Praise be, 3.5 readers.
BQB here with a review of Hulu’s big (and perhaps only) hit.
I avoided this show for a long time, largely due to the subject matter. I understand the importance of its message but ultimately, I view movies and TV as a means of escape from the crappiness of my own life, so a TV show about women being forced into a lifetime of sexual servitude at the hands of a cruel, tyrannical dystopian regime doesn’t exactly sound like good time viewing.
But with Hollywood saving their best stuff for post pandemic releases, I dove into it recently and I am hooked, though that probably is not a good thing.
For the uninitiated, the show is based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, about an America that has been replaced by Gilead, a fascist, hyper-religious bible thumping regime. There is a passage in the bible about Jacob’s wife, Sarah, who can’t get pregnant, so her handmaid Bilah does the deed with Jacob so that Sarah can raise the resulting offspring of her own. Gilead circles around this passage, as the novel and the series, and as an aspiring writer, I tip my cap to Atwood, because she got a lot of mileage out of that passage.
SIDENOTE to writers – there is plenty of stuff in the public domain that you can build entire worlds from too if you put your mind to it.
Back to the review. It’s funny, I always thought that other show that Elisabeth Moss was in, “Mad Men” gave the best illustration of why women stood up and demanded their civil rights in the 1960s. On the surface, that show was about Jon Hamm’s boozy, womanizing Don Draper, a man who on the outside was the epitome of success but on the inside, torn about by a seemingly endless hole in his soul, one there wasn’t enough success, money, power and women in the world to fill.
But if you dig deeper into that show, you get to know more about the struggle of Betty (January Jones), Draper’s wife who has to put up with Don’s chicanery. She wants to leave but can’t. She has no money and no skills because the culture of the time prevented her from working in any meaningful capacity. Alas, she languishes under Don’s thumb until she meets a nicer, older man who whisks her away, willing to pay for lawyers and whatever it takes to cut Don off.
I mean, it’s nice that Betty finally gets away from Don but the underlying message was clear – women of that time weren’t able to escape a bad man unless they had the help of a good man. Basically, they couldn’t do anything without a man.
But if Mad Men is a testament to why the civil rights movement was important, The Handmaid’s Tale is a look into the nightmare the world would become without it. This show is basically a woman’s worst nightmare come to life on screen, the stuff that keeps them up worrying at night and should motivate us to keep the world from moving backward.
The set-up? In the not-so-distant future (or perhaps an alternate present), environmental disasters leave the world ravaged and most women end up infertile. Populations are dying out, some countries going years before a healthy baby is born.
Long story short, a bunch of bible thumping dudes see their opportunity to seize control of America and put the last few fertile women into slavery as their handmaids and well, I’d rather not get into the gritty details of what that entails. You can get your own Hulu subscription and find out.
The show starts strong. Moss is a boss at communicating messages via her eyes. Offred, her character (Handmaids are called Of plus the name of their “commander,” in her case, Fred. Her real name is June. Offred can’t communicate much on her own, so her eyes do a lot of the talking. When she is forced to feign allegiance to all of this stupidity in public, her eyes tell the viewer that she truly believes this all to be bullshit. Who can blame her? She once had a nice life as a book editor with husband Luke (OT Fagbenle who you might remember from long ago as Meadow’s boyfriend on the Sopranos), daughter Hannah and BFF Moira (who you might remember as OITNB’s Poussey Washington.)
So many long, long discussions could be (and are) generated by this show, more time than I have to dedicate to on this fine blog. From a TV show analysis standpoint, I’d say it starts off strong, but then I have to admit, as it goes on, it loses its way, starts to meander, can’t figure out quite what to do next, though it then veers back on track.
Ultimately, from the very beginning of the show, we see the cruelty of the Gilead regime in all its way too gory detail. Heretics, non-believers and generally people who have pissed the ruling class off in the most trivial of ways are hanged daily, and bodies swinging from nooses left out in public for days on end serve as reminders for people to not step out of line.
Women are divided into classes and forced to wear uniforms as such. The wives of the ruling commanders wear green, the “Marthas” i.e. housekeepers wear gray, the Aunts i.e. the women who boss the handmaids around and keep them in line (usually through cattleprod shocks) wear brown and the handmaids are in red.
Overall, the ability of a show to keep the viewer in suspense is what keeps viewers coming back for more. This is why Game of Thrones put butts on couches on Sunday nights, because it was all too possible that at any moment, a beloved character could buy the farm.
Thus, this show draws the viewer in because we know the Gileadeans are totes a bunch of merciless d-bags, so we are on the edge of our seats as Offred circumvents the rules to improve her life, or the lives of her children, or to help others or whatever she is doing to help in the current episode.
SPOILER – where the show starts to meander is that there are many times when Offred gets one over on the Gileadeans. She scores big victories, it looks like she might be sentenced to death and then, poof, all is forgotten and she’s back to work as a Handmaid for the Waterfords, truly the worst yuppy couple in history (Joseph Fiennes as Commander Fred and Yvonne Strahowski who I always thought was critically underrated and underutlized by Hollywood since her Dexter days.) Here Strahowski has some chilling moments as the complex character Serena Joy- at first, like a Wicked Witch of the West character, gladly selling all of woman-kind down the river if it will help her get a baby and keep her social standing, but then as the show progresses, an ally to the struggle (because, you know, eventually this Gilead bullshit starts to affect her personally.)
SIDENOTE – this is probably Atwood’s key message, among many, namely that it becomes easier for a regime to subjugate women when they turn on each other. The evil male commander dudes probably couldn’t have pulled this off if their wives hadn’t gone along with it. Alas, everyone has their own selfish self-interests and usually can’t be persuaded to stick up for others until their own interests are on the line.
What was I saying? It’s a good show that provokes a lot of discussion, A LOT. However, a formula emerges and they go to the well one too many times with it. Offred screws with the regime. It looks like she’s going to be sentenced to death or worse. Then someone in charge is like wait she’s fertile, so we can’t kill her. So then her crimes against the evil regime are swept under the rug. Close up on Offred’s sorrowful eyes. Back to the Waterford house she goes. Rinse. Repeat. To the show’s credit, the writers try to work this in. Offred mentions in narration her story is disjointed, perhaps because she is recalling it years later and there is so much to tell she has a hard time keeping up with it all. And perhaps certain Gileadean dignitaries are so willing to sweep her disobedience aside because deep down, even they know their regime is crap and they can’t tell if they are part of it because they believe it or if they just feign allegiance to it to save their own hides. (And to be certain, while they don’t kill Offred, the Gileadeans are adept at inventing new punishments where she might be better off).
The book and the 1990s movie were more succinct. Let us peak into Offred’s shitty world then cheer as she escapes…like one time, for good, and that’s it. Not a hundred and fifty times where Serena and Fred just end up wagging their fingers in an impotent (pun intended) rage as if it becomes a sitcom, That Wacky Offred.
But I get why Hulu is dragging it out. This is the service’s first big original success in a sea of other stuff that is mostly junk (though I did enjoy Hulu’s show about Catherine the Great and that Andy Samberg movie where he keeps reliving the same day.)
STATUS: Shelf-worthy. New season in April. I have only started season 3 so don’t spoil it for me. Under his eye, 3.5 readers.