We cared the most right before it was too late. As Election Day loomed last November, sales of classic dystopian fiction soared. All of a sudden the bestseller lists included “1984,” “It Can’t Happen Here” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the newest of the bunch, published in 1985, was just about as harrowing as George Orwell’s deathless tome.
Since then, we’ve chilled out a bit. These grim books are still selling, but we’re no longer at peak worry. We talk about and click on dumb stuff again. We discuss what Kim Kardashian was wearing, who Brad Pitt might be dating. And every now and then, like we just stepped on a landmine, we read that, for instance, Donald Trump granted states the freedom to withhold money from Planned Parenthood.
Shoud we disappear down a rabbit hole of pure bleak-o-rama right now? Yes. As much of a downer as "The Handmaid's Tale" sounds, much as its premise screams a Mike Pence wet dream, we can’t ignore the horrors being cooked up at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (or, well, down at Mar-a-Lago). And one way to stay on our toes is to spend an hour a week watching a new episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Hulu’s eerily timely new adaptation of Atwood’s novel.
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The premiere episode doesn’t waste any time. The first thing we see is Elisabeth Moss, white with terror, sitting in a speeding car with her young daughter and husband, racing from some unspecified menace. They crash their car into a tree. Moss dashes into the woods, her little girl in tow, but is felled by masked goons, who beat her and drag her semi-comatose body into a van.
This isn’t how Atwood began her novel; this incident is revealed several chapters in. But it’s an equally discombobulating start. The book kicks off well after our hero has become a prisoner-of-sorts in the Republic of Gilead, the new name for the United States of America. We gradually learn the specifics: that a theocratic military dictatorship took over our democracy, and its first order of business was stripping women, of not only their rights, but their names, their identities, their money, even their ability to speak freely. We only know our protagonist as “Offred” — a strange name that we soon learn means “Of-Fred.” Fred is the name of the man to whom she’s supposed to bear a child. That’s all she is now: As a woman with healthy ovaries, she now exists solely to birth kids for men with barren wives.
The first episode shuffles around Atwood’s chronology a bit; it even closes on a bombshell that’s not even in the novel. That’s fine: There are 10 episodes to get through. What it gets just right is the tone and the feel. “The Handmaid’s Tale” may be classified as dystopian literature, but the prose doesn’t have the plain, weary despair of “1984” nor the git-r-done semi-amateurishness of Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here.” Atwood is a dazzling writer, and Offred, who narrates, toggles between gloomy descriptions of her life and personable, often sarcastic observations, betraying a modern sensibility that refuses to get snuffed out by tyranny.
The tyrants certainly tried. In Gilead, women aren’t allowed to read (even signs at the local supermarket have pictures, not words), and any conversation she has with fellow handmaids — any of whom could be spies for the Republic — must stay strictly banal. She’s desperate to express her mind (and, in the book at least, to have a smoke), and making sure she thinks like she used to is the only way to stay sane.
The fear of losing one’s voice is really what makes “The Handmaid’s Tale” stick out — well, that and, of course, its feminist premise. It’s what makes the show stick out, too. Elisabeth Moss is perfectly cast. There are few actresses better at using minute facial expressions and subtle body language to convey what her characters know they can’t say. She spent seven seasons on “Mad Men” as a character who knew that to navigate a world of oppressive men meant almost never being herself. You always knew that was she was saying was usually not what she was thinking.
As Offred, Moss has to play someone with an even more limited script. The 1990 film adaptation of the novel famously didn’t include a narration track. The show doesn’t make the same mistake. We’re constantly hearing Offred’s thoughts: her fear, her misery, her sarcastic asides. It’s an oppressed character screaming quietly for someone, anyone to hear her.
It also means this “Handmaid’s Tale” is quite funny, in an unexpected and defiant way. The same goes for the novel. “1984,” both the book and the terrific movie, are drags, and rightly so. Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is, if you will, entertaining. Much as it rearranges the novel’s structure, the first episode is a diamond-cut hour of television, nimbly introducing us to a strange and horrifying world, and giving us both an arresting protagonist and a fantastic lead actress to guide us. It makes diving into terrifying television not only easier, but even therapeutic. Gilead may or may not be our future, but the show knows that the will of women, especially today, can't be extinguished entirely.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge