A decade ago, Elisabeth Moss began co-starring in “Mad Men,” which among other things was about how women were objectified and subjugated — in the past, the 1960s, the bad old days.
In Hulu’s spectacular “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Moss is Offred, a baby-making slave in the Republic of Gilead, which is what part of the United States (New England, roughly) has become after a fertility crisis and a theocratic coup. It’s set in a near future that looks like the 1600s.
“Mad Men” may have resonated with today, but it gave viewers the comfortable vantage of history, the reassurance that we had come a long way, baby. “The Handmaid’s Tale” argues — with an assist from current events — that progress is neither automatic nor irreversible.
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel, is a cautionary tale, a story of resistance and a work of impeccable world-building. It is unflinching, vital and scary as hell.
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Offred had another name, before she was seized as breeding stock, her husband killed and her young daughter taken by the state. Now she’s identified as the property of her “commander,” Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). The name is a loaner. If Offred disappoints, she’ll be exiled to clean up radioactive waste with other “unwomen” until she dies, and another woman will be “of Fred.”
Her days are spent running errands in a commissary where the goods are labeled with pictures (because women should not read), or sitting quietly in a bedroom with shatterproof windows (so she can’t slash her wrists with a shard of glass). On “ceremony” nights, she mechanically copulates with the Commander while lying in the lap of his infertile wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).
The ritual, borrowed from the biblical story of Bilhah and Rachel, emphasizes that Offred is nothing more than a womb. So does her uniform: her face hidden by a bonnet, her form draped in a dress the red of menstrual blood and childbirth. (The costume design, by Ane Crabtree, is almost a character in itself.)
This is a dark story. That it’s not oppressive is a testament to the deft adaptation and, especially, Moss’ layered performance.
Offred is a captive. Nevertheless, she persists. She keeps a spark of self cupped in her hands. The series relies heavily on her narration, but not just for exposition. It’s how we hear her true voice, defiant, spirited, even mordantly funny.
Passing the hooded bodies of three men hanged by the government — a priest, a doctor and a gay man — she comments: “I think I heard that joke once. This wasn’t the punch line.”
In the first three episodes — which debuted Wednesday, with new ones weekly thereafter — the showrunner, Bruce Miller, is faithful to the novel while expanding on it. (Hulu plans this as a continuing series, so it will presumably stray further eventually. Atwood is a consulting producer.)
You might guess that the producers had added certain on-the-nose details to be topical: refugees fleeing for Canada; Gilead’s leaders leveraging fear of Islamic terrorists; feminist street protests before the regime’s crackdown. That’s all in the novel.
I hate to say the story is newly relevant, as if it weren’t for three decades. But face it: When you have a president who talks about women as if they were squeeze toys, who implied a tough female journalist was on her period, whose administration gathered a room full of male politicians to discuss women’s health coverage — well, the viral marketing takes care of itself.
Gilead is a tyranny of nostalgia, a rape culture that denounces the previous society — ours — for degrading women with pornography. It controls women by elevating them, fetishizing motherhood, praising femininity, but defining it in terms of service to men and children.
Reed Morano, who directs the beginning episodes, gives this nightmare a kind of serene, back-to-the-land wholesomeness that makes it all the more eerie. It’s a ruthless dictatorship, but it would make a lovely Pinterest board.
There are brutal acts of violence, onscreen and implied. But Gilead’s most powerful weapons are paranoia and division. When Offred finds a kindred spirit, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), each must gingerly unpeel the layers of piety she maintains for appearances. (Ofglen is secretly gay — a “gender traitor” in Gilead-ese.)
Some of the patriarchy’s fiercest enforcers are women. The wives resent the handmaids. So do the Marthas, the servant class. The handmaids are allowed to vent their rage in public executions of low-status men, whom they kill barehanded.
Yet the most terrifying parts of “The Handmaid’s Tale” are the flashbacks, to a time very much like ours.
Before the coup, Offred has freedom, a job, Uber. Then things start to change — little things. Women are having trouble conceiving. The government becomes more reactionary. One day, a coffee shop clerk, unprovoked, calls her and her best friend, Moira (Samira Wiley), “sluts.”
Something primal and angry is awakening. Some people are exhilarated: Finally, they can say what’s on their minds, without the PC thought police cracking down! The show is also attentive to how progressive men can back-burner the concerns of women. Offred’s husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), for instance, is convinced that the craziness is bound to blow over.
It doesn’t. An intermediate layer of flashbacks finds Offred, Moira and a class of future handmaids at a re-education center being indoctrinated, with homilies