We’re not even four full months into the calendar year, and already we’ve seen more stellar television than in most years combined. It feels like you can spin a wheel consisting of the last 25 notable premieres and find at least a few things going for them. If you know anything about me at this point, it’s that I abhor the idea of ranking shows: it’s a BS exercise designed to drive clicks, and while it’s occasionally fun to debate the merits of shows in relation to one another, it usually involves a discussion about quality rather than “importance.” Calling a show “important” is almost an invitation to doom it to obscurity, as critics can sometimes damn a show by making it seem less like entertainment and more like homework.
So let me try this another way: I can’t tell you yet if Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is the “best” show of 2017. But what I can tell you that were I a despot who could force all of you to watch one show that’s come out this year so far, this would be the one I would make required viewing.
Yes, it’s that important. No quotes needed.
Full disclosure up front: my experience with The Handmaid’s Tale extends to the three episodes made available for review. We’ll have plenty of coverage for those familiar with the book here at Pajiba over the upcoming weeks, but I think a show should stand on its own, regardless of source material. If you have to have read the book/seen the movie/followed the Instagram account in order to fully understand the television adaptation, then that adaptation has failed. It undoubtedly means certain scenes, certain interactions, and certain imagery in those episodes will resonate differently for those who have read Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. But absolutely no power was lost upon this particularly newbie to this dystopian world.
If I could sum up the overwhelming subtext of this show, it would be this: “We are not doing nearly enough to prevent this from actually happening.” The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t take place in a future far removed from ours, and at times feels as if set tomorrow. This is a show that suggests The Women’s March on Washington this past January was a cute digression on the path towards the inevitable subjugation of women, a path forged by men via nuclear fire in order to clear the path for a return to a more “civilized” time. This isn’t a show in which the right side initially wins: Ideological purity trumps the concept of compromise little by little, until the ground falls out completely beneath those that had no idea just how rocky the terrain had become.
I use the verb “trump” there intentionally, because it’s absolutely, positively impossible to not view The Handmaid’s Tale through the lens of the last year. There’s a scene early in the third episode in which a barista, newly emboldened by the government’s increasingly sexist legislation in the days before the shit truly hits the fan, feels free to call two women who have just gone for a run “sluts.” They aren’t wearing anything particularly revealing: They are in what one might consider “normal” workout clothes, but they do show a bit of skin, and that skin is glistening with sweat, and that’s enough at this point in the narrative’s timeline for that to be the new benchmark. The word “slut” is uttered as much in relief as in hatred, as if this person has been holding it in for decades and feels happy to finally say it. It’s not hard to link this scene with the rise of those emboldened by Trump’s victory to overtly and publicly say things meant to demean other races, sexualities, cultures, customs, and anything that doesn’t look the same when viewed in the mirror.
But it’s not just the men who react this way in The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s here that the show gets incredibly complicated incredibly quickly. Just before the two women enter that coffee shop, a demurely dressed woman, approximately the same age, views them with wordless disgust on the street. That look set my Spidey senses tingling, and in many ways set the stage for the ensuing scene. What this show suggests is that a world in which women are stripped of all rights isn’t done just by men, but also by women who throw their hats into the ring with the status quo in order to avoid similar persecution. Patriarchy reigns supreme in this show, but it’s aided and abetted by figures such as Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd, who should be in all of the shows for the foreseeable future) and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski, subdued, incredible, and miles from Chuck here). These are women who have the most direct contact with the females placed into slavery in this new world order, and are as complicit as figures such as The Commander (Joseph Fiennes, who gets more Joseph Fiennes-y with every performance, and I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or a criticism).
At the center of it all is Elisabeth Moss’ Offred, a name with an origin story in and of itself serving as one of the many gut punches this show has in store. Offred is a handmaid in the show’s primary timeline, due to her unique ability in this radiated world to successfully bear children. She’s placed in the house of The Commander and Serena in order to bear them a child, and through her voiceovers we learn about how she came to be there and get glimpses of the world just before. One of the effects of the war that led to the fundamentalist nightmare state of this show is increased infertility, an irony given the “family values” of those responsible for the war. Handmaids are receptacles rather than people, marked for breeding in order to perpetuate a ruling class no longer able to sire offspring of their own.
Moss’ eyes are a special effect unto themselves, worth more than millions of dollars sunk into a computerized vista. Offred has to internalize her pain, grief, and rage over her predicament because The Eyes Of God, the secret police of this world, are watching everyone at all times. A single outburst could mean death, or a trip to the “colonies,” where stories of nuclear cleanup duties keep the handmaids, Marthas, and other members of this new caste system pliant.
Language and ritual play a large part in determining power in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale. It takes the form of words like “Marthas” (a term for the domestic help found in many households), to the specific forms of greeting handmaids are expected to use (such as “Under His Eye”), to the absolutely horrifying Ceremony in which husbands, wives, and handmaids perform a ritual that debases the handmaid most of all but leaves no one unscarred.
What makes all of this more terrifying is the short distance between our “now” and the show’s “then”: The transformation between what we understand as normal and what the onscreen world of this show happens with both sudden speed and almost alarming conformity. “Ordinary is what you are used to,” says Aunt Lydia at one point, and it’s a line that helps explain why a simple trip to the grocery store now features armed guards in the checkout lines and a complete lack of text on the food packaging.
Women can’t read, you see, in The Handmaid’s Tale. That would be blasphemous. Everyone remembers how things used to be, but are forced to exist in the present, and the shockingly shift change in details doesn’t remove the fact that life moves impossibly on for all of them.
Watching an episode of this show is like being plunged into a nightmare from which you can’t escape. The brief bits of hope and even surprising humor feel like coming to the surface, allowing a quick gasp of air before being plunged beneath the surface again. I can’t say it’s a pleasant experience at all, but unlike other shows that depict the world as a garbage fire in which morality exists only to be extinguished, this one feels like a desperate wake up call directly related to the here and now. It suggests we are the people in the background of these flashbacks, begging us to realize a hashtag and a protest are not guarantees to stop the arrogance and backwards thinking of those in charge. The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a world in which the world magically averted disaster, but instead ensured the apocalypse to undo the progress that the powerful saw as a threat to its own primacy.
Very little of this is fun. Very little of this is meant to be. It might be the least binge-worthy show ever, and I mean that as a compliment. Hulu will offer up the first three episodes at once, and then drop a new episode each week after that. My suggestion that you space these out has absolutely nothing to do with quality and everything to do with self-care. This show is speculative fiction, and speculative fiction is always interested in commenting on the society that consumes it. But this particular consumption resembles an ouroboros: it’s almost impossible to tell where the real world and the show world begin and end, which is precisely the point.
In other words: This could happen because it’s already happening.
That’s what The Handmaid’s Tale says over and over again. That’s a horrifying thing to realize. But that’s exactly why everyone needs to hear it.