This week on Dear Television: We will be covering Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale weekly for its first season. This week, Sarah Mesle and Phil Maciak discuss the series’ first three episodes, which all premiered on Wednesday, April 26. If you don’t want to read spoilers, you should hurry up and watch the three episodes before you read this.
Radical Side Eye
by Sarah Mesle
Up until yesterday’s premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale, the most important thing to happen on television in 2017 was already The Handmaid’s Tale. Specifically, it was a trailer for The Handmaid’s Tale that aired during the Super Bowl. Maybe you remember. All of America, gorging on chili and gazing cheerfully at beautiful ritualized violence, was suddenly faced with a different kind of spectacle: tense red-robed women marching in formation, hollow-eyed, resilient, afraid. I know the Patriots (gross) won, but The Handmaid’s Tale trailer, its radical side eye at America’s love affair with assaultive masculinity, was the best play called the whole fucking game.
As you probably know, The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a not-too-distant future, in which the US has become a theocracy called Gilead. This theocracy is shaped both by (of course) a drive to power by an authoritarian male elite, but also and more immediately by an environmentally-caused fertility epidemic: fertile women are rare, healthy babies are rarer, and, to exactly no reader or viewer’s surprise ever, this has not resulted in a world where women ride their reproductive capacity to freedom but rather one in which reproduction is the central locus of patriarchal control. Women are separated into castes around their wealth and reproductive status: fertile women are chipped in their ears like cattle, dressed in (surprisingly flattering) (let’s come back to this) red gowns, schooled in the necessity of their own rape, and assigned to be the semi-sentient reproductive vessels of wealthy infertile families. These women in red are the Handmaids, and it’s the story of one of them, Offred, played with a bodily tautness by Elisabeth Moss, whose tale the title reminds us we are — by her — being told.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that for those of us watching TV in 2017, The Handmaid’s Tale is the most important event of the season. You know I’m excited for Game of Thrones, but honestly I think it has always been a little too in love with its own pussy grabbing to help us through a Trump administration. The Handmaid’s Tale though? I mean, c’mon. Some feminist dystopia is what we need now.
And yet, in the last weeks, the anticipation has been muddied by a press tour during which the cast and crew have been frustratingly ham-fisted about feminism — tying its meaning to narrow, unhelpful definitions, and at times even seeming to undermine the cultural resonance of the show. Rachel Handler’s excellent write up is here. The cast’s debates about what counts as “really feminism” are a tiresome development — especially because the show itself, like the novel, has such a capacious sense of what feminism is and might be for.
The Handmaid’s Tale, fascinatingly, keeps the cruelty of patriarchy close at hand while not allowing men to become its most central subject. Very few men speak in the three episodes released yesterday: instead, they stand in the background, or up close, silently, often holding guns. Men and the threat of their violence are always there, but the focus is on women and what they do — for themselves, to each other — in this context. The Handmaid’s Tale’s most urgent feminist insights come from its textured account of tension not between women and men, but rather between women themselves.
Another way of saying this is that if The Handmaid’s Tale has a lot to do with what it’s like to be a woman under Trump, it has even more to say about what it’s like to be a (white, especially) woman under Trump who knows that many (white, especially) women voted for Trump. The Handmaid’s Tale asks: why do we fucking do this to ourselves? To each other?
And, because the The Handmaid’s Tale is also feminist in its commitment to treat women as real rather than ideals (it has, as the press tour so awkwardly has asserted, “really good characters”), it asks: how much of women’s cruelty to each other is because of men, and how much of it is because women, like men, can be cruel? The Handmaid’s Tale aligns politics and personality in a way that illustrates how the former often provides cover for the later. This is a dystopia, and one thing that’s useful about the genre is how it reminds the viewer that her niceness, her ethics, her cleverly articulated feminist politics, are quite possibly thin veneers over what could at any moment emerge as a capacity for complete shittiness. No one watching The Handmaid’s Tale wants to identify with its cruel women. But the show doesn’t offer a lot of reassurances that your best self is easy to hold on to.
