The Handmaid’s Tale is still one of the most urgent dystopias of the twentieth century and the good news on the Hulu adaptation is that it utterly makes good on that urgency. Aware that Margaret Atwood’s insights into gender, misogyny and biopolitics are even more relevant thirty years on, showrunner Bruce Miller grounds the narrative in the core of the original novel, presenting the audience with a devolution of the northeastern part of the United States into Gilead, a right wing, theocratic, totalitarian state that has been established, in part, to address decreasing male fertility. Within this state, women fall into one of three official roles – Wives of Commanders (who run the state), Marthas, who are infertile and perform menial domestic and administrative work, and Handmaids, who alone are fertile and are rotated from Commander to Commander in order to try and restock the population. Of course, other types of women exist – such as Gender Traitors, who are sent to the radioactive “Colonies” along with other LGBT people, doctors who have performed abortions, protesters, and a whole variety of other dissidents – but for the most part the regime revolves around these three key female roles.
Our insights into the regime are channelled through Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss, a Handmaid living in Cambridge, Massachussetts, who has just been rotated to a new Commander after failing to procreate at her last posting. Offred’s original name is June Osborne, but in Gilead Handmaids are forbidden to use their original name, and instead simply take the name of their Commander (who in this case happens to be named Fred, and is played by Joseph Fiennes) as a patronym. While Offred is left to her own devices a lot of the time, several key routines structure her life. The most important of these is the Ceremony, a process that Gilead has devised to deal with the thorny problem of how to take advantage of the Handmaids’ fertility without appearing to transgress Christian marriage, along with the even more difficult question of how to institutionalise and rape within a theocratic state. In essence, the Ceremony is the centrepiece of a Handmaid’s tensure with a Commander and his Wife, and occurs once a month, when she is certain to be ovulating. In a spectacle that is every bit as disturbing here as it is in the novel, the Commander has sexual intercourse the Handmaid while staring into the eyes of his Wife, who lies further back on the bed and wraps her legs around the entire process, not acknowledging the Handmaid any more than is absolutely necessary.
Along with the Ceremony, the Handmaids are also required to attend two major external ceremonies – Births, which are a cause for celebration, and Salvagings, during which traitors to the regime are publically executed. When Salvagings come around, the Handmaids are generally required to participate in a process called Particicution, during which they are instructed to gather in a circle around dissidents and either stone them to death or pull them apart with their bare hands. In these situations, as in all situations in which the Handmaids appear collectively in public, they are supervised by the Aunts – matronly, older women who are either infertile or simply never conceived, and who both train and maintain the Handmaids as viable and malleable sources of fertility across the regime. As in the novel, there are a fair few flashbacks to the Rachel and Leah Centre, the converted school gymnasium where Offred was trained as a Handmaid by Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) after being forcibly removed from her husband Luke (O.T. Fagbendle) and daughter while trying to escape to Canada in the early years of the regime.
Finally, Offred’s world is contoured by the presence of other women, as well as the possibility – or probability – that they are as disgusted with Gilead as her. First and foremost, there is her best friend Moira, played Samira Wiley, who happens to turn up at the Rachel and Leah Centre as well, but who escapes shortly before Offred is sent out for her first assignment. Second, there is Janine (later Ofwarren and Ofdaniel), played by Madeline Brewer, a vulnerable Handmaid who continually struggles under the demands of the regime and is repeatedly tortured and disfigured for her frailty. Third, there is Emily (later Ofglen and Ofsteven), played by Alexis Bledel, who is initially Offred’s shopping companion, but who turns out to be her first point of contact with the underground resistance to Gilead, a movement that may or may not include her Commander’s driver, Nick (Max Minghella), despite his official status as an Eye (an agent of surveillance). Finally, there is the Commander’s Wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), who we discover, in flashbacks, was an early proponent of the regime and an advocate for conservative family values (“domestic feminism”) but has since become disenchanted and disheartened in ways that make her even more dangerous and unpredictable as far as Offred is concerned.
