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Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale Is a Disturbing Reflection of the Times

It certainly feels relevant -- but is that a good thing?

Liz Raftery

It was April 2016 when Hulu gave a straight-to-series order to The Handmaid's Tale, an adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel of the same name. Now, as the series is set to premiere a year later, the show and its source material feel more timely and relevant than ever -- and it's debatable whether that's a good thing.

Set in the "near-future," The Handmaid's Tale (both the book and the show) chronicles life in the Republic of Gilead, the totalitarian state that exists in what was formerly the United States of America. A fundamentalist Christian movement has taken over and established a new societal order, in which women's rights are nonexistent and religious fanaticism provides the bedrock for law. In response to a rapidly declining birthrate due to pollution and other factors, women who are determined to still be fertile are forced to work as handmaids, i.e. surrogates for the new ruling class men and their wives, and given new names to reflect their assignments.

The central character, played by Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss in the series, is Offred, a handmaiden who was captured and forced into servitude as she tried to cross the border with her husband and young daughter (whose fates are assumed, but not known for sure). Like the book, the series fuses Offred's present-day narration of the events in her life with flashbacks and memories to the time "before." Offred uses gallows humor -- literally -- to remind herself of the absurdity of the events around her, lest she fall into a pit of acceptance. "This may not seem normal to you right now, but after a time it will," she says at one point. "This will become ordinary."

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While Atwood's dry, almost clinical writing style -- and the fact that the book was published in 1985 -- allows for a certain sense of detachment when reading the novel, the adaptation brings the author's grim world to all-too-realistic life. A particularly brutal scene involving an alleged rapist serves as the climax of Atwood's book, but takes place in the first episode of the series, setting a dark tone for what's to come.

And Moss' portrayal humanizes Offred, both as an everywoman in her past life and in the present day, where she struggles to cling to hope and finds a unique, potentially dangerous connection with her Commander (Joseph Fiennes). As in the book, Offred's motivation to continue living is the idea that she might one day be reunited with her daughter, who was seized by soldiers on the same day as her mother.

Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid's Tale

Supporting players include Orange Is the New Black's Samira Wiley as Moira, Offred's outspoken lesbian friend from before who is now also a handmaiden; and Gilmore Girls' Alexis Bledel as Ofglen, a former college professor-turned-handmaiden who is Offred's shopping partner and who escaped the "dyke purge" because she's still fertile. Along with Moss, the trio's greatest achievement is allowing their characters' complexities to shine through, even while they're donning identical uniforms and speaking mostly in the mandatory affirmations that serve as greetings in this new world ("Blessed be the fruit," "Under his eye").

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The show's depiction of Offred's previous existence is jarring in the sense that everything feels modern and familiar, from mundane aspects like swiping a credit card to pay for coffee (although here, even digital banking has a dark side) to the more disturbing elements of our present day, like how quickly peaceful protests can turn violent. While effective, it also may hit too close to home for some viewers who are feeling dismayed about the state of the world. Even the cinematography -- muted tones that make it feel as if there's a thin layer of dust over everything -- is dismal. Imagine if The Walking Dead felt like it could actually happen in the (very) near future.

Inevitably, viewers, especially politically left-leaning ones, will probably find themselves wondering whether the results of the 2016 election cast an even more ominous pall over the show. With women's rights again on the chopping block under a Trump administration, and a common refrain from critics on the left to resist normalizing Trump, it's difficult if not impossible not to draw parallels between the show and real-life events. Would The Handmaid's Tale be as bleak a viewing experience with a Clinton administration in power? For some, maybe.

The Handmaid's Tale is endurance TV, for sure, but also a show that many people will view as a cautionary tale. Typically, it's a point of praise to note that a 30-year-old text still feels relevant -- but here, that fact is chilling.

"I was asleep before. That's how we let it happen," Offred says in an early episode. "When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn't wake up then either. They said it would be temporary. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you'd be boiled to death before you knew it."

The first three episodes of The Handmaid's Tale premiere on Hulu on Wednesday, April 26, with one new episode released weekly after that.