Consider, for instance, the pressures on Offred, our central character. As for the other handmaids, reproduction is her primary activity. This is really important! One of the really amazing parts of Margaret Atwood’s novel is her attention to Offred’s incredible boredom. She is not allowed to read, is only under the most constrained circumstances allowed to move. The Handmaid’s Tale is a captivity narrative; Offred is reduced to her womb and confined in spaces — her room, her house — that are simply her womb on a larger and more symbolic scale. “I had a lot of time to pass,” Atwood’s Offred tells us. The totalitarianism under which Offred exists has two central tools: terror, and tedium. The tedium opens up space for the terror to fill.
And the tedium also leads to tension and terror between Offred and other women. As a handmaiden, forbidden from working, she is alienated from other servants, the Marthas, who are allowed only to work, and from the wives for whom she serves as surrogate wombs. Moss’s Offred spends her time in a house with other women who resent and judge her: with these other women, she is worse than alone.
None of them benefits from the masculine world that governs their every action, and rarely do they see the head of their household, the commander, who dispiritedly (like Trump, the commander grabs pussies; unlike Trump, he is not supposed to admit he enjoys it) governs over them all. This man is absent from most of the first three episodes. But he’s felt, it often seems, in the cold way the women treat each other.
Offred’s solitude and isolation cause an interesting televisual problem, which is this: The Handmaid’s Tale is trying to tell a story about being bored without telling a boring story. Tedium is maybe an effective political tactic, but I guess it’s a hard strategy for good TV. I’m gonna be honest and say here that I found the first two episodes kind of dull. I wanted to like the elegant visuals — the camera’s gaze works to stand in for Offred’s intellectual capacity which she has no other way to represent—more than I did, and Moss’s voiceover is clipped and protected: even in her head, she’s too scared and withdrawn to be Carrie Bradshaw. I didn’t love the execution but I know the disconnect is the point. Offred’s life, like Carrie’s, revolves around sex but Offred is not allowed to consider pleasure. And although Offred thinks very often about other women, she does not see any of them as friends. “There are no friends here,” Offred says to herself, gazing at the woman who is assigned to be her companion, but whom she knows is there primarily to be a spy.
At least: not at first. What Offred doesn’t know, and every viewer immediately does, is that Offred has had the good luck of being assigned as a companion the woman who is possibly television’s most emblematic figure of clear-sighted womanly companionship: Rory Gilmore! Casting Alexis Bleidel as Ofglen is such a fucking brilliant stroke of television I can hardly get over it; no visual cue could more convincingly signal the tenacity of women’s connection, under difficult circumstances, than Bleidel’s focused blue-eyed gaze.
The central story of the first three episodes is Offred’s slow rising interest in Ofglen. As Offred learns to be interested, again, in friendship with a woman, she learns how to imagine the world differently — resistance to authoritarianism in this story comes from women learning how to be good to each other despite the way they are, systemically, divided against each other. That Ofred’s friendship is growing with Rory Gilmore is one way the show encourages us to hope that her friendship might be viable, might last.
But there are reasons to be discouraged, too. The other genius stroke of casting in this episode is Samira Wiley in the role of Moira, Offred’s best friend from her old life. In the episodes released thus far, Moira appears only in flashback: a memory of rebellious intimacy. And the casting of Wiley, best known as Poussey from Orange is the New Black, works in stark opposition to the associations brought by Alexis Bledel —if Rory Gilmore signals cause for optimism, Willey/Poussey seems to be here to remind us that not even the most riveting backstory or kind intentions can save a [black especially] woman from the inexorable crunching of the world. Wiley plays Moira with a cynicism that seethes from every pore; this character is very different from Poussey, but carries a wisdom that might well have been learned from Poussey’s incarceration. (There’s more to say here, a lot more, about what The Handmaid’s Tale has learned from the experience of black women and from slave narratives. It’s a complicated debt that is necessary to track as the show progresses.)
As the three episodes that aired Wednesday night begin to progress, Offred seems to open up to the potential of connecting to other women. But by their end, most of that opening is closed off. Ofglen disappears; Offred is interrogated and tortured (by another woman) about Ofglen’s departure; Mrs. Waterford, the wife to whom Offred’s assigned, perceives Offred’s failure (“failure”) to become pregnant as a personal affront and drags her furiously across the floor, slamming her in her room.
