There are cranks everywhere. One of the few sniffy, snippety reviews of The Handmaid's Tale, which began streaming on Hulu in the United States recently, appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The reviewer seemed to take issue with the 10-part series departing, in scope, from Margaret Atwood's original, dystopian novel. The hell with that.
The Handmaid's Tale (Sunday, Bravo, 9 p.m.) is not an ultra-faithful adaptation and is, in fact, the better for that. It is specifically adapted for television (by Bruce Miller) as we know it now – cable-length storytelling drama with psychological insight and sharp sociological perspective. The novel is expanded in scope, embellished and intensified to give the story the sort of depth and impact that the best of TV drama delivers. The core of the novel proved fertile ground for nuanced long-form storytelling teased out over hours and hours.
And "fertile" is the key word in any summary of this stunningly made, bleak and vigorously heartrending series. It grips you from the get-go; you are utterly taken by the creeping, ensnaring sense of dread. It is set in a nightmare future that might be tomorrow, so close does it seem to contemporary anxieties. The United States is now Gilead, a war-ravaged place run under the puritanical dictates of authoritarian church and state. Women are forbidden to work and are chattels or slaves. Some are sent to "the Colonies" to clean up toxic waste and die doing it. In general, there are four roles for women. Wives, all barren; control Marthas, who are servants; and then there are the Handmaids, whose sole role is to be prisoners who provide children. There are also the terrifying Aunts, too, whose job is discipline.
Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is a Handmaid and the focus of the entire story. Her role is that of silent breeding vessel, the one who waits quietly until summoned for "the Ceremony," in which a husband penetrates her while the Wife watches. In this world where pollution has led to widespread infertility, a Handmaid submits and is expected to deliver children. One job and one job only.
For a start, what is startlingly magical about the series is the formidable contrast between the bleakness of the material and the opulence of the treatment. There is a visual opulence that would pleasantly enchant were it not devoted to such a terrifyingly oppressed world. Director Reed Morano, who handles the initial three episodes, has a lengthy résumé as a cinematographer and her honed, nurtured skill is on full display here. Much of the series is filmed as extremely tight close-ups on Moss's face. That face, in turn, is restricted by the wimple that Handmaids are obliged to wear – a device to blinker them and make them look eternally downward.
Moss, in that wimple, is a marvel to behold. Her flexible face conveys everything. Every hesitation telegraphed by her lips, eyes and the slightest shift of mouth movement is fiercely resonant. This is the kind of acting that soars in the arena of highgrade TV drama these days. Moss became a star doing it as Peggy on Mad Men, but The Handmaid's Tale is a near-solo triumph of anchoring an entire series in facial deportment. It is breathtaking to watch.
While Morano's direction and Moss's acting oblige the viewer to enter into Offred's grim, closed world, the director also allows, with exquisite timing, the perspective to become wider, deeper and airy, and thus present us with a full perspective and context for this ghastly world in which Offred exists. The bodies of men hang from a highway overpass or, seen from above, the Handmaids form a circle around a man allegedly convicted of a crime, and are invited to mete out punishment. (That scene is stomach-churningly horrific.) There is such care taken with the timing of shifts in visual purpose that the viewer sometimes feels slapped hard on the face.
But it is Offred's inner life that is the engine of the story. Her interior monologue guides us and she is a tender, passionate, bitter, bawdy and angry woman. That is her core. The Handmaids, who don't trust each other, talk mostly in bland religious bromides: "Praise be his bounty." "May the Lord be with you." But we hear Offred's inner voice. She swears, insults and rages. "I need to scream. I need to grab the nearest machine gun."
There is so much to be extrapolated from The Handmaid's Tale as a contemporary series. Acres of space have already been devoted to the parallels with the views on gender equality and reproductive freedom that sometimes emanate from within the Trump administration.
But it is foremost a triumph of television storytelling. It is another in a growing list of major dramas that dwell on large themes of American life and recent history, that universal meaning, in a resonant, memorable and profoundly serious manner. It takes the audience into territories of profound unease about the role of women. And it is, at the same time, enormously entertaining. It is essentially a thriller about the trapped heroine escaping to safety, or not, and it is also about that most Steven Spielbergian theme, the reunification of family.
No potential viewer should be put off by the wider, societal themes that have generated so much punditry. Extrapolate this: Atwood's novel, already a classic, benefits hugely from the scope and ambition of television today.