One of the signs from the Women’s March that most sticks in my mind was “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.” It seemed to be a common refrain among the older women. Watching The Handmaid’s Tale, I can understand the sentiment more, because I can’t believe a novel written in 1985, itself a response to the backlash and the subsequent erosion of rights many women faced in the 80s, is still so damn relevant.
In the dystopian future of The Handmaid’s Tale miniseries adaptation, the United States has become a repressive, fundamentalist theocracy called Gilead. In this new world, women are valued only for their ability to bear children, and are no longer permitted to read, own property, or have jobs of their own. The government has responded to a drastically declining birth rate by forcing women who have proved themselves fertile are forced to serve as handmaids, or rather, concubines, to high-ranking officers, and give up any children they bear to be raised by them and their wives.
We see this new world through the eyes of one such woman, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) who is struggling to stay alive and sane, even as she is haunted by memories of her previous life, where she had a husband, child, and a life of her own. Much like many of us, she failed to realize just what the slow, steady accumulation of events was leading to until it was far too late, and a failed attempt to flee ended with her husband’s death and her young daughter being taken from her.
Her current state, where constant repression of mind, body, and soul naturally leads Offred to withdraw inside her own mind, where she is at least free to think as she pleases. It makes for great reading, but it’s not exactly cinematic. However, The Handmaid’s Tale does away with that problem thanks in part to camera work that allows us to share Offred’s fractured state of mind and the horror of her situation with angles and shots normally used in that genre. Because really, is there anything more frightening than such a cruelly realistic future that seems all too possible now? It also makes full use of Moss, with disturbingly intimate close-ups that allow us to feel every bit of her silent, yet passionate emotions as Offred’s heart breaks again and again.
Everything, from the costumes to the sets, to the stellar supporting cast that includes Joseph Fiennes, Alexis Bledel, Samira Wiley, and Max Minghella, all combine to serve as a warning of just how much we could lose. It makes The Handmaid’s Tale essential viewing not because it wants to give us hope in the midst of hopelessness, but because it wants us to show us the consequences of fanaticism and dehumanization. The only question is, can the rest of the miniseries keep building on the excellent foundation the first three episodes have constructed?