Throughout the episodes that just aired, moments of womanly intimacy exist right up against moments of cruelty. It can be hard to tell them apart. Never is this more the case than in the show’s (and Gilead’s) primal scene, the monthly “ceremony” when Offred is raped, lying in the lap of her rapist’s wife. The scene is shot to emphasize the ceremony’s strange and horrifying tedium: refusing the drama of many televisual spectacles of sexual violence, The Handmaid’s Tale instead shows Offred and Mrs. Waterford bound in a shared and isolating experience of slow, awkward, endurance. These women are connected; there is cruelty; they are both getting fucked. And that is exactly the show’s point, what the show is here to tell us about being a woman in the world: that extracting women’s intimacy in some clean way from the pervasive power of patriarchy is not fucking possible.
Which doesn’t mean, of course, that if you’re doing a bad job of managing your life under patriarchy, that you’re off the hook. No one here is: even Rory/Ofglen, who loves women, maybe, we’re led to believe, better than anyone here.
This is what happens to Ofglen. In the episode’s most wrenching sequence she is found guilty of a having a lesbian relationship with the Martha in her household. Muzzled, thrown together in the back of a van, the two women cry wordlessly at each other, hands clasped around their bindings. Then the back of the van opens, and Ofglen watches as the woman she loves, whom by loving she doomed, is pulled into a noose and hung.
How do women hold each other, in a world of men? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself this year for many reasons — I think many of us have, post-Trump. The Handmaid’s Tale is a vital show because it turns us again and again to this question, showing us how difficult it is to answer. The show lingers on scenes of women in orbit around each other’s hands and bodies. Women hold each other in labor. They fix each other’s food. They hold their daughters, and each other’s daughters, and they steal each other’s daughters. They hold the space. They hold each other’s gaze. And they hold each other down — with tazers, with accusing fingers, with the power they wield through men, with jealousy and fear and sexuality and mistrust. Which woman, the show asks me, are you? It doesn’t care if I don’t like the answer to that question.
The Handmaid’s Tale is not, so far, perfectly executed television. But its difficulties seem to stem at least partly from how it’s trying to do something new, and difficult, and necessary: to make good television out of a story of solidarity we are only beginning to imagine how to tell.
Let’s all intend to survive,
John Hughes’ The Handmaid’s Tale
by Phil Maciak
So I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale. This wasn’t always on purpose. It seemed like the kind of book somebody would someday assign me, and yet, nobody did. In the past few years, however, I’ve started dabbling a little more in my free time with sci-fi novels, and so Atwood’s book went on my list. That is, until I found out that Elisabeth Moss, the once and future Queen of McCann-Erickson, was going to be starring in an adaptation for Hulu. This show could not be more on-brand for DearTV if it starred Kiernan Shipka, Jane Hu, and Bojack Horseman, so I immediately knew that we’d be covering it and thus crossed it off the list. When beloved novels are adapted into TV shows—Game of WHAT—it always seems valuable to have somebody in the mix who can see it as a television show and a television show alone.
But, aside from a few early critical assessments—including our old pal Annie Petersen’s jaw-droppingly good longread on the series’ aesthetic at Buzzfeed—the rollout for this show has been all about the politics of adaptation. There’s been the fiasco surrounding Moss and showrunner Bruce Miller’s repeated insistence that the show (and the novel that is its source) is “not a feminist story, but a human story”—comments which have been litigated at length. (Lili Loofbourow is great on what this anxiety is about here.) And these litigations have frequently called back to Atwood herself as Author and Authority, yet one who’s been both bold and dodgy in her responses to this issue, now and in the past.
Then there’s the issue of race on the show, specifically the charge that by dialing back Gilead’s racism in order to cast actors of color, the show ends up prioritizing a diverse cast over a potentially devastating (and necessary) representation of the logic of white supremacy. (Soraya MacDonald has a terrific critique and analysis of this particular set of creative decisions here.) One is the very public denial of what many suggest is the story’s most vital political purpose; the other is a potential act of writerly timidity (I’ll do sexism, but not racism) performed quietly under the cover of a few laudable pieces of casting. This is the conversation surrounding Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale today, April 28, 2017 A.D.
So it turns out that not reading the novel was a dumb idea.
