Horror, from Rosemary’s Baby to The Babadook, is uniquely equipped to explore the intimate violence that can accompany pregnancy and motherhood. There’s little blood in The Handmaid’s Tale, but Hulu’s 10-part adaptation, which debuted with three episodes yesterday (April 26), is no less terrifying for it. Like Get Out, the series contributes to this year’s revival of “prestige horror” through eerie atmospherics, allegorical force, and urgent insights into the simultaneous degradation and fetishization of Othered bodies.
Having grown up in our world, Offred (Elisabeth Moss), previously a Boston book editor, knows that she’s trapped in a horror movie. Though she and a few other women are prized for their rare fertility in a barren near-future, their lives could be ended at any time — or they could have an eyeball removed as punishment for disobedience. (You don’t need both eyes to carry a baby to term.) At least one rifle is trained on Offred and her fellow servants/incubators every minute that they’re outdoors, where they’re only permitted to be when going to or coming back from the supermarket. (Armed guards watch the handmaids there, too.) The sexual purity demanded by the slasher genre is replaced by another kind of reproductive docility: the willingness to be raped by one’s master and bear his child. Offred keeps waiting for her waking nightmare to end, for the hell to lift and the credits to roll. Our claustrophobia doesn’t come from Offred’s strategic passivity, but from the seemingly nonexistent paths toward resistance. Compliance is torture. Noncompliance is death.
The emotional and intellectual desolation of Offred’s life is built on intolerable extremes, yet nothing about Gilead, the Christian theocracy that presides over the ruins of the United States, feels unfamiliar — or impossible. The agonizing scene in the pilot where Offred’s master (Joseph Fiennes) stiffly pumps into her while his wife (Yvonne Strahovski) holds down the handmaid’s arms is a succinct metaphor for the plight of slave women throughout much of American history. The vicious anti-intellectualism and religious fundamentalism used to justify Gilead’s brutal rollbacks of women’s rights find echoes in fundamentalist Mormon and some “Quiverfull” sects, Taliban-governed Afghanistan, Boko Haram–controlled parts of Nigeria, and ISIS-occupied swaths of Iraq. Our own vice president calls his wife “Mother” in celebration of her procreative and parental achievements — which apparently supersede her individual identity as “Karen.” Without taking anything away from author Margaret Atwood (who appears in a cameo) or showrunner Bruce Miller, The Handmaid’s Tale feels less like a leap of imagination than patriarchy’s scrapbook for how women’s bodies have been — and are now, and can be again — weaponized against them. The book and the series are also ferocious and timely reminders that social progress can easily be reversed when a populace is politically complacent.
Since we now live under a regime so anti-choice our leaders seem to prefer that women die from back-alley abortions than refuse motherhood, the cultural relevance of The Handmaid’s Tale is in no doubt. (Ignore the “humanist not feminist” idiocy Miller and his cast claimed on the eve of the show’s debut.) Just as pertinent as the politics, for this review at least, is the show’s gorgeously composed, evocatively blanched visuals and its smart, cutting details. To telegraph the handmaids’ reduction to breeding livestock, for example, Offred wears a cuff around her ear that recalls an animal tag and is “tamed” with a cattle prod. Each of the first three episodes, at least, is organized around a mystery — about Offred’s past, her walking partner’s (Alexis Bledel) motives, the intentions of a forbidden one-on-one meeting with her master — that elides the dreary aimlessness of so many prestige dramas. Like on Orange Is the New Black, the numerous flashbacks to Offred’s past offer much-needed reprieve from the gray-grim present, as well as exposition of how Gilead came to be. OITNB’s Samira Wiley co-stars as Offred’s lesbian best friend from the years before, her natural warmth countered by Ann Dowd’s chilly indoctrinator and Madeline Brewer’s traumatically unhinged handmaid.
Other than the source material, the series’ biggest asset is Moss. All the telltale signs of women living through horror — not for two hours at a time, but for years — flitter across her face: fear, sorrow, incredulity, psychological injury, the temptation of insanity, the will to survive. The Mad Men actress grounds the potentially anvil-handed elements through recognizable reactions: the relief at finally finding a friend, the stubborn grip on her sense of humor. Voiceovers have become another scourge of self-serious dramas, but Moss makes us her confessors — and her explanations to us are perhaps her only link to her past, as she shows us how she silently battles to reject Gilead as “normal” and therefore “acceptable.”
The first third of any story isn’t enough to make a definitive pronouncement on it, so I’ll note with some hesitation that the first trio of installments aren’t super-promising in terms of intersectional sensitivity. The bizarre racial utopia that inflects dystopian TV and film, in which the world’s gone to shit but racism has somehow been eradicated, is present here too. The Handmaid’s Tale wastes several opportunities to point out how compulsory heterosexuality and systematized rape to produce children might register differently for a straight white woman like Offred and a queer woman of color like Wiley’s Moira, a character rewritten as black for the series, seemingly with little thought to her blackness. Given how intelligent and perceptive the rest of the series is — and how universally its premise resonates — it’d be a shame if The Handmaid’s Tale failed to take those differences into consideration. #YesAllWomen, but also #MoreForSomeWomen, y’know?