If that sounds like a lot of background information, that’s because Atwood’s vision is itself conceptually rich, albeit without ever feeling like a bland or programmatic schema either. With all this content retained, it’s not surprising that much of The Handmaid’s Tale also – initially – resembles the novel in style and address, with Offred’s introspective ruminations translated directly into a series of insular voiceovers that feel as if they are unfolding in a completely separate universe from her stilted and rehearsed interactions with the Commander and his Wife. As with the novel, much of these reflections take place in her bedroom, which is flooded with cold New England light, flattening even the most fleeting sensory gratifications until they have to be nurtured and protected as actively and consciously as possible. In the first episode, in particular, we’re only granted a series of very limited perspectives, with the camera remaining trapped between Offred’s wings as she watches and waits for whatever furtive moments of reprieve she can muster. Since Handmaids – like all women – are not allowed to read or write, these moments often revolve around Offred playing word games in her head, or relishing the sound of her own voice when she is alone, lending these voiceovers a nurturing warmth and visceral counterpoint to the barren backdrop of her life with the Commander and his Wife.
Throughout these early scenes, it’s immediately clear that Elisabeth Moss is perfectly cast, since her protean facial expressions – ineffably different from each new angle – work perfectly to capture Offred’s efforts to continually sublimate and subsume horror into the banality of everyday life. With so much of the series shot in close-up, and with Offred always seeming to hide right up against the camera, Moss is challenged as never before to demonstrate all the minute and subtle modulations of facial expression of which she is capable, even or especially as Offred’s survival depends upon remaining flatly inscrutable. Even on its own Moss’ efforts here would be enough to carry the series, but she’s assisted by some incredible performances from the rest of the cast, along with some masterstrokes of casting. In particular, Samira Wiley is perfectly cast as Moira, and often feels as if she is simply continuing her role as Poussey in Orange is the New Black, as does Madeline Brewer, whose depiction of Janine feels much like her depiction of Tricia Miller in the first season.. In fact, The Handmaid’s Tale itself often feels like a continuation of Orange is the New Black, especially in the furtive solidarity amongst the Handmaids and the flashbacks to the old regime (and there are flashbacks for nearly all the characters).
At the same time, Wiley’s presence also draws out some of the racial undertones dormant in the original novel, where race is never mentioned or discussed in very much detail. Here, however, it’s blindingly obvious that African American women are apparently suited for Marthas and Handmaids, but not for Wives, just as African American men are apparently suited for military and administrative duties, but not for being Commanders. It’s a brilliant touch, then, that sees Alexis Bledel cast as Ofwarren, one of the most silenced characters in the series, who eventually has her clitoris removed in punishment for gender traitory (read a lesbian relationship). As she mutes and suppresses all the verbal energy of Rory Gilmore into one agonising facial expression after another, the Cambridge backdrop mutates into a sombre sequel to the Ivy League fantasies that animated Gilmore Girls’ particular fantasy of New England whiteness. In that sense, The Handmaid’s Tale often feels like a continuation of Gilmore Girls as much as Orange is the New Black, taking a certain parochial and nostalgic version of the American northeast and whittling it down to the assumptions about gender, race and class that not even the most intractable Waspy eccentricity could conceal.
As this nod in the direction of other contemporary television series might suggest, there are also some major departures from Atwood’s original vision here, as there would have to be to transform The Handmaid’s Tale into a viable series. For one thing, the Hulu adaptation has to graft some actual seriality, and serial momentum, onto a novel that often seems to take place in a distended and displaced space between past, present and future. Following on from that, a series presumably has to provide what Atwood’s novel continually forestalls – an ending – since the “Historical Notes” that conclude the book are so bound up with the textuality and materiality of the novel form itself that they simply wouldn’t ramify in the same way if translated into a television screenplay. Finally, a television series, by its very nature, is destined to expand the intense insularity of Offred’s first person-perspective into a more expansive and systemic vision of Gilead. Even from the beginning, the close-ups of Offred’s face, and point-of-view shots from her limited perspective, are offset by a series of drone shots that suggests a more sustained elaboration of the workings of this dystopian society than what Offred is able to glimpse and piece together in the original narrative.
