If you can stand one more trip into the dystopian future, The Handmaid’s Tale offers a disturbing and powerful voyage.
Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, the 10 episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale started rolling out Wednesday on the streaming service Hulu. The first three episodes are now available, then the rest will be released weekly.
It’s not a lot of fun, and it’s not always easy to watch, but Elisabeth Moss leads a strong cast that keeps the story engaging as ordinary people seek a way to resist soulless totalitarians who repress and kill in the name of fundamental Christianity.
Moss plays Offred, who after the totalitarian takeover of the United States — renamed Gilead — is forced to become a Handmaid.
In this future society – though not far in the future – man has so degraded the environment that chemical pollution has rendered most women infertile.
Handmaids are those few women who can still bear children. They are assigned to the families of the ruling elite, where they must engage in ritualized sex with the male rulers in hopes that they can provide these ruling families with children.
This perverse system is justified by fundamentalist readings of the Old Testament, which were also cited when the fundamentalists took over the government and suspended the Constitution.
Among other changes in this new order, women were reduced to the lowest Biblical levels of servitude. It became illegal for women to own property, for instance. Or to read.
You can imagine how it affected the status of, say, lesbians and gays.
This devolution from the old America happened somewhat quickly, Offred recalls, yet it also happened one step at a time. The old rights were gradually eliminated under the pretext of “keeping people safe” and protecting them from non-existent “terrorists.”
As metaphors go, the ones in The Handmaid’s Tale are hard to miss.
Offred, so named because her new master is Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), was a regular person named June with a husband, Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), and a daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake). They hid out for a while, but were eventually rounded up. Luke is of no value to the new regime, but June is and Hannah might be.
Offred remembers all this and sees no way back. So she has vowed she will tolerate all the humiliations, injustices and deprivations so she can survive long enough to one day search for Hannah.
This means subjugating herself to the enigmatic Fred and his vicious wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), who tolerates Offred in direction proportion to how soon Offred can produce offspring.
One day Offred’s assigned Handmaid companion Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) offers the first spark of hope that there might be a resistance out there.
But the thumb of the oppressors is heavy, so even making the simplest contact with anyone else could be a hanging offense. Literally. This government loves to hang people in front of other people, just as a reminder who’s in charge.
What elevates The Handmaid’s Tale beyond just another against-all-odds fight with cold, sneering authoritarians is that victims and oppressors share a common goal: the survival of the human race.
No babies, no more human race. A new baby, any baby, is a win for everyone.
The guardian of the Handmaids is Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), who rules with a heart of dry ice. No abuse, physical or psychological, is off the table with Aunt Lydia.
Yet when one of the Handmaids delivers a seemingly healthy girl, Aunt Lydia exudes a joy totally at odds with the inhumanity of her daily conduct.
While most of the story unfolds through the characters, Offred offers some silent commentary that reinforces her unspoken defiance and fills us in on how the United States got from there to here.
In the process we see frequent extended close-ups of Moss’s face, unblinking and sometimes disturbing. Which is, of course, the idea.
Moss does a terrific job conveying what it would be like to have your whole life taken away and replaced with a nightmare.
A nightmare hosted by the most un-Christian people you could ever imagine, marching under the banner of the Lord.