That said, there’s a way in which these controversies over adaptation—particularly the controversy over whether or not the story or the novel or the TV series is feminist, or human, or, you know, for kids—are also controversies about the act of interpretation. In her recent monograph on The Wire, the film scholar Linda Williams says that creator David Simon, “has certainly created great television but is not a particularly insightful critic of his own work.” Notwithstanding that this is an exquisite academic burn on one of the blowhardiest of the new gods of TV’s golden age, it’s also an important thing to keep in mind. Artists make art, but they are not the arbiters of its reception, nor are they even the best at seeing what their art is doing in the world. We don’t need to listen to them.
So, back to television. Sarah, I think your point about the effect of the onscreen marginalization of men is so right. And it lends a larger structure to an observation I had had watching these initial three episodes. You’ve already spoken about the brilliance of casting Alexis Bledel and Samira Wiley, but, over and above their individual talents, these castings are also part of a slightly broader pattern among the leads. Specifically, the three main female characters, as we’ve seen so far, are all played by something like a Holy Trinity of television’s new golden age. We know Elisabeth Moss from Peggy-smoking-while-holding-tentacle-porn-in-slow-motion GIFs and the show from which those GIFs have been extracted; from being Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake muse; and, not for nothing, from being President Josiah Bartlett’s most precocious daughter! Samira Wiley is the scene-stealing, tragicomic heroine of Netflix’s first real hit (and masterpiece). And do I need to say anything about Alexis Bledel that the TV critics of the universe didn’t already gleefully shriek in her honor when Gilmore Girls got rebooted? What I mean by this is that, even though this show isn’t pulling a True Detective or Big Little Lies-style A-list casting raid for its leads, it is a show featuring three of the most recognizable and acclaimed television actresses of their generation. This is a murderer’s row of TV feminists—there is definitely somewhere a piece of fan-fic starring Rory, Peggy, and Poussey.
And yet, in this context, I think the most heads-up casting decision is actually Joseph Fiennes. If these early episodes are meant to quickly establish the foundational cruelty of Gilead for viewers, then it helps that the men oppressing this vibrant and powerful group of women are decidedly mediocre. Who better, then, to cast in a role called “Commander” than an actor perhaps most famous for never really having made good on his early buzz? In addition to the indignity of being the younger brother of He Who Shall Not Be Named Joseph Fiennes—more like, He Who Cannot Be Named, You Know, The Guy From Shakespeare in Love, It’s On The Tip Of My Tongue—is practically the model for a career that never really quite took off. I don’t want to be mean to Joseph Fiennes here—he’s really quite good in the show—but this would be a different story if it were Commander Jon Hamm. The feeling of being thrilled to see each of those women in turn, contrasted by the profound NO OPINION we register when we see Fiennes, is one way the show manages our external expectations to mold our experience as viewers. In the parlance of America’s most important podcast, Who? Weekly: Moss, Bledel, and Wiley are Thems, and Fiennes is definitely a Who. In what world does this guy call the shots over these three badasses?
That’s a fairly impressionistic observation, but binging these three episodes—as many viewers will likely do before the fourth episode drops next week—dialed out my focus. The most salient feelings I have about Handmaid’s Tale so far, I have by accumulation: the color pallette, the darkness of the Commander’s home, the quiet logic of the household, the swarming handmaids. In other words, ingesting three episodes in a row really made me focus on mood, but also on things that rupture or alter that mood.
I agree with you, Sarah, that the first three episodes had a kind of bland beauty to them. Both aesthetically and narratively, they ran together for me. Maybe it’s because of the way the episodes were released and the way I consumed them. Or maybe it’s because the same person—the gifted cinematographer Reed Morano—directed all three, but they really felt of a piece, a kind of tonal Overture to the series. It’s a big, complex world in which a tense refusal to speak is the law of the land even for its overlords; it makes sense that that world’s establishing shot would be a long one. So the show works very hard to set` a standard vibe, but it also revealingly and vitally and strategically disrupts that vibe, pitch-shifting the dominant chord so it sounds weird or allows us to imagine a different progression forward. The group beating of the alleged rapist is one of those pitch-shifts, for instance. The pummeling set-piece of Ofglen’s trial and her lover’s execution is another. It’s a sequence of hyperventilating, claustrophobic terror to shift viewers out of getting-used-to the normalized order we see otherwise onscreen. If Handmaid’s Tale’s guiding pace is a kind of oppressive slowness, the abrupt acceleration of this “legal” process and the quickness of its result is nauseatingly fast. These episodes work to establish a dystopic ordinary—related, crucially, to what you’re describing as “tedium”—but they also periodically, and with spectacular force, challenge our acceptance of it.
