The first of a 10 episode run, THE HANDMAID'S TALE is both shocking and spellbinding.
Opening with a family being ripped apart for reasons unknown, the episode quickly establishes a nerve shredding staccato with a true extent of an ugly and malformed society. We quickly learn that it’s set in an unnervingly near future in which a repressive theocracy has imposed a rigidly patriarchal society. Rights are curtailed and a dwindling number of fertile women are forced into life as “breeding stock” for otherwise barren couples.
Greenlit before the 2016 presidential election, US commentators have drawn alarming parallels between real world events and the show’s depiction of a slide towards totalitarianism in response to unexplained and unwelcome demographic change. Indeed, one character soothes her reluctant, new handmaids with the unnerving words “Ordinary is just what you’re used to, this will become ordinary”, a chilling sentiment in the present day.
Yet to see only a reflection of contemporary politics would be to miss Handmaid’s most powerful message. Like Margaret Atwood’s best-selling novel of the same name, The Handmaid’s Tale is ultimately an enduring story of individual survival within a brutally repressive regime imposed by faceless, gun-toting men and barren sanctimonious women.
Our protagonist Offred (Elisabeth Moss) guides us, her inner voice offering an intimate, unfiltered perspective on a seemingly ordered society in which rage, resentment and more seethe just below the surface. Offred’s flashbacks to her old life provide a melancholic counterpoint to the present day, hazily lit daydreams that contrast sharply with the muted beige and grey of her painful new reality.
Introducing the main characters, the episode starts to weave a tantalisingly complex web of relationships between Offred, Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), his wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and their chauffeur (Max Minghella) among others. Its centrepiece is “the Ceremony”. Far from graphic, its perfunctory depiction of state sanctioned rape is more harrowing for being so acceptable, amplifying the horror of this dystopian future.
All of which sounds slightly uninviting. Especially when stretched out over 10 Sunday evenings, during which the committed viewer will no doubt be drawn deeper into a terrifying alt-reality that reflects some of our anxiety about the world today.
Provocative and bleak as it may be, The Handmaid’s Tale also promises to be one of the more compelling shows airing this year. Elisabeth Moss’ performance is sublime, awash with inner turmoil and subtly anguished expressions, something her co-stars look set to match as the series unfurls. It also offers a sliver of humour, as evidenced by Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” playing over the final credits as Offred resolves to survive her ordeal, ensuring that there’s enough hope to offset an apparently hopeless situation.
So as long as you’re up for a challenge and can stomach nine more gruelling episodes, The Handmaid’s Tale promises to be a tough but ultimately satisfying experience.
- Aired on C4, May 28 2017 at 21:00.