Hulu, the subscription based streaming service, carved a niche for itself as the place to watch current or recent broadcast television series you may have missed. With “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it has become something different — a streaming service you should consider subscribing to just for this show.
Based on the award-winning novel by Margaret Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale” takes place in a dystopian future where a society in what was once part of the United States declares that women are property of the state. Environmental disasters have caused a dangerously low birthrate and the totalitarian regime’s solution is to force women into castes. Those who are fertile, known as Handmaids, are forced into sexual servitude in the households of powerful men called Commanders and the women they are married to, who are simply referred to as Wives. Handmaids must quickly learn how to deal with the Commanders, their often cold and uncaring Wives and domestic servants known as Marthas. Anyone could be a spy for the regime and one wrong action could be a death sentence.
The story is told from the perspective of Offred (Elisabeth Moss), the Handmaid to the powerful Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Prohibited from going outside their Commanders’ homes except in pairs, Offred is partnered with Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) who is not as pious as she first appears. When Ofglen refers to a mysterious resistance, Offred, who narrates her inner thoughts throughout the show thinks: “Of course there has to be an ‘us’ because now there is a ‘them’.” It’s an idea that plays to contemporary themes.
The problem is who to trust and every scene ripples with an undercurrent of anxiety and fear. Outwardly, Offred follows the rules and endures humiliations to survive but the mortal danger of one misstep looms over everything she says and does. Inwardly, she fights to remain herself, to hold onto any shred of who she was before the world went crazy and her husband was shot and her daughter was ripped from her arms as she tried to make it to safer territory. The power of identity in a world that reduces Handmaids to breeding machines is one of the series’ strongest ideas. When Offred tells us her name is June in episode one, it’s practically a declaration of war.
The narrative device of having Offred share her thoughts makes her relatable, as do the flashbacks to her past life. Hearing her inner self, we are given an insight into the funny, fierce, determined and scared woman she is. Her backstory does something equally important by establishing the small changes that led to the present situation. “That’s how we let it happen,” she thinks. “Nothing happens instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is screening on Hulu.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing’” and the recently released “The American Television Critic.” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.