(**Mild spoilers unless otherwise stated**)
I never thought the day would come when I could feel like a total TV snob, yet here I am, saying, “What? You haven’t seen The Handmaid’s Tale yet? You totally should. It won an Emmy.”
(And by “an” I mean 8 forking Emmys!) And here I am, pretty much a year late on the whole thing, still reeling from completing the series. Since getting Hulu a few months back, the show’s been on my watch list and radar, especially with the second season coming up (April, why art thou still so far away?). I finally got around to watching it, and it… was… worth… the hype!
The series is based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, depicting a dystopian future in which the human race is on the verge of dying out because the fertility rate is at an all-time low. As a result, women who have had children before are kidnapped and forced into being “handmaids” to bear the children of important men in place of their wives. The series is only 10 episodes long, which is actually the perfect length because a lot happens without the season feeling overpacked (The Good Place, I’m lookin’ at you).
Because there’s just so much to really say about it, I’ve decided to split this one up into sections, like with The Lying Game.
I enjoy good cinematography as much as the next person, and I have to say that it was absolutely breathtaking in The Handmaid’s Tale. Even at moments when the story seems to be slow, the cinematography lures you in and traps you with its expert usage of angles, zooms, focuses, follow shots, framing, and tracking shots (I am a sucker for good tracking shots; also, yes, the barrage of terms makes me feel sophisticated, but seriously they did use a lot of great techniques). You really can’t tear your eyes away, but why would you even want to?
The whole vibe of the show is amazing and consistent; everything is dark and moody like endless dreary days (no matter how many times they say they’ve been blessed with good weather), and everything seems almost faded. It’s not like a Netflix show where you’re squinting your eyes at the screen, wondering what the hell is going on and begging for someone to turn on a light. You can see what is happening–unless the camera purposely keeps you within the confines of the handmaids’ bonnets, which have “wings” that hinder their peripheral visions. Ah, yes, symbolism everywhere. (Also, now wondering what this show would be like if it took place in California…)
The cinematography shows how hard it is to trust anyone, how not everyone can see the full picture, and how suffocating oppression can be. I really enjoyed the color scheme and the expert use of camera shots that add to the emotion or tension of that scene. Very well done, with stunning execution (ugh, can’t stop the snobbery; brb, growing a French mustache).
I’m just going to talk about music here, too, because I don’t want to make a whole different section on it. The ambient music was good, and I really enjoyed the scarce but memorable incorporation of modern music to remind you that this isn’t the olden days–this is now. The music and cinematography are the key factors in shaping the overall vibe of the show.
The most important aspect of any show is the story line and writing–and, of course, The Handmaid’s Tale excels here, as well. The plot moves very fluidly and some of the lines are so beautiful. There is a lot of narrating, so I kept hearing the ding! from CinemaSins with, “Narration!” but it helps to fill up the space of the establishing shots and let us know the thoughts of protagonist, Offred, who mostly retains a reticent front.
The story unravels expertly, starting off by establishing the world, letting us ease into the horror of this dystopia, and introducing us to the characters. Slowly, with revelations and developments here and there, things change, picking up as the series progresses. We get more back story because the series uses a lot of flash backs that provide an insight as to why a character is the way she or he is or how this Republic of Gilead came to be. Relationships grow and change in natural ways. There is great character development for Offred, and everyone has so much depth you could drown in it.
Check out these awesome lines that actually came from the book:
“Ordinary is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.”
“Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.”
Another moment that resonated with me was when Mrs. Waterford offers to go over the details for the important dinner and meeting with the dignitaries with her husband, and he simply says, “I’m sure you’ll make everything look perfect,” when that isn’t what she means. But that is all she is worth now.
And there is great complexity in the show that disables you from thinking of anything in such simplistic terms as black and white. You’d think that there’d be a clear distinction between evil and good, and you’re right… It’s clear that the patriarchy in this world is messed up. But it’s not as easy as you’d think to make judgments for everyone and everything going on.
