George Kraychyk / Hulu
The first episode of Hulu’s Margaret Atwood adaptation wastes no time launching viewers into its unsettling world.
Offred spends a lot of time in limbo. She catalogs her bedroom in the Commander’s house, waiting for her daily walk to the market; she kneels in the parlor for the ceremony where she acts as sexual proxy for the Commander’s Wife. It’s enforced stillness, designed to numb, and even though Offred loathes these new-world horrors, she swallows them in order to survive. There’s no point playing the hero—she’s just meant to warn us.
It was crucial that the terrifying inertia Offred projects had to remain at the forefront of Hulu’s TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A more frightening notion than rape or death is Aunt Lydia promising the Handmaids that "this will become ordinary," and before getting to anything else, the show had to project an understanding of how frightening that notion is. So the premiere episode, "Offred," is exactly what it needs to be: a claustrophobic, unsettling introduction to a nightmare we need to see.
Within that sense of waiting, Offred illuminates the past and present tense. Her life now is a white-winged cap and platitudes and ritual rape; her life then (when she was known as June) passes in idyllic flickers, an unreal wash of light that lingers in her room like a dream she can’t shake. There are some neat parallels between these temporal settings, but there’s not much time spent explaining how we got from there to here.
Instead, director Reed Morano suffocates us with the present-day regime. Every close-up is a pathology study with Vermeer lighting, with women so imprisoned that we have to get this close to them in order to see them feel. We inhabit every unbearable second of limbo: magazine-spread houses with books under lock and key, bedrooms with nothing sharp in eyesight, the endless and wordless rape, and the constant sidelong glances that convey everything this world has choked out of women.
No wonder Elisabeth Moss, the most watchful actress on TV, is the show’s anchor. The sheer intensity of her regard propels us through her struggle not to crack, as well as her refusal to lose her personality to fear. She shocks herself with her viciousness at the Particicution (terrified to buy into the Gilead bullshit for one second), but she also clocks Nick’s interest from ten paces, determined to get some of her own back in any way possible. Simmering anger is a trademark for Moss, but she’s truly arresting here; her throat spasming at the Commander’s pre-Scripture cough is a full-page monologue.
She heads a fantastic cast. Samira Wiley’s so sharply bright she casts a shadow over the present; Alexis Bledel is a wry surprise; Madeline Brewer plays Janine as a YA protagonist for whom everything’s gone hopelessly sour. Amanda Brugel’s Rita is the Schrodinger’s Cat of sympathy, while national treasure Ann Dowd single-handedly holds down the regime change. And Yvonne Strahovski’s nervous spite—her character is at the top of the oppression pyramid and still has nothing—connects her to Offred almost despite herself. (This in particular feels like a canny casting choice—she’s a generation older in the novel, but casting Strahovski makes it clear Gilead isn’t the result of a generational divide. Everyone’s young enough to know better. It happened anyway.)
We know the plot will thicken, but the drawn-out dread of this episode really works; the monotony of these humiliations is almost as bad as their reality. The deepest horror lies in how intricate they are. All the rituals and their handy Scriptural justifications came ready-made—the men who enacted them knew exactly what they wanted women to submit to. And since the biggest threat to this world order is women working together, the episode gives its breathing room to the ways Gilead makes sure they can’t: the petty rivalries between castes, the rewards for resentment. ("They do that really well," Ofglen admits. "Make us distrust each other.") It works; every beat of connection—a two-sentence joke with someone you know, a snatch of news, a kind word—has the vicious relief of a deep breath. As a viewer, it’s terrifying how soon you get used to it.
The real scare, of course, is how familiar everything seems. Margaret Atwood has repeatedly pointed out that Gilead isn’t an unimaginable landscape—it’s just theocracy, the sort of government where men, say, refuse to meet women without their wife present and pretend they’re honoring their wives instead of refusing women access to power. The Handmaid’s Tale is terrifying because we know it’s someone’s primer, leaked too early; in its moments of stunned inaction and the glimpse at how quickly oppression swallows a nation, it might be the timeliest TV show ever made. ("We cannot hide from that ugliness," says Aunt Lydia, and for once, she’s right.) It’s hard to watch, and it won’t get easier, but it’s also impossible to look away.
Before We Go:
- For a show that otherwise has an iron grip on tone, that ending credits music is A Choice.
- The sound design is incredible. Everything from flour to breath is pushed to the fore as if distorted by the white wings, and she’s never alone: bursts of radio static, the house’s floorboards.
- The visual impact of red robes and white caps clustered around that Guardian feels like something we’ll be seeing a lot.
- The voiceover’s fairly deftly handled, though I suspect it will be used less as we get caught up on the upheaval beneath everyone’s Play-doh-through-grit-teeth platitudes.
- I’ll be very interested to see how the diverse casting plays out. In the novel, Gilead genocided the "Children of Ham." Given the deep connections between misogyny and racism, the diversity of this cast suggests a fertility situation so dire even the old saw of eugenics was set aside. It’s the kind of thing a TV show has time for that a movie wouldn’t, and it will make for fascinating tension if the show plans to get into that. If not, well, at least we have Samira Wiley.
Follow Genevieve Valentine on Twitter.
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