By Jim Sabataso
Near the end of episode three of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” there’s a flashback scene of a protest where police officers open fire on the crowd. In that moment, it all got too real. What starts as a peaceful demonstration in support of women’s rights suddenly devolves into a bloodbath, as bullets cut down unarmed protesters as they flee. For me, the scene was the culmination of nearly three hours of unceasing tension and anxiety that manifested in the moment when it all hit me at once: this could actually happen to us.
Based on the 1985 dystopian novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood about a totalitarian government of Christian fundamentalists that comes to power in the United States, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is startlingly fresh and relevant right now, as the Trump Administration continues is assault on American institutions and norms.
What exactly precipitated the show’s status quo is revealed slowly. An inexplicable decline in birthrates interpreted as divine retribution. Terrorists strike Washington. Martial law is declared. Religious extremists seize power.
Elizabeth Moss stars as Offred, a handmaid, or woman forced into servitude to provide children for the society’s infertile elite. The inhumane treatment of women is shocking, from the physical and psychological abuse they are forced to endure, to the traumatizing and truly disturbing conception ceremony, which treats handmaids more like vessels than humans.
Moss’ Offred is both fragile and resilient. Through flashbacks, we see her previous idyllic life with her friends, husband and child. We also see how it all slips away, as the rhetoric of her future oppressors begins to permeate society — a misogynistic barista, a frozen bank account, being forced out of her job. It happens slowly, not all at once.
“They can’t do this,” she says to a friend, certain that it will all pass, that no one will stand for what’s happening. She just has to ride it out. It will get better. This is America, after all. Sound familiar?
Admittedly, it’s a bit distracting to have Moss, a Scientologist, star in a show about an oppressive religious sect that practices strange and abusive rituals. Fortunately, Moss is a fantastic actor, so much can be forgiven, even if that irony does linger over her performance.
The rest of the cast gives solid performances throughout. Joseph Fiennes (“Shakespeare in Love”) plays the high-ranking commander Offred is paired with. Alexis Bledel (“Gilmore Girls”) plays Ofglen, a fellow handmaid and member of the resistance. And Ann Dowd (“The Leftovers”) plays Aunt Lydia, an abusive true believer and overseer of the handmaids.
Visually, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a gorgeously shot depiction of a familiar present, with off-putting reminders of the show’s grim reality. There is a washed-out quality that effectively contrasts the stark red of the handmaid’s robes, making the women almost radiant as they float through scenes. Series director Reed Morano (“The Skeleton Twins,” “Kill Your Darlings”) does fantastic work creating something that is simultaneously beautiful and disturbing.
Watching the first three episodes, I couldn’t help but think of how some people would be rooting for the oppressors here. In a moment when male elected officials routinely attempt to strip women of their reproductive rights and even refer to them as “hosts” for the children they carry, it’s easy to imagine how pleasing the reality of this story might be to them. If Mike Pence allowed himself to watch TV with adult situations, he would love this show — for all the wrong reasons.
It’s unlikely Hulu knew how timely “The Handmaid’s Tale” was going to be when it green-lit the series back in 2016. What was once a frightening but unimaginable story of human cruelty is now an eerily plausible cautionary tale to be heeded. Fortunately, the show never forces or underscores its newfound relevance. Rather, it stands on its own as a powerfully intense example of unchecked religious extremism, irrational fear, and social acquiescence.
CHECK IT OUT
New episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” are released Wednesdays on Hulu.