up, then we are already screwed. As I watch the performances by Moss, Bledel, Dowd, and Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black), I found myself feeling fear for all of the strong, bold, and brilliant women in my life. My mother-in-law has said, “Oppression of women throughout history is due to one thing: fear. Men are afraid of whatever power women have and so they continue to oppress them.”
Atwood’s message to us is this: we are already in deep trouble, ethically, politically, culturally, and spiritually. Ann Dowd’s fierce character, Aunt Lydia, teaches the handmaids that rape is always the fault of the woman. She teaches them “blessed are the meek.” Then, in a beautiful and unsettling scene, Aunt Lydia instructs soldiers to drag a man accused of rape out onto a fresh cut lawn. She tells the handmaids that the man’s act of rape killed the pregnant handmaid who he raped. She tells them the punishment is death. She plays on the feelings of the women gathered. She has been, literally, beating into them the opinion that rape is a woman’s fault, and yet, she calls them to beat the shit out of the man until he dies, his bright red blood spilling on the verdant grass. Aunt Lydia teaches the handmaids that abortion is always evil, no exceptions, and that men always have the last word. These fundamentalist realities, however extreme, are the basis of a theocracy and the sad part is, we are already surrounded by these ideals in the US. We aren’t that far off from Offred’s reality, and for that we must atone.
“Blessed are the meek,” says Aunt Lydia. And Offred tells the audience, “They never mention the part where ‘the meek will inherit the earth’.”