In that sense, the most striking feature of the opening episode is how rapidly it accelerates through the novel, detailing a whole series of events – the Ceremony, the Salvaging, the Particicution – that take place in the second half of Atwood’s version (and in some cases at the very end). At first, I was a bit unconvinced by this change in pace, since it initially detracts from the emergent horror of the novel – the sense that we are only experiencing things at the same glacial pace as Offred – to establish the world of Gilead all at once, removing the opacity and isolation that makes Offred’s voice so chilling. Paired with that propulsive forward momentum is a much more strenuous sense of resistance from the very outset, with Offred deciding from day one that she is going to undermine Gilead in whatever way she can. While I definitely appreciated that sentiment, I also felt this might detract from the exhaustion that makes the novel so powerful – and the ending so precious and fragile – since in the Hulu version we’re barely immersed in the quotidian details of the regime before the prospect of rebellion emerges on the horizon as a genuine option.
Compounding all that is some fairly broad characterisation in these early episodes, especially of the Aunts, who are all relatively faceless characters in the novel – their bland normality is what makes them so eerie – but are here personified almost exclusively by Aunt Lydia, who can sometimes feel a bit hammy in her religious expositions, as well as the way in which she hands out physical punishment. That hamminess peaks during the closing credits of the first few episodes, which feature a series of kickass feminist anthems that often jar in quite a dissonant way with the sombre concluding scenes, as if Bruce Miller were struggling to find some balance between the demands of the present and the spirit of the novel. Of course, that’s a noble ambition, since Atwood’s message of resistance is even more urgent in Trump’s America. Yet there’s something equally timely about how the novel captures the erosion of resistance under quotidian misogyny – “ordinary is just what you’re used to” – if only because it frames resistance as something that is hard won, and something that needs to be actively maintained. It’s no surprise, then, that Offred’s mother – an ambivalent emblem of failed 60s activism – doesn’t play a part in the adaptation, which staunchly and uncritically adopts the vocabulary of post-war liberalism and second-wave feminism as a necessity for remaining committed to rebellion and resistance.
For all those reasons, The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t quite as surreal, eerie or haunting as the novel, since neither we nor Offred are trapped quite so emphatically between her wings. Yet, as the episodes proceed, the adaptation works in a different way to capture how a regime as apparently untenable as Gilead might be normalised amidst all the spaces and structures of the United States as we currently know then, transforming Atwood’s cloistered account into a more expansive universe in quite a compelling manner. Some of the biggest departures work to elaborate the suburbs and urban core of Boston in this way, with the most powerful set pieces focusing on the transformation of the city from an American to a Gileadean metropolis. In essence, this involves anonymising the cityscape, a process that forms the backdrop to Offred and Moira’s attempted escape from the Rachel and Leah Centre. Making their way into downtown Boston, they’re astonished to find signs being taken down, directions being removed and, finally, names being chipped off subway stations. In fact, it’s confusion about where trains are arriving from – and departing to – that leads to their eventual separation, with Moira managing to escape and Offred being sent back to the Centre. By the time Gilead has been established, and Offred is permitted to walk into town for errands, the regime has entirely remade Boston as a city without signs, and a city in which wayfinding has become impossible, designed expressly to thwart human passage.
