First look UK TV review: The Handmaid’s Tale
Ivan Radford | On 29, May 2017
“This may not seem ordinary to you now. But it will. After time, this will become ordinary.” It’s hard to believe the words of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), as she introduces new recruits to Gilead, the dystopian world that has taken over modern America in The Handmaid’s Tale, a series that’s as chilling as it is filled with fiery rage.
Recruit, of course, isn’t really the right word: the women in the “Red Centre” are being educated and trained in the ways of this society against their will. Question what they’re being told? Get tasered. Obey and, well, things ain’t any better.
Handmaids are the cornerstone of this fundamentalist state: women enslaved as child-bearers to the male masters of the house, impregnated ritually, routinely, righteously, so that the man and his pious wife can reap the rewards of this enforced fertility. It’s a sickening thought and one that only becomes more so, as Bruce Miller’s show unflinchingly shows us more and more of the Gilead’s doctrine being put into practice.
Even their names have been taken away from them, as each Handmaid is branded with the moniker of their owner, accompanied by the possessive prefix “of”. Ofglen. Ofwarren. We first meet Offred (Elisabeth Moss) in the woods, as she flees a group of armed men, only to be separated from her daughter and wake up in this new, alien order. From that point on, everything dims, as director Reed Morano shrouds Offred’s oppressive existence in shadowy darkness, muted colours (apart from the red, nun-like habits the Handmaids must wear) and low, ominous music.
Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski are horribly formidable as Offred’s cold master, Commander Waterston, and his stone-faced Wife, while even the house’s domestic slave – each one called a “Martha” – is a hostile presence. That’s partly how Gilead maintains their captive’s subordination: by making sure they don’t fully trust each other. Every household might contain an “Eye”, a spy reporting back to those in power. “Under the eye” becomes a standard farewell greeting, one that acts as a supportive caution, but simultaneously reinforces the pervasive fear of being watched.
Elisabeth Moss, who has already established herself as one of the best actresses around in Mad Men and Top of the Lake, is electrifyingly good here, a perfect fit for a perfectly distressing part. She’s withdrawn but infectiously alert; a landmine of scared silence and unspoken anger. There’s stubborn resilience radiating from every pore, every glance and every time she catches herself from saying the wrong thing. The editing immerses us in her mental state, with flashbacks to her pre-Gilead life letting us gasp up to the surface for air, before being dragged back down into the submerged depths.
The rest of the cast are equally flawless, creating a tapestry of unrest and cowed conformity that is utterly convincing in every aspect. Ann Dowd (who has terrified and been tormented in equal measure in The Leftovers and Compliance) is deeply unsettling as the Aunt who acts as an enforcer as much as a guardian of the Handmaids, while Max Minghella’s cautiously kind driver of the Commander is impossible to read as friend or foe.
The state’s intentions are, they claim, honourable – a logical response to a dip in birth rates that is designed to promote procreation above all things. The extreme anti-choice solution is as nasty today as it was when Margaret Atwood’s book first proposed it in 1985. Miller’s adaptation is loyal to the letter, turning the novel’s first-person text into a voiceover that gives us a glimpse of the inner resistance beneath Offred’s reserved surface. “Blessed are the meek,” her narration observes at one point with a scathing, searing wit. “They always left out the part about inheriting the Earth.”
Morano doesn’t turn as away at bringing such words to vivid life. The finger-pointing terror of therapy sessions that encourage the Handmaids to blame each other for their pasts. The horror of hordes stirred to violently murder a man in a field. And, worst of all, the “ceremony” that sees Offred raped dispassionately, monotonously, by the Commander. “It’s better than sex,” one Handmaid says of a fresh piece of fruit halfway through, then pauses with sober realisation of what that word now means, before adding: “Good sex.”
The show arrives at a time when its relevance is harrowingly apparent. Only weeks ago in the USA, President Donald Trump (and a room full of men) signed a ban on federal funding for international groups that perform abortions. The gradual normalisation of new administrations and political directions is a pervasive, creeping thing occurring right now off-screen. But what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so unnerving is the fact that birth control and female suppression were just as pertinent when written by Atwood in the 80s – such notions and regimes have been dating back three decades and even further. It’s an alarming experience to witness it on a Sunday night on Channel 4, but this is no science fiction set in an impossible universe: the impact is less about the shock of something new, and more the shock of something that normally happens in other countries occurring where you never thought it could. This is a skin-crawling immersion into a reality that is depressingly, disturbingly ordinary. The normality of it almost begins to sink in – and yet can’t, mustn’t and won’t. By the end of the suffocating first hour, even remembering one’s name feels like a rousing act of defiance.
Episode 7 to 10 of The Handmaid’s Tale are available for free on All 4. The whole season is available to buy and download as a box set on pay-per-view VOD.