Offred, wearing a uniform of prim hood and draping gown — its color might be described as Nathaniel Hawthorne Scarlet — is in the supermarket, moving past armed guards and listening to other hooded women prattle on about oranges.
“I don’t need oranges,” we hear her thinking to herself. “I need to scream. I need to grab the nearest machine gun.”
Could any actress other than Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss say that line with such a precise distillation of despair and scorn, fire and ice?
She’s perfect in this fascinating Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, the famous Margaret Atwood dystopian novel about a newly Puritanical, totalitarian America where women become the chattel, birthing vessels and (as Atwood puts it) “ambulatory chalices” of a male political class and their infertile wives.
Tale was first published in 1985, more than 30 years ago, but no one would argue against its continued relevance, and resonance, as a critique of a society in which power of all sorts is still defined in masculine terms. You can easily think of examples of varying degrees of obviousness. Early in the last presidential election, of course, one Republican contender said his female rival was too ugly to serve as the face of the country. It went on from there.
Or: Would so many people have objected to Lena Dunham’s unapologetic nakedness on Girls if, rather than simply portraying a young, single woman in Brooklyn enjoying sex, she had spent all those seasons using her breasts for the pragmatic maternal purpose of nursing a newborn, as she did in the finale? But enough.
Tale imagines an America, rechristened Gilead, in which Congress has been slaughtered wholesale, the Constitution is gone and women have been reduced, again, to the age-old role of an Eve whose chief satisfaction is to be reminded, over and over, that she started existence as one of Adam’s ribs.
Offred, in fact, is a simple, proprietary conflation — “of Fred,” the name of the so-called Commander (Joseph Fiennes) in whose dark, joyless, spotless home she has now been placed. Her every move and action, even playing what may or may not be an innocent Scrabble match with the Commander, is part of a life-and-death game she’s forced to play as she dreams of liberation.
Offred’s great task, assigned to her by the new patriarchal state, is also her surest way to endure (and she reminds us, more than once, that she intends to survive). She must provide progeny for the Commander and his wife (Yvonne Soblonsky). This is a bland way of saying she will allow the Commander to rape her in a grotesque yet impersonal ritual, a kind of pantomime that allows Mrs. Commander to participate and perhaps feel, somehow, worthy. More worthy, anyway, than Offred.
A fertile “Handmaid” who conceives will (likely) be spared further degradation and cruelty: zaps of a cattle prod, terrifying interrogations over infractions of the social contract by which she is now bound, or exile to perform clean-up duty in the environmentally contaminated colonies.
But there’s not much balm in Gildead, either, what with its public executions, endless surveillance and— an odd sort of steam-letting — the occasional get-together at which the subservient women are encouraged to throw themselves upon a male prisoner and literally tear him to pieces.
Switching between Offred in her current hell and flashbacks of her life before Gilead — she had both a partner and a daughter — Tale is relentlessly grim, tense and suspenseful, and filmed with a perfunctory, rather ugly dailyness. It’s close enough an approximation of reality that it often feels like a nightmare from which one should be able able to wake up. But can’t.
The initial three episodes are both more violent and arguably more Orwellian than Atwood’s novel, but that’s neither a flaw or, for that matter, avoidable. Atwood’s prose is elusively cool and understated, and the novel’s deepest power isn’t necessarily in creating the contours of another world as suggesting the shifting relationships, both sexual and political, among Offred and the men and women trapped in her secrecy-obsessed circle. Instead, the series has gleaned small references from the book — for example, how Gilead authorities regard gay people, or “gender traitors” — and made them blunt, shocking and brutal.
Moss, as eyewitness to this horrible new world, looks out at it (and us) from beneath her hood with an expression of clenched, pale horror and anxiety — and something like ferocity. Offred is in the same sisterhood as Peggy, Moss’s breakout role on Mad Men, or Robin, the detective in the great New Zealand series Top of the Lake. There have been no other feminist characters on television quite like these. There is no actress quite like Moss.
The first of 10 episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale premiere Wednesday on Hulu.