Finishing the first season of Hulu’s original ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, rendered me a plethora of emotions, beginning with frustration, shock and distress to intrigue, amaze and exhilaration. Most of the reviews that I read about this show chronicled excessively around the relatability of the world it creates especially in the current political climate, but this analysis will separate art from the inspiration. An authoritarian government, theocracy, hounding biblical laws, female exploitation and male supremacy aren’t something unfamiliar but what makes the show hounding is its realistic style with minimum opulence or melodrama.
We don’t see any striking future technology or spaceships humming around but rather witness this getting regressive and unbearable for its protagonist June played by Elizabeth Moss. June is one of the several handmaids forced to give birth to the children of high commanding officers of Gilead (a country established after the fall of Democratic American Government). Since the fertility rates have drastically dropped in Gilead, fertile women were imposed to stay with these families, get pregnant, carry the baby, give birth, handover the baby and move to another “Posting”. The act of intercourse is turned to a religious ceremony where the act occurs in the presence of the entire household without any signs of lust between the man and handmaid. Lust in Gilead is a sin, even between the husband and a wife. In this ceremony, the woman of the house sits on the bed with her legs spread wide open and the handmaid lies on the same bed keeping her head between the woman’s thighs. The handmaid’s lies near the edge of the bed such that her feet hang vertically making it convenient for the man standing to complete the act. This gross depiction is inhumane and makes the viewers very uncomfortable. June was separated from her child on her escape to still democratic Canada and then baptised.
Any act of resistance, profanity or disobedience is seen as treason resulting in a public execution. In the first season, June is first assigned to the house of Commander Fred and she is called ‘Offred’ which literally means ‘Of fred’. Similarly, other handmaids’ have names like ‘Ofjoseph’, ‘Ofjohn’, or ‘Ofglen’. The names are like the titles attributed for a handmaid in a particular household. After delivering the baby, the handmaid’s move to another house with a new title. Women who are found guilty for adultery or are not fertile or homosexuality (even called gender traitor), are sent to labour camps where they eventually die due to the toxic working conditions. A woman can endure punishment even for the acts committed by the husband. Just like in the Bible, the roles of both the genders have been specified and no one is allowed to step beyond the limits demarcated. Even the act of reading by a woman can sever her finger or an entire hand.
The adaptation of the book by the same title, watching The Handmaid’s tale literally feels like reading a book. It is deep, impactful, layered and a slow burn. The first season takes way too much time to establish the plot and its characters. Often we see Offred’s close up shot for too long while her voiceover narrates the psyche. At one point she says, “When they slaughter Congress, we didn’t wake up; when they blamed terrorists and suspended the constitution, we didn’t wake up either and now I’m awake”. Here, June is not just explaining her plight but actually urging us all to act up. A website has revealed that 10 of the archaic laws in the show have been passed in the modern world. But, such moments often get frustrating, repetitive and test your patience. Fans of binge-worthy crime drama might just give up on the series but one ultimately in hindsight realise the necessity of its slow pace to make the world of Gilead more realistic. The episodes are engaging but it never leaves its audience with a hook. What also comes across as a flaw is the constant need of the show to shock its viewers with new ways of torture. The cinematography is beyond perfection with many of the scenes deserving applause. The costumes have been beautifully incorporated into the narrative.
In Gilead, the handmaids always wear red demonstrating their fertility and possibility of life within them. The wives of high ranking officers wear bright green symbolising their higher status and them being the ideal of how a woman should be. The Marthas and the women in labour camps wear pale green representing a lower status. And black is adorned by the men; the protector, the provider and the disciplinarian. The captivating juxtaposition of colours is the highlight of the work delivered by cinematographer Colin Watkinson. At one point we see Offred (June) in her red uniform running on the snow line, the drop of blood on a spotless white canvas. Season 2 gives the exact punch that is required from the show.
The storyline follows Offred’s pregnancy period which also opens up to other subplots and storylines apart from the handmaids like the woman of the house Mrs Waterford or Serena whose character journey is truly tracked giving us insight into the exploitation faced by women with privilege. Offred is determined to rescue both, her girl from a previous life and the baby in her womb, from Gilead. The constant tussle between Serena and Offred to protect their baby gives ample thrills. This season also focuses on female bonding with the ambiguous relationship the two women share which ranges from rivalry to empathy. Unlike season 1, season 2 is definitely binge-worthy giving complete knowledge about the characters’ actions and their motives. This season also extracts the best performances out of Elizabeth Moss (Offred/June), Yvonne Strahovski (Serena/Mrs Waterford), Alexis Bledel (Ofglen) and Madeline Brewer (Ofwarren).
However, the third season is also plagued by the third season syndrome just like it happened with Killing Eve or Homeland. Many of the moments come across as bizarre and irrational. Without giving away the spoilers, June in the third season takes a series of decisions with makes her look stupid but she luckily gets away with everything. For the same decision, one in Gilead would have been hanged on the wall but not our June. Everything about the show become repetitive from her melancholic voiceover to torture or the expression on June’s face during every other closeup. It becomes very difficult to watch an episode without scratching your head flabbergasted. One of the episodes is entirely set in a hospital with June and is extremely slow despite it being near the finale. The reason to put more emphasis on June’s character development is understandable but considering ample time has already been given to the character, the move seemed unnecessary. However, the finale gives it a deserving push but it is way too late. This season often comes across as a completely different show where the protagonist always triumphs. Such tools were visible in the previous seasons as well but in this season, they became too conspicuous. It also diminished an urge to read the original book written by the celebrated Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. The plot becomes too stagnant but its the performances of the actors that hook you in.
Although this season is about June’s crusade into resistance against the Gilead’s government, the story seems to beat around the bush focusing way too much on other non-requisite plots. Also, unlike the book, we never get an insight into the country’s politics, Martha’s resistance movement, exiled US Government or war for Chicago’s control which only comes to us as mere one-liners in this show. Luke, who is one of the ‘Eyes’ that track anything suspicious against the country but is surreptitiously a part of the network as a rebel, has been reduced to a one-dimensional character whose sole existence is to help the protagonist. The fact that the makers are too obsessed with their protagonist, giving secondary importance to the story as a whole brings utter disappointment. Disappointing because the screen adaptation could have been way better.
Handmaid’s tale is an advertent story to remind you how fragile our freedom is. It was a major blow to Trump’s new authoritarian government and the patriarchal laws which women are still subjected to. An idea to make a TV show to call out the oppressor deserves applause but the reel dystopian world being relevant gives goosebumps. Besides losing track on season 3, the Indian audience must watch The Handmaid’s Tale which is now on Amazon Prime and SonyLiv.