Jun 14, 2017

TV Retrospective: "The Handmaid's Tale" - Season 1

Scene from The Handmaid's Tale

There's no doubt that modern media relies heavily on the binge method. In what has become almost a weekly ritual, Netflix releases 13 hours of a drama and sets the timer for who can publish the quickest hot takes. Amazon has stepped up their game, making the market even more crowded. With that said, no service has taken to a model as brilliant as Hulu, and their best series yet The Handmaid's Tale has just wrapped up its first season. Hulu has done something that is traditional yet cutting edge. By releasing the season one episode per week, they managed to hold audience's interest and give them the speculation that a network show usually possesses. Even if the Margaret Atwood adaptation wasn't always the greatest show, it was a testament to the traditional format, of which would be more welcoming in an era when there's too much to watch and even less time to do so. It was also the show that finally established Hulu as a serious contender for online original content. 
There is a common criticism that Atwood's eponymous book is still relevant in 2017 despite being published over 30 years ago. In fact, there have been local protests in America where women donned the iconic uniform of the handmaids to protest an oppressive government. There's no denying that the series got an extra marketing gimmick when reality at times mirrored the story. Suddenly a weekly news story got compared to The Handmaid's Tale, which if nothing else was a refreshing change from countless George Orwell "1984" references. Still, it helped to give interest into the show that was lead by a great cast, including Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss and Alexis Bledel. Its story spawned a dystopian future that is scarier because of how familiar it looks. There aren't burned out shelters. There's merely a different attitude in which women are separated from children and the fertile ones become surrogates to rich families. It's a tragic story, and one that is centered around Moss' Offred.
While the show was at times about showing the oppressive nature that the women lived in - both in rape and physical abuse - it was also attempting to show a counteracting optimism within the quiet characters who stayed quiet for the sake of their lives. Offred reminisced on her child, whose pre-captured life was so joyful. Even the news of her husband still being alive after being traumatically separated only adds depth to the story's sadness. It is a bleak tale, but one that is interluded with moments of optimism and hope. They find small ways to cheat the system, if just to feel whole for a few minutes. With occasional pop tunes, Offred discovers ways to enjoy life amid the gruesome tragedy. While the show fails to balance light and dark subject matter, it still manages to at least create striking moments of discomfort through intimate moments that would encourage fleeting joy. It's especially true of Offred's relationship with Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), who is one of the more complex characters in the show, as he is both oppressive and somewhat endearing.
The show becomes more haunting when Offred and the other handmaids discover that the oppressive society isn't merely a male construct. Women of power control the handmaids in their daily activities, and sometimes deceitfully throw them into bad situations. The most evil is Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski), who has a reveal midway through the season that is shocking. She is like a rancher herding the women for whatever public image she wishes to create. Even as she smiles and talks condescendingly to Offred, there is a sense that she cannot be trusted. It adds a question as to whether women can trust women, or if there's anyone at all that will save them from this vicious cycle.
Thankfully, Moss continues to deliver charismatic performances week to week as she narrates her personal struggles. She watches quietly, but her stare manages to unveil so much more grief. She is a character wishing not to be defined by this struggle, but finds it impossible to escape it either. While the season ends without a huge change in the overall oppression, there is a sense that change is coming. It may be unpleasant, but it could be a cathartic second season in which things change. The first season relied on a lot of miserable imagery that scarred the viewer. It captured the confusing nature of humanity, and the question as to how the masses can be silent and be taken advantage of. Even during this, there's a rumbling frustration just beneath the surface that asks the viewer to not take things for granted. 
Considering that the season ends with similar results as the book, it's going to be interesting to see where the series goes going forward. It will also be interesting to see if Hulu can make it into awards season and possibly continue to impact real life social change. Even if it doesn't, it is a show so powerful and assured that it manages to show the value in online streaming shows that borrow TV style releases. It doesn't rely on bad cliffhangers, but instead tells complete stories that leave the viewer with provocation. It helps that the sets look great and even the limited nature of the costumes give the actors plenty to work with. Even if it wasn't always the greatest show, it was at least one striving for something better in humanity and hopefully one day that will be seen both literally and figuratively.


Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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