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The Handmaid's Tale Makes the Perfect Case Against Binge Watching

Binging this does a disservice

Malcolm Venable

The Handmaid's Tale'sElisabeth Moss has advocated for doing something almost unthinkable when watching Hulu's dystopian/horror story: not binge it.

That's the way we've become accustomed to watching shows now of course, particularly on streaming services. But Moss says The Handmaid's Tale is better enjoyed as it's presented: a new episode every week. And not only is she right, but her show is the first series of the streaming age to truly justify watching as a weekly event.

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"I just think that it's important in a show like this to watch, step away and think about it," Moss told USA Today. "Every episode is so jam-packed with so much that I think it would almost be a shame to overdose too quickly on it. It's something where you may need a second to step back and think about what you've seen."

Indeed. Every episode illuminates more about the show's sick new world, a world that used to look so much like ours: how small chips away at normalcy, like a debit card that's been mysteriously suspended or a new ban on travel, allowed the new world of Gilead to prosper. Beatings, bodies swinging from nooses and blood running down walls gives the intellectual horror a sense of dire consequence. Then there are the questions. What happens to the women Offred (Moss) befriends? Will she be reunited with her husband and daughter? Will the women rise up and end this nightmare? Clues are eked out slowly in blink-and-you'll-miss blips (if at all), adding potency and suspense to the story.

The Handmaid's Tale'sintensity, and its refusal to let us speed through for answers, forces practice in the endangered art of patience, so many years after on-demand has become an expectation. This is about more than just nostalgia for the "romance" (as Moss puts it) of a weekly release, the strangely noble feeling we get from embracing an old way, as we do with playing vinyl records or opting for a dumb phone.

Watching The Handmaid's Tale in installments as intended gives us a much-needed step back. The gore demands a palate cleanser, not only because it's gruesome and chilling; but because of the context in which it's happening. We need to take a minute to consider how this society got that way, how violence against women became normalized and how sex and shame became weapons. What The Handmaid's Tale is asking us to do -- to not look away, and then stop and think about what we've seen -- would lose power if the show was gobbled up in one sitting. Viewers can of course wait until the season is complete and then feast on it, but this is material that best serves its themes, its production and Moss' exceptional performance if we actually take the time.


Alexis Bledel and Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid's Tale

George Kraychyk/Hulu

Moss told AdWeek that her Mad Men boss Matthew Weiner hipped her to the idea of "water cooler conversation" -- a practice more relevant and useful here than for any other show on TV today. Talking through the physical and psychological abuse Offred and her peers endure every week clears a path for us viewers to have vital discussions about women's lives now, and those conversations should not be one-and-done.

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This approach isn't novel for Hulu (or for CBS' All Access, where The Good Fight and the forthcoming Star Trek: Discovery are eked out in weekly doses). But unlike say, Hulu's 11/22/63 or The Mindy Project, The Handmaid's Tale is so culturally relevant that the inevitable trophy-sweeper is the first exemplary case for bucking binging. Yes it's counterintuitive -- we're all busy, and working all those "must-watch" recommendations into our schedules makes binging practical, if not unavoidable. But that has meant making some concessions -- both in the making of the content itself, and our appreciation of it.

In the case of Netflix at least, shows that are generally expected to be consumed in one stretch have, over time, tacitly given creators permission to cram in needless white space that make programs move too slowly and drag on too long. That may be why most of us are on our phones when binging. Multitasking means we're not hanging on every word of dialogue or pausing to admire the sets. Binging can make content whoosh by in a way that impedes contemplation -- something you absolutely need to do while watching The Handmaid's Tale. An entire galaxy of tragedy lives in every close-up of Moss' face; and skipping past it while browsing Twitter on your phone would be a crime.

Cultivating actual patience nearly 20 years into the new millennium is an absurd fantasy. But The Handmaid's Tale provides definitive reasons for embracing the ritual of tuning in for a new episode every week -- even if it is with post-ironic glee and a self-congratulatory pat on the back. Might more streaming shows follow suit? Perhaps. But Handmaid's Tale will be a tough act to follow.

The Handmaid's Tale debuts new episodes each Wednesday on Hulu.