The Handmaid’s Tale is powerful, painful viewing.
This is, of course, to be expected; it’s a visceral adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, one that puts the horrors of Gilead front and centre. In response to a fertility crisis, an authoritarian theocracy implements what is, in effect, state mandated rape of women who can still conceive. Abuse is rampant yet casual; each episode continues to find new ways to shock, repeatedly subverting and surpassing expectations. Said violence is treated as such a mundane fact of life that, at times, it feels less like a dystopian regime and more like a future that’s only slightly out of reach.
The Handmaid’s Tale manages to present such palpable terror through putting its women front and centre, repeatedly underscoring and emphasising their story. The programme takes its title seriously; this central perspective is never lost, but highlighted again and again. Moments of fear, moments of pain, moments of fleeting hope – each one, intimately understood. In closing in on these instances, The Handmaid’s Tale is strikingly forceful.
How the drama is presented is key, of course. It’s notable how much time The Handmaid’s Tale spends in close up – rather than luxuriate over the production design, the camera rarely strays from within each Handmaid’s bonnet. It’s a subtle, intelligent choice, illustrating not only the restrictions on these women, but ensuring we rarely leave their own personal world. Such sharply considered direction places each woman, quite decisively, at the centre of the story; its impact is powerful.
Similarly, use of voiceover again serves only to accentuate this intimacy. In some respects, it’s a rare thing; a narrative device oft eschewed, for fear of seeming heavy handed or overly expository. Here, though, it’s deeply incisive – a fundamental aspect of Offred’s interiority, and indeed of the audience’s understanding of her. Caustic wit as a coping device gives way to deep terror, in turn becoming a steely resolve; Elisabeth Moss’ performance is note perfect, imbuing the character with great depth, such that her pain is tangible. (It’d be remiss, of course, not to mention Samira Wiley and Alexis Bedel, both of whom give powerful performances in their own right. The most obvious standout, however, is Madelaine Brewer as Janine, or Ofwarren; her portrayal of a woman broken by the regime is raw and open, and surely one of the most affecting.)
By the same measure, then, it’s where the series loses this intimacy that it loses some of its potency – while it never loses the Handmaid’s perspective, it does at times waver, opening up to look beyond them. Much as the episodes focused on Luke, the Commander and Nick were, in a way, a welcome reprieve from the brutality of the stories surrounding them, they also dulled the show’s impact for a time. It’s what you’d expect, of course; any shift away from the female characters is, in turn, going to see a shift away from Gilead’s violence and oppression. Thus, then, it’s unavoidable that the show would lose some of its impact in these moments.
The Handmaid’s Tale is powerful, painful viewing. Indeed, it’s perhaps the most discomforting debut drama of the year. At the same time, though, it’s also one of the most compelling and engaging; in spite of everything, the programme is and remains a quiet and measured affair. Violence is never gratuitous; suffering is never fetishized. Ultimately, The Handmaid’s Tale is most effective in its intimacy; its power is such because of the attention it devotes not to suffering, but the internal lives of its characters above all else.
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