The endings of the three episodes, particularly their musical cues, are a great laboratory for observing this technique. And examining them closely, they also reveal the ways in which these episodes serve as an intertwined introduction to the series. The first episode ends with Offred in the corner of her room, vowing survival, and, with a swell of chugging and propulsive strings, confiding her name (her real name) to us in voice-over. It’s a small thing, but a shocking and meaningful reveal for the pilot to end on. The episode cuts to black, and we hear Lesley Gore’s transcendently cool, “You Don’t Own Me.” Lyrically, it’s a grim and bitter joke about the show’s subject, but it’s also a canny cue. We’ve perhaps been envisioning a spectacular resistance to this order, a loud shout to signal an end to the captivity of these women. But the slinky, surreptitious guitar riff that opens the song tips us off to a kind of resistance that operates below that level, after the cut, non-diegetic, in secret. Before we have even really understood the resistance to which Ofglen belongs, we feel its potential. The episode’s blandness is, then, cut a little by the specificity and character of this cue.
The second episode brings that feeling further to the surface only to cut back into it. As Offred learns more of Ofglen’s true personality—and her revolutionary goals—the episode’s dank and closed feeling transitions to an optimistic openness. Morano soundtracks Offred’s new spirit with Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” The song’s upbeat mood is further bolstered—even conjured—by its association with the final, freeze-framed, victorious fist of John Hughes’ Breakfast Club, a reference no less impactful because of the implication that Offred and the viewer might have shared nostalgic touchstones. (There’s also something—I don’t know whether it’s flip or fantastic—about imagining Handmaid’s Tale as another story about a rag-tag group of prisoners in detention who transcend their captivity by being themselves and finding solidarity.) This cue magnifies the episode’s hopefulness and cuts the series’ aesthetic blandness by opening up an airway. But that airway is immediately closed again when we realize Ofglen’s disappeared. The music stops, and when it picks up again after the cut to black, its triumphant tone has as an ironic charge, a reminder of how fast things have changed. If it initially seemed to spring from Offred’s mind—an echo of her own memory—it’s now an echo of a lost hope.
The final ending of the three is not surreptitious at all, not playing a nuanced game of point and counterpoint with the show’s dominant aesthetic. Here, Ofglen has been isolated in a room totally unlike the rest of the world of Gilead. Here it is cold and clinical, and it is the site of the horrifying realization that, rather than be hung, she’s undergone a kind of genital mutilation. It’s another of these vertigo-inducing shifts, and Morano matches the intensity of the moment, pushing us into a series of jump cuts to different extreme close-ups of Ofglen’s face (with Rory Gilmore’s pleading eyes, exposed enough to show an extremity of panic and of age that her former show couldn’t even have contemplated). It’s both immersive and alienating, a punishing style of attention. Jay Reatard’s filthy punk anthem “Waiting for Something” pushes high into the mix until Ofglen screams from the corner of the frame, we cut to black, and the music continues into the credits.
This rage has been simmering, but it’s newly expressed onscreen. Ironically, Ofglen’s lockdown, her aloneness in captivity has given her the rare opportunity to communicate in this way, with this affect. It’s a rage borne of grief and horror, but it’s also, for the show, a newly accessible register. The close-ups show an Ofglen wrecked by the events of the day, but, alternately, determined, clear.
I don’t know what’s coming in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale—both because I haven’t read its source novel and because I don’t know how Bruce Miller and his team envision this series moving forward. I don’t know if this last moment is the first scream of a revolution, that will be amplified by the handmaids who hear it like a human megaphone. I don’t know if this is the last time we’ll see Ofglen (it would be both brilliant to have stunt-cast Alexis Bledel for a three-episode arc and terribly sad to see her leave). I don’t know if we should trust that Miller will have interesting (intersectional, perhaps?) things up his sleeve for a newly diversified cast to do, or if we will begin to feel the absent potential of a critique of white supremacy. I don’t know if his bumbling comments about feminism during the press tour for this show will begin to be visible in the show itself. But I have seen what this show did in three episodes—I have heard it—and The Handmaid’s Tale seems ready for something. We’ll be here to watch and listen to what it does.
Again, Joseph Fiennes, no offense, man, you’re great, I’m really sorry,