You are reminded that everything is relative. One of my favorite scenes is when one handmaid feels that her status as a handmaid is threatened by Offred, so she tells Offred off. She says that Offred must have led a privileged life before Gilead, and that is why this new world is so hard for her to adjust, whereas that handmaid had led a horrible life before, so this new status is like a blessing in comparison. It was striking because this is something a lot of people don’t really think about, but this show forces you to.
It reminded me of a time my friend was ranting about the harsh conditions of female factory workers in poor countries who enable America to sell such cheap clothes. I pointed out to her that those very factory workers talked about how grateful they were for the work when there were much worse alternatives, so did we sound privileged and full of ourselves by condemning their livelihood? At the same time, those were only a sample of the workers, and I did agree that the conditions were terribly inhumane. I had forgotten all about this until I was brought to a similar moral crossroad by The Handmaid’s Tale.
(**Spoiler**) There’s also the fact that the heroine is not entirely “innocent.” Offred was an adulterer. She knowingly had an affair with a married man, who left his wife for her. This makes you think, “Ah… she’s not innocent, but she doesn’t deserve this…” yet you can’t help but notice the irony of her situation as she is first forced into and then reluctantly plays into having an affair with the commander, yet another married man, while cheating on her own husband with Nick even after she finds out her husband is still alive. It’s layering upon layering, and it really makes me think: What is right and wrong? Is it wrong that she craves real human interaction with Nick, even though it means cheating on her husband? Is it karma that she gets slapped and treated cruelly by the lady of the house for having an affair with the commander, even though she had not wanted it? And does the lady of the house, Mrs. Waterford, deserve to be miserable because she put herself into this situation? Is it understandable that she is this way because she really wants a child? Does she think her worth comes from having a child? This is turning into a classroom.
It is hard to binge watch this show because of the depth and gravitas, though, which is fine. I watched about one episode a day on average. Just like with real life, it was the signs of humanity that I lived for when viewing The Handmaid’s Tale. The little exchanges of small smiles. The sorrowful gazes. The averting of eyes. The compassion. Words that give hope.
However, I have to mention a few negatives. While the series does pick up a lot in the second half, there were two episodes I did not particularly like. I did not enjoy episode seven which focuses on her husband. I skipped about 80% of it because it didn’t feel so necessary for the main story line and wasn’t quite distinctive. The episode right after, entitled “Jezebel,” was also not as enjoyable as the other episodes, although it was better than the previous one. While interesting and necessary for the plot, it seemed like something I’d already seen in various futuristic films, losing the vibe and charm unique to The Handmaid’s Tale.
The acting was amazing in this series! The casting was done well so there was no black hole; everyone pulls his or her weight and everyone deserves an award. The actors were expert at emoting with their eyes and using the subtlest of expressions to relay the strongest of emotions. I was captivated by the varying degrees of horror, despair, resignation, and hope in Offred, played by Elizabeth Moss. She is a super talented lady with great range in her acting, from the sweetness of a young Drew Barrymore, lisp and all, to the intensity of Uma Thurman about to kill Bill.
Max Minghella (otherwise known as Danny Castellano’s younger brother to me, but he plays Nick in the series) may not talk much, but his eyes say enough. There’s great depth of angst and sorrow in how his eyes read the situation. Yvonne Strahovski was another favorite of mine in the show. She does such a great job at playing a complicated character like Mrs. Waterford that I don’t know if I hate her, feel sorry for her, or even like her. Ann Dowd does the same as Aunt Lydia.
But seriously, they were all pretty great. Even Alexis Bledel, who was only considered a “guest star,” gave her all, making me actually like Rory Gilmore again. The only characterization that has me scratching my head a bit is Janine because I think people forget about how she was in her first appearance. If they recall her personality then, they should see that she’s changed the most drastically in the shortest amount of time, which I think could have been explored better, but it’s a minor quibble. Madeline Brewer was still incredible at playing her.
Amazing series, a total must-watch. I’m not big on award-winning shows, but let me tell you, this really deserved all the awards. Not to mention, it’s so relevant right now, in this day and age. It’s shocking and scary how relevant it is. It has a lot of social, political, and even religious commentary, and even if that’s not your thing, you should really give it a try. Having said that, are you really surprised at this rating for The Handmaid’s Tale?