Elisabeth Moss as Offred.
In an April stacked with wall-to-wall, top-notch prestige television, it can be challenging to figure out which new or returning series to push to the top of one’s priority list. So here’s a piece of advice: slide The Handmaid’s Tale, the new Hulu original based on Margaret Atwood’s revered 1985 novel, into one of the top must-see slots.
A faithful adaptation of the book that also brings new layers to Atwood’s totalitarian, sexist world of forced surrogate motherhood, this series is meticulously paced, brutal, visually stunning, and so suspenseful from moment to moment that only at the end of each hour will you feel fully at liberty to exhale. Assuming the rest of the episodes are as strong as the first three provided for review, The Handmaid’s Tale will stand as not only the best one-hour drama Hulu has produced, but one of the best dramas of the year, period.
Given the rise of nationalism both here in the U.S. and abroad, The Handmaid’s Tale also possesses a relevance and sense of urgency that make its story of oppression, misogyny, and extreme conservative rule seem extra timely even though it is timeless. “There would be no mercies for a member of the Resistance,” says Offred, the story’s protagonist, during a voice-over in one of the early episodes. You hear her say this, and you know she’s talking about a resistance completely different from the grassroots movement against the Trump administration. You shudder anyway.
The first episode — which, along with two subsequent ones, begins streaming April 26 — opens with a pulse-pounding, frenetically shot sequence reminiscent of the film Children of Men, which makes sense since some of that film’s plot elements were reminiscent of Atwood’s novel. We see the woman we will later learn is Offred (Elisabeth Moss, in an excellent, firmly controlled performance), her husband, and their daughter attempting to get out of the U.S., first in a car and then by fleeing toward the border on foot while armed men engage in pursuit. Things do not go well. After that opener, we cut to an image of Offred at some point in the future. She is alone, dressed in the puritanical red dress and white bonnet that is the handmaid’s uniform, and in a sparsely decorated room that is now her home. “I had another name, but it’s forbidden now,” Offred says. “So many things are forbidden now.”
For the handmaids — women who are still capable of bearing children in a society where babies have nearly become obsolete — just about everything is forbidden. Their function is to keep their mouths shut, unless they’re uttering one of their many customary, pious phrases — “Blessed be the fruit” or “Praise be” — and to allow themselves to be penetrated by their commanders while the commanders’ wives, who will eventually raise any children the handmaids conceive, bear witness to the sexual act. All of this is straight out of Atwood’s book, as is the account of the harsh indoctrination process that Offred must undergo before being assigned to her commander, as well as a focus on the development of her relationships with Moira (Samira Wiley), a handmaid who was Offred’s best friend before the American government’s collapse; Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), a fellow handmaid who may be more of a rule-breaker than she appears; Nick (Max Minghella), a guard at the commander’s compound who takes an interest in Offred; and both the commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), whose feelings toward the woman charged with carrying their “blessed fruit” are far from straightforward.
Series creator Bruce Miller, who wrote all of the episodes, hews closely to the original text, not only in terms of basic plot but also in his approach to world-building. He reveals key pieces of backstory slowly, in IV-drip fashion, just as Atwood does. Because the novel is so compact — the first episode of the series covers more or less everything that happens within the first 100 of its roughly 300 pages — Miller extends certain scenes and adds new ones that provide a sense of reinvention to this evocative American horror story.
In other words, even those who know the book well will likely find the series revelatory. There’s something startling and powerful about watching the circumstances that Offred describes on paper — the finger-pointing and slut-shaming of a handmaid-in-training, the indignity of the Ceremony nights when Offred is pounded by the commander while his wife holds her arms down — actually play out before your eyes.
The first three episodes are, appropriately, directed by a female filmmaker, Reed Morano, best known for her work as a cinematographer on everything from the movie The Skeleton Twins to HBO’s Vinyl to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. She brings a confident visual aesthetic to the series that is impossible to ignore yet not excessively showy. Overhead shots are used during key moments, suggesting that what’s happening to Offred and her fellow sex-servants is, indeed, in keeping with another phrase used by the handmaids, “under his eye.” In the second episode, when one of the handmaids gives birth, Morano shifts to that from-up-above point of view and captures a sea of crimson and white as her fellow handmaids, dressed in their usual garb, embrace the women to provide comfort. It is such a beautiful, distinctively feminine, pointillist image. Up close, you see every individual woman hugging one another, forming a circle. From a distance, they are collectively a flower putting its petals back together.
The performances in The Handmaid’s Tale are just as strong as the direction, with Wiley, Bledel (for real, she’s very convincing here), and Ann Dowd as the punishing Aunt Lydia among the standouts. But ultimately, the series belongs to Moss, and wow, is she great. Offred spends every hour of every day trying to suppress her emotions; she’s basically a boiling tea kettle doing everything she can to keep the steam inside, and that tension radiates off of Moss in every scene, when she stammers, nervously swallows, or clasps her hand over her mouth to make sure uncontrollable laughter doesn’t spill out into the air. Even her voice-over narration is often spoken in low tones, as if she’s nervous that someone other than a Hulu viewer might overhear her.
“Now I’m awake to the world,” Offred tells us in one of those whispery confessionals. “I was asleep before.” The Handmaid’s Tale has the same effect. It’s a bracing, thoroughly engrossing wake-up call that puts a lump in the throat and never lets it dissolve. And for that I say: praise be.