I’m going to boldly predict that I’ll not see a better show than The Handmaid’s Tale for the rest of the year.
The tale of Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss), a wife and mother trapped within the confines of a religious fundamentalist society, is consistently tense and horrifying. It’s also expertly told.
Set in a dystopian future America which doesn’t seem as distant a prospect as it once might have, a disease has left most women barren and children at a premium. Those women unaffected by the disease – and therefore, still able to give birth – are enslaved by the new society’s rulers as concubines and breeders.
Moss’ Offred, whose husband is apparently killed and young daughter captured, is given to Fred and Serena Joy Woodford to provide them a child. What follows is systematic rape, physical abuse and mental torture.
Based on the book by Margaret Atwood, it is almost unrelenting in its bleakness. Whether it’s the Handmaid’s being forced to murder people who’ve fallen foul of the system, or the flashbacks to their indoctrination under the brutal hand of Aunt Lydia, or even the backdrop of hanged men as the Handmaid’s walk back from the shops, there is an image which makes your heart sink at least once an episode.
The new, dark, world of Gilead is seen through the eyes of Offred and, as such, is anchored in the suburban setting; brief trips to city brothels offer only a glimpse of how the rest of the country looks. In setting Offred’s story within the boundaries of the manicured lawns and grand family homes, it follows American Beauty, Desperate Housewives and a multitude of other films and series’ which look behind the perfect exterior of the American Dream to its distorted, dark, reality. The future setting, however, allows The Handmaid’s Tale more scope to explore the disparity.
The Woodford’s – intelligent, attractive and unscrupulous – appear to be the New World’s power couple, but the longer Offred stays, the more she understands the tenuous threads keeping them in control and the greater her own sense of power. Joseph Fiennes’ Commander is a creep with a predilection for Handmaid’s and an inability to provide children, while Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) flips between frustration at her newly ineffective role in life and a cold, malicious streak.
For all the darkness and misery on show, the show would be arguably unbearable if not for Elisabeth Moss. Flashbacks to pre-social collapse provide a welcome breather and show Moss’ June to be headstrong, passionate and brave.
Despite the brevity of time we see her with her husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and best friend, Moira (Samira Wiley), the scenes are written sharply – and acted well enough – to give the audience a real sense June’s relationship to both. As the outside world begins to fall apart, June, Luke and their daughter, Hannah’s, attempted escape from Gilead manages to be tense and heart-breaking.
Moss’ Offred, meanwhile, takes time to extract herself from the downtrodden, abused role she’s been forced to play, but it’s the return of her steel and self-assuredness in flickering sparks which keeps the mood from becoming pitch black.
In a world where Handmaid’s are loathe to speak, Moss conveys so much through facial expressions or a certain look in her eyes. It’s Moss’ show and she delivers a number of standout moments, from her pleading with the Mexican leader, to her resolve in the face of unimaginable horrors.
Unfortunately, the horrors within The Handmaid’s Tale are not an entirely fanciful; each awful experience a Handmaid endures harks back to a moment in history, either distant or recent. Just look towards Boko Haram or, even, the views of the current President of America (at time of writing) for evidence of how men, unchecked, can act towards women. It adds another level of piquancy and horror to the events on screen.
Ultimately, mercifully, the series ends on a relative high note. The Handmaid’s find strength in unity to defy Aunt Lydia and Offred is taken from the Woodford family home and under the wing of Nick’s Eye colleagues. This is, apparently, where the books ends and there’s an argument for leaving the television series there too. Usually, I prefer shows not to drag out a storyline for a second season (see Stranger Things) but The Handmaid’s Tale has introduced a number of threads that I’d prefer to see resolved and questions I’d like to see answered. Most importantly, I just want another ten episodes of the best show on television.