Escapism only gets you so far. In times like this, with the country on the precipice of a new era nobody understands, sometimes the only option is to dive headlong into that sense of mounting dread about the future. Hulu’s beautiful, brutal new drama The Handmaid’s Tale is here to help.
Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale took place in a dystopian near-future–roughly our present day—in which a sharp decline in birth and fertility rates have decimated society. Following the assassination of the President and much of Congress, the United States has become the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship in which women’s rights have been abolished, and women of childbearing age are forced to become reproductive servants called “Handmaids.”
At the TCA Press Tour over the weekend, showrunner Bruce Miller joined stars Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, Samira Wiley, Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd, Alexis Bledel, and O-T Fagbenle to discuss the adaptation. Here are the nine key things to know.
1. The parallels to Trump’s America are glaring and deliberate.
Though Miller noted that Atwood’s book is perennially timely, “none of us could ignore what was happening” throughout production. “I worked [on the show] the day after the election,” recalled Moss, who plays the show’s quietly rebellious protagonist Offred, a woman forced into sexual slavery in the household of a military commander, played by Joseph Fiennes. “Joseph had a line from the book where he says, ‘Better never means better for everyone…It always means worse, for some.'”
“I just got chills talking about it,” Moss said. “It was very difficult to stand there and have him say that to me and play my reaction to that, which is obviously horror, and not feel something more than I think I would have felt otherwise. We are fascinated and horrified by the parallels.”
2. It’s a parable about male privilege.
The power dynamics in Gilead are an exaggerated but knowing take on real-life gender inequality, Fiennes said. “The lack of distribution of power, the fact that there is not a level playing field among the sexes today—it’s prescient, and I hope it doesn’t remain prescient. Though [my character] the commander is vastly different from me, the male psyche is something that I reflect upon a lot. What it is to be a privileged, white, middle-class guy from London, what are those privileges that have been instilled in me, my conditioning and how that affects other people. There are so many takeaways politically, but also domestically.”
The lack of distribution of power, the fact that there is not a level playing field among the sexes today—it’s prescient, and I hope it doesn’t remain prescient.
3. There will be changes from Margaret Atwood’s much-loved novel.
Though the series is overall a loyal adaptation, and everyone involved professed their Atwood fandom, a few key changes have been made. Significantly, the character of Serena Joy (Dexter‘s Yvonne Strahovski), the Commander’s wife, is much younger here than in the book. The fact that Serena is infertile, but still of childbearing age, changes the fraught dynamic between her and Offred, explained Miller. “It bumped me that Serena Joy was beyond childbearing years, because it felt like they weren’t in direct competition, that Offred wasn’t taking a role that Serena Joy wanted for herself. I thought it was a more interesting dynamic for the long term, as opposed to in the novel—a dynamic that could play out over time.”
4. The cinematography is both stunning and highly purposeful.
The show’s director Reed Morano has a background in cinematography, which the pilot’s visceral deployment of primary colors makes clear. “In Margaret Atwood’s novel, it’s a world of color segregation, and we wanted to stay true to that,” he explained, saying that he wanted the images to be rich and painterly. “So the color for the handmaids is red, and the wives all wear kind of a peacock blue, and that choice was very purposeful…We wanted to make a show that feels like you haven’t seen it before, and really play with composition and graphic colors and try to make it a visual feast.”
5. The show’s Republic of Gilead parallels Puritanism.
The biblical fundamentalism that underlies Gilead and its parallels to life in Puritan times were defining ideas for the writers. “In the first episodes, they’re tearing down churches that are anything besides their sect,” Miller said. “You know, this country gets a reputation for being a place where people came from religious freedom. The Puritans who came liked their religious freedom, but not anybody else’s. So, certainly, there were no other churches besides the Puritan church. We’re harkening back to that origin story that Margaret used for the book.”
6. Elisabeth Moss gives one of her most intimate performances to date.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place entirely through Offred’s point of view, relies heavily on voiceover to set its psychological tone, and is filmed in extremely intimate close-ups that show every micro-movement of Moss’s face magnified tenfold. “I’ve never worked with so much voiceover, but it’s such an essential part of the adaptation of the book,” Moss said. “I feel like that voiceover is my connection to the viewer to be able to hold their hand a little bit and walk them through this world. And there’s also so many beautiful bits of writing from Margaret Atwood that we’ve been able to then use because of the voiceover.”
“Lizzie has such an expressive acting style,” Miller added, which has allowed close-ups to take the place of voiceover in many instances. “She has a main circuit cable connecting her heart to her face that she can’t turn off even if she would like to, and so, because of that, we’ve had to use less voiceover because you know what she’s thinking, you know what she’s feeling.”
7. The subject matter struck close to home for everyone involved.
Between Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson and Top of the Lake‘s Robin Griffin, Moss has had a spectacular few years of playing compelling, unique characters on the small screen. But Offred was different. “I would never be a copywriter in the 1950s, I would never be a detective in Australia—but if Gilead happened now, I would be a handmaid,” she said. “That was something I latched onto from the beginning and found very affecting.” Through flashbacks, we see Offred’s life as an ordinary young woman in contemporary America, smoking pot with her college BFF Moira (Samira Wiley), unaware of what’s coming.
“I feel like it’s our responsibility as artists to reflect the time that we are living in,” Wiley said. “The show reflects the social climate that we are living in, and for me personally, the issues are specifically women and their bodies and who has control of that. Do we have control of it? Does someone else have control of it?”
8. Ann Dowd’s complex female villain represents the cruel question of whether some evils are necessary.
Though Gilead and the forces behind that regime are the show’s true “villain,” the closest thing it has to an antagonist early on is Dowd’s fearsome schoolmistress Aunt Lydia. Lydia is in charge of the ominous “Red Center,” a re-education facility where women are sent to train as Handmaids. “At the core of her choices, she loves these girls deeply and wants them to succeed in this new world, and she is keenly aware that if she doesn’t get them to get the drill immediately, they are not going to make it,” Dowd explained. “The reason behind her actions is a deep concern and devotion to [women’s] success in this life.”
9. It’s a feminist story of survival and power.
Bleak as the first episode is, it ends on a defiantly hopeful note as Offred quietly states her intention to survive, and to see her estranged daughter again. “One of the things I found most interesting about Offred is what she does to gain power,” said Moss, noting that one of the major ways in which Offred gains agency is through her gender and sexuality. “What she does to gain power and to survive is to lean into being a woman, and her sexuality, and she starts to use it to hopefully get out and hopefully find her daughter. And there are times when that’s taken away from her, and then it’s taken back. She will never ultimately be in power.
“I love the story of a survivor, and I love that through the principle of surviving, she becomes hugely inspirational. I love that even if you are the lowest of the low, that you may be able to eke out some power. I love that she finds power in her position of nothingness.”
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