After a successful airing on American channel, Hulu, The Handmaid’s Tale based on the best-selling dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood of the same name is coming to UK television. Bonus joy for us because it stars our very own O.T. Fagbenle (really chuffed for him).
The story tells of life after the world has succumbed to environmental disasters and a rapid decline in births. Separating itself from the United States, authorities create a totalitarian state called Gilead. Ruled with an iron fist women are outlawed from working, reading, thinking for themselves and those still fertile are forced to become Handmaidens. It’s in this instance we meet June (Elisabeth Moss – Mad Men) on the run from authorities in an attempt to keep her family together – her daughter and husband Luke (Fagbenle). The escape is unsuccessful and Luke is apparently shot; June and her daughter captured.
Separated from her daughter and believing her husband is dead, June is trained to become a Handmaiden and after a few goes ends up serving at the Waterford house belonging to The Commander – Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Her name changed to Offred (Of Fred – belonging to the household of Fred, The Commander) she must partake in ‘ceremonies’ – basically legalised rape at the hands of The Commander, who through an extremely creepy routine has clinical sex with Offred in an attempt to get her pregnant and keep society thriving. All this performed under the watchful and in the actual lap of his wife Serena.
Forced to cover up with long-sleeved calf-length dresses, and a red cloak and white bonnets when outside reminiscent of an era gone by, think Little House on the Prairie or the most stereotypical vision of an Amish woman, Handmaidens are kept in order by house mothers or aunts who rule/brainwash them with the Holy Bible. They aren’t allowed to walk on their own, so are paired up with fellow Handmaidens, and are rotated through homes if they don’t successfully get pregnant; no such thing as it being the man’s fault by way of infertility or low sperm count. If Handmaiden’s do get pregnant their children are taken away from them and handed over to the Wives who run the homes they have been assigned to. Only called in to take over if the baby doesn’t settle with their new step-mums.
So, we get to understand this New World Order through the eyes of Offred played wonderfully by Moss. She is us as she/we realise how messed up things have become/could become. We are treated to numerous flashbacks which establish how Gilead came to fruition showing how easily and swiftly the government started to take away women’s rights. How peaceful protests turned violent. How men started to show how they really felt about women’s rights. Remind you of anything? Along the way, we meet Offred’s female gay best friend Moira played by Orange is the New Black’s Samira Wiley. Also captured and turned into a Handmaiden Moira’s journey turns mysterious when she disappears feared dead. Being gay of course, is frowned upon in Gilead, and whether male or female if you’re gay you are hung with your body on display to the rest of the Handmaidens and community as a gruesome warning.
I haven’t read Atwood’s novel, but in reading other accounts it would seem The Handmaid’s Tale the series is a pretty fair adaptation. Aside from making me want to run and get a copy of the book, the series is fantastic if not absolutely scary with how close the Western world of 2017 is to tipping left, or right into a totalitarian state just like Gilead. The relevance is a bit too much at times. Moss’ Offred is not forced, dramatic or over rebellious but as I said, she is us. How would you react to being forced into a life where being raped repeatedly to keep London populated is legal? What would you be thinking? Escape? Rebel? Concede? Moss gives us these emotions without saying much. Her expressions and subtle acts of rebellion give us just enough to hope… maybe just maybe there’s a way out.
This wouldn’t be a story without a way out. There is an underground resistance movement called Mayday. There are some characters like Gilmore Girls’ Alexis Bledel who plays Ofglen/Emily and Wiley’s Moira who are potential Mayday affiliates but we’re kept in the dark about who’s doing what and who knows what through most of the series. Cleverly we only know what Offred knows for the most part. Which although frustrating works perfectly.
Another great performance comes from Strahovski as Serena Joy, The Commander’s wife. Formerly a budding feminist icon before Gilead, she’s now a high-level Wife. Who endures her husband’s ceremonies with their assigned Handmaiden’s with a bitter yet pious resolve. Her internal battle with who she was to who she’s conceded to be and possibly gets delight from being is brilliant to watch. Her interaction with Offred most telling.
Wiley’s Moira you know from the jump is not going to take things lying down. Without giving away too much, I think there’s more to her early disappearance. We only see Fagbenle’s Luke in flashbacks of the world before Gilead. We see how he and Offred/June met. We see him and Moira discussing feminine rights and how they’re rapidly being chipped away. Is Luke really dead? Fagbenle does well.
Hope to see more of him in season 2… Yes, there’ll be a season 2, it was confirmed a week after the series aired in the states. Coming to our screens in 2018. Tackling feminism, rape, politics, dictatorship, Fascism, homophobia, religious fundamentalism, slavery all in one series is no mean feat. If it wasn’t for Magaret Atwood’s book would this series have been as good? Couldn’t say, but the creative team have outdone themselves with this important piece of television. Gripping you from the first few minutes The Handmaid’s Tale is a must watch. It’s also a stark warning…
The Handmaid’s Tale airs on Channel 4 Sunday 28th May 9pm.