Apr 26, 2017

Channel Surfing: The Handmaid's Tale - "Episode #1.1"

Elisabeth Moss
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
In an era where everything imaginable is getting their own streaming service, it does seem difficult to keep them all straight and find value for each of them. While Netflix and Amazon Prime have come out on top, the only one that seems to be showing a legitimate threat is Hulu: one of the original purveyors of streaming recent TV. In recent years, the service has picked up steam thanks to shows like The Path and Casual as well as miniseries like 11.22.63. Yet today marks the release of probably its highest profile gig yet: an adaptation of the Margaret Atwood book called The Handmaid's Tale. The biggest reason is that its suppression of women feels all too familiar in modern American culture. However, it manages to offer more than base ennui.
The story follows Offred (Elisabeth Moss) as she is forced to live in a fundamentalist theocratic dictatorship. Wearing the same uniform as the women around her, she lives a simple life where the options are limited. As long as she behaves and follows the order set for her, she will be fine. However, it is a miserable existence, and one that clearly eats away at her quickly. She doesn't want to give into the suppression around her. She wants to be independent. It's a theme everyone wants to participate in, but the question is how? How do you escape a system that is so damaging to people who don't comply?
It's the gist of the story, and it helps to define the character as she is introduced into this world. Her life prior to the dystopian future seemed a lot more peaceful. In various flashbacks accompanied by voice-over, she explores her life in a blissful time. It was when she had freedom and could see her daughter, who is now lost in the world. She longs to see her again. It's what keeps her going, holding onto faith and humanity even as she becomes witness to violence and rape. She isn't allowed to express herself, but her face trembles anyways. She won't say how frustrated she is, but the audience knows from the various close-ups that it's pretty bad.
It helps that Moss has an incredible track record of playing complex women. From Mad Men to Top of the Lake, she has managed to explore the perplexing subtext to a woman's desire to succeed in the world. She wants to be taken seriously, but notices the pain of being different. In the first episode of The Handmaid's Tale, she sees desecrated bodies hanging from the wall. It's a threat to anyone whose ideals don't line up with the cultural norm. There's horror in the complacency that the repressed women share. It's something that feels like the boiling point for something greater to come.
Readers of the book will likely have more to say on the story. However, its first episode manages to beautifully convey its themes with some of the finest direction from any of these streaming services series. With costumes already iconic enough to appear in real life protests, there's no denying that there's an audience out there excited to see this story be told. Thankfully it is getting excellent treatment and looks better than most TV series. With a supporting cast that includes Alexis Bledel and Samira Wiley, it's already got a charismatic start. One can only hope that the rest of the episodes continue to capture the wrenching heart and soul of what makes the book so beloved. For now, it's a great start to a show that accidentally feels relevant to the moment, which may end up playing out in its favor. That is, as long as it doesn't feel pandering to its subject.

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