The depiction of time is also much more concrete than in the novel, with the flashbacks to the early stages of the regime outlining the evolution of the world that Offred now inhabits. Similarly, it’s much clearer, in the adaptation, that Gilead is still in its early years, and that its stranglehold isn’t yet absolute, if only because the camera enjoys a certain exemption from its routines and processes that is not possible in the novel. Even if we still feel the weight of all the days, hours and minutes of Gilead that are still to come, the regime’s hold on the future – and on the very idea of futurity – seems less pronounced than in the novel as well, where is felt entirely plausible that the Commanders might have consolidated their power over the next several hundred years, as outlined in the Historical Notes. Here, by contrast, there’s a clearer sense of the power of protest to shape the future, and the power of collective resistance to wrest the very discourse of futurity out of the hands of the patriarchy, which is perhaps why it also feels as if the gap between Offred’s voice and her intended audience is much narrower than in Atwood’s original vision. Whereas Atwood only ever allows us to feel addressed “by” Offred in the most notional way, Offred’s words here have the conviction of arriving, at some point, at a tangible and concrete ally, reframing some of the novel’s most agonised and helpless utterances as mantras of resistance and rebellion: “If this is a story I’m telling I must be telling it to someone.”
In other words, there’s a new kind of provocation to the series’ more volatile atmosphere, which refuses to relegate Gilead to the realm of some comfortingly distant dystopian fantasy but instead embeds it in here and now. In that sense, Bruce Miller effectively adapts what is arguably the most challenging part of the novel – the Historical Notes. These are inserted at the end of the text and take place several hundred years in the future, after Gilead has fallen, at a conference dedicated to discussing the history and politics of the regime. The Notes themselves are the transcript of an address by a professor specialising in Gileadean history, and yet while the conference is clearly taking place in a more liberal future, the professor is just as clearly assuming a masculine audience, peppering his research into Offred with a bevy of double entendres, sexual innuendoes and crude jokes. While it remains open as to whether the series may include this postscript in its next season, the first season has already internalised the import of the Historical Notes in the way in which it refuses to allow the viewer the luxury of any kind of discerning critical distance from the dystopian present, along with the way in which it follows Atwood in framing the very idea of critical distance as a fantasy of patriarchal omniscience and entitlement.
Just as the Historical Notes pinpointed how even a misogynist regime like Gilead might become a vehicle for liberal masculine self-congratulation with the right amount of historical distance, so the adaptation removes any illusion of historical distance between its moment of screening and the moment it depicts. In doing, so The Handmaid’s Tale manages to simultaneously outline a dystopian world and pre-empt much of the mansplaining that tends to accrue around dystopias themselves as a field of study (it’s no coincidence, after all, that the right wing terrorist movement responsible for setting up Gilead in the first place see themselves as visionaries charged with the task of articulating and addressing everything dystopian about liberal America). As a result, the adaptation evinces a suspicion with the male voice that is every bit as uncompromising as Atwood, which isn’t exactly to say that all men are suspicious, but that any expression of male conviction – however liberal – becomes structurally complicit in the institutionalised misogyny of Gilead as a whole, much as the Historical Notes did at the end of the novel. In its own way, then, the series also conveys the visceral power and comfort of language, since while Offred may be more assertive here, that just makes the struggle to remain silent all the more visceral, with the main dramatic climaxes accruing around the plosive moments at which she gives in to the need for speech – moments that tend to be both cathartic and traumatic in equal measure.
In fact, so deftly does The Handmaid’s Tale extricate its dystopian world from the dystopian discourse that produced it – and is still anxious to contain it – that it’s questionable whether it’s a dystopia at all, or just a slightly modulated form of the present. Indeed, the driving logic of much of the series is that virtually everything we are seeing has already happened – is simply continuing to happen – imbuing Offred’s story with a different kind of banality from that found in the novel, but one that is equally powerful and prescient. In the process, Miller manages to address another thorny formal problem raised by the Historical Notes, which reveal that the text of the novel, as we have it, is actually a transcript of a series of tapes recorded by Offred in no clear order, which were only compiled and ordered under the moniker of “The Handmaid’s Tale” by the professor giving the lecture. Obviously, that twist is very difficult to translate into an audiovisual text, and yet this subsumption of dystopia back into the here and now does allow the series to capture something of the strange displacement of the present moment that results from this final revelation, setting us adrift in a odd space between past and future that ensures that Offred’s words never quite settle or stabilise into something that can be definitively co-opted or contained.
If Offred’s words feel more charged with action than in the novel, however, the series compensates with an even more systemic and structural overview of Gilead, and the genesis of Gilead. It’s here that The Handmaid’s Tale departs most from the novel – or expands upon the novel – and yet it doesn’t feel untrue to the novel either, since while Atwood’s vision may have been elliptical, its ellipses also seem to contain a whole world that always felt as if it might be fleshed out further at a later date. For the most part, this world-building converges Gilead with the contemporary United States, as the flashbacks powerfully and pointedly position the regime as the result of a right-wing American terrorist movement utterly convinced of its own zealotry. Time and again, Atwood compares the conviction of the Aunts with the more mercenary attitude of the Commanders, and that operatates on a wider scale here, culminating with an incredible episode in which a series of Mexican delegates visit Gilead to consider the possibility of trading Handmaids for natural resources, since it appears that the infertility issue extends beyond the borders of the former United States. As the Commander announces that “we stand for traditional values in everything, including trade agreements,” it’s chillingly clear that even the most hallowed theocratic repositories of Gilead are, at heart, an iteration of the neoliberal state, and more than prepared to subsume ideology into profit whenever the situation demands.
More generally, the adaptation beautifully outlines the tension within Gilead between parochial ideologies and global economic ambitions, with many of the official conferences and meetings often feeling more like a local Republican convention than an exercise in national and international relations. It’s at these moments that the focus on one Aunt, and one narrow pool of Handmaids, really works to capture the dissonance between Gilead’s grandiose conception of itself and its parochial presence on the world stage – something Offred senses in the novel but can never decisively prove, thanks to the regime’s stranglehold on all media and information. As a result, there is a much clearer sense here of Canada as a threshold of possibility – or a space of survival, as Atwood puts it in her history of Canadian Literature – with Luke and eventually Moira managing to meet across the border, where they commit to bringing Offred over via the Underground Femaleroad as the final episode draws to a close. For all the horror of Gilead, the series is quite pragmatic about its limited appeal, along with the necessity for approaching it as the parochial fringe ideology that it really is at heart, despite all its claims to hegemonic universality and its appeals to the common good.
In a strange way, then, one of the achievements of the series is to render Gilead even more banal than it is in the novel, increasingly focusing on PR as much as ideology. In particular, the right PR is necessary for smoothing over international relations, with children and Handmaids continually mobilised and paraded in the name of the upcoming trade deal. The horror of the adaptation, then, is less about the efficacy of ideology and more about the efficacy of branding, with one especially brilliant sequence – in which Handmaids are traded for chocolate – providing a sudden and shocking sense of how well-placed Gilead might actually be within a globalised economy despite all its archaisms, with the Mexicans treating the Commanders and their Wives with the same cautious deference that the United States displays towards economic allies whose political ideologies are repugnant to their own. At their most dexterous and deft, these exercises in optics frame Gilead as a literal neoliberalist state – a purported protector of liberal social values – with the Commanders boasting that the division of women into Wives, Martha and Handmaids has solved – or at least contained – institutionalised rape culture, and that their theocratic frugality has been responsible for a staggering 78% reduction in carbon emissions since the regime came into existence.
As these different aspects of Gilead come into focus, the gung-ho atmosphere of the early episodes tends to subside, as if that early burst of fist-pumping were just a mechanism for transitioning from Atwood’s original vision into something more expansive. In that sense The Handmaid’s Tale is quite formally unusual in that the opening episodes almost seem to transition to a second season, setting up space for the second half to settle into a rich, multifaceted world without ever quite losing the hermetic isolation and melancholy solitude of Atwood’s original. That culminates with the depiction of Jezebels, which manages to be true both to Atwood’s novel and this new iteration, and represents the point at which the transformation to a text beyond the novel starts to really produce something startlingly original. It doesn’t hurt, either, that this is my favourite sequence in the novel, partly because of the way in which it presents even the most residual affection of the Commander as an exercise in misogynist affectation. Having started a secret affair with Offred, he tells her that they are having an outing, getting her to dress up as his Wife before escorting her to Jezebels, a lavish pleasure-house that provides the Commanders with access to everything forbidden by the regime. There, Offred finally runs into Moira again, but instead of the resistance she had been envisaging – and using to sustain herself – she finds that her best friend has decided that it is best to resign herself to the fleeting pleasures of alcohol, drug use and comparative freedom that this spectacle of orgiastic decadence and desuetude has to offer.
In other words, it is with Jezebels that Atwood makes you realise just how hard-won, fleeting and draining resistance can be. That’s all still there in the adaptation, since Jezebels is easily the most dangerous and isolating space in the series as a whole, and yet that also allows it to become the cutting edge of resistance as well, with Offred confronting Moira with her apathy and finally prompting her to escape to Canada, where she meets up with Nick in the final scenes. Nevertheless, this sequence couldn’t be any more different from the rousing rebellious spirit of the opening episodes, as it becomes clear that the most crucial moments of rebellion still largely occur individually – in silence and solitude – with Moira seeming shell-shocked more than anything else to find herself in Ontario, where a chirpy Canadian Immigration official provides her with a residency pack in one of the most stunned and surreal tableaux in the entire series. To be plausible, this transition from resignation to resistance requires Moss to bring everything to the scene in which she confronts Moira, and this is not surprisisingly the pinnacle of her performance across the series, as grief gives way to rage and everything Offred has worked so hard to subsume over the last eight episodes inexorably makes it way back up to the surface. Indeed, it feels as if Offred is only now, confronted with Moira, realising the full price and peril of resistance, just as the more gung-ho atmosphere of the earlier episodes only seems to have been introduced for the sake of this more sombre – but also more galvanising – revision.
From there, the series concludes with two incredible sequences that depict something we rarely see on television: the spontaneous, inchoate emergence of resistance, both at an individual and a collective level. In the first, Ofwarren finally refuses the Ceremony, even as her new Commander and his Wife continue gaze into each others’ loving eyes and contemplate all the children they’re going to have, as if rape culture and the cult of the nuclear family had already become synonymous by this point in the evolution of Gilead. In the second sequence, we return to the Salvaging for the first time since the original episode, but with an entirely different valency, as the Handmaids are gathered in a circle and instructed to stone Ofwarren to death for her subsequent suicide attempt. It’s a moment that beautifully crystallises the main questions of the series – when will be too much, when will action be unavoidable, what will be the tipping point – as director Karl Skogland wraps the whole group around a single, fluid mobile gaze that wills each Handmaid to be the first to resist even as each Handmaid shies away from individual action as well. At this point, the camera seems to transcend a merely documentary or even expressive presence to embody the collective will of the Handmaids as if they strive to identify and articulate the exact moment to take advantage of their identical dresses to act in total unison.
As it turns out, it’s one of the most compliant Handmaids who refuses to stone Janine first, but from there the refusal of the rest gels into one gesture so tightly that Aunt Lydia and the soldiers are left at a loss for how to respond without destroying the regime’s best chance at fertility. The best she can do is to promise individual punishments when they arrive back at their respective residences, ordering them away as Offred reflects that “I ought to be terrified, but I feel serene…there’s a kind of hope, it seems, even in futility.” In a brilliant final move, The Handmaid’s Tale then concludes with the same scene as the novel, as Offred (like the other Handmaids) is brought home to find an armoured car waiting to escort her away – an armoured car that may or may not contain members of the resistance in disguise, as she moves “into the darkness, or maybe the light.” In some ways, it would work well for the series to end right here – a tribute to its capacity to pair the core and bookends of Atwood’s vision with a wider kind of world-building – so it will be doubly fascinating to see how it expands upon these moments, and the fate of all its major characters and institutions, across the breadth of its second season.