Hulu encourages all of us to think and act, in their shockingly timely adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
In the wee hours of the morning of November 9th, 2016, there was the distinct sound of the world crashing, as nothing we thought was about to happen in 2017 came to be. Nazis dances in the streets. A man so religious he refuses to be alone in a room with a woman who is not his wife became our Vice President. Everyone who sniffed at other countries falling into right-wing nationalistic rhetoric and regimes that oppressed women, said “It can’t happen here” all suddenly wondered if they were wrong.
Since then, we have had several shows which were in development during that period attempt to turn it to their own advantage. The Americans tried to claim the mantle of “most accidentally relevant show” by pointing to the Russian conspiracy theories surrounding the new administration. American Gods has been pumping up the “immigration” angle of their Old Gods as proof that they are a parable in a time of Wall Building. Even the basic cable show Colony attempted to get attention with it.
Offred: “Now there has to be an us. Because there is a them.”
Which makes A Handmaid’s Tale an outlier, as this past week they tried to play down the feminist angle of the show, and claim this is a “human show” that could be aired at “anytime” and be relevant. As if they almost don’t want to admit how bang on the nose they are. And yet–in my inbox, there was an email trying to raise funds for the Democratic party–you know the type, slightly over the top, shrilly crying what the republicans have done this time: “Trump signs executive order allowing states to defund Planned Parenthood” complete with a picture of Pence smiling guilelessly. The next email down: “Your Handmaid’s Tale screeners are available for viewing.”
In such a climate, forcing oneself to sit down and watch what amounts to a too close to home dystopia was a hard thing, let alone writing about it. Especially the flashbacks to the time before Gilead. Book purists (you know who you are) may complain bitterly of the updating from the original 1970s type world June inhabited before she became Offred, but for me, the inclusion of Tinder, Craigslist, salted caramel, iPhones and other modern day staples of our world only made her world that much more immediate. Before she was Offred, June was someone just like me, living a live not far from mine, until the world came tumbling down, and no one could do anything to stop it.
Aunt Lydia: “This will become ordinary.”
Much, I think will be made of the scenes of “before”, especially the protest, in light of the ones that occurred this weekend, and before. They look so much like the ones of today–all that’s missing are a few pussyhats and a sign or two that jauntily state “We Can Do This Every Weekend.” (The ending of course, is very different.) And the demonstrations in The Handmaid’s Tale feel more like the despairing ones of 2002, as the country sat back and allowed the Iraq war to happen, and no amount of demonstrating could stop it. That closeness to our own reality only makes what comes “after” all that more bizarre and frightening.
In most shows, the voice over is a crutch, one that is used by shows that fail at the number one rule of visual media, show not tell. But in A Handmaid’s Tale, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and her running inner dialogue compared to the words that come out of her mouth is part of what makes the show work. This is a woman who is a slave, with all the terror and rage that comes with the loss of a free life. But she cannot outwardly express that rage, and there’s only so much that facial expressions can convey. It’s far better to have her greet her fellow Handmaid, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) with a pious word of her own, and then adds on in her head “You pious little shit.”
Offred: “Please god, don’t let me be a fucking moron.”
They say that toxic masculinity hurts everyone. The misogyny-turned-up-to-11 on display in Gilead obviously hurts the women who are forced into sexual slavery like Offred and Moira (Samira Wiley, in a must see role). But what’s startling is the willingness of the show to dive into how it hurts the ruling classes as well. I remember Serena Joy Waterford being far more of a disturbing villain in the novel than she winds up being on-screen–there are moments when I felt sorry for her here, as Yvonne Strahovski plays her subsumed unhappiness as the force that radiates out in her rages against Offred. I mean, if that was your only way of having sex in that bizarre ass threesome, you’d cry too. (The only thing that might qualify as more creepy than the sex scenes is the birthing.) Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) is also a villain who seems more three-dimensional on-screen than she does on the page. It’s a rare show that manages that.
The Handmaid’s Tale hands us three episodes to begin, as “Margaret Atwood starter pack” to help introduce this world of Gilead, and to get us up to speed as to how we got from our world to theirs. It’s also a way to bring in an audience that must be hooked in these competitive Peak TV times. It’s no easy watch–all three have moments to make one ill, as well as moments or genuine tears. But in the same way one must eat their vegetables before one can have dessert, The Handmaid’s Tale is something that should be considered required viewing. A warning to all of us women to never, ever go to sleep. Never let the abnormal become normal. Never stop screaming as the water in this bathtub we’re in now gets warmer. Lest one day we wake up and discover we’ve all boil together.
The Handmaid’s Tale arrives tomorrow, April 26th, on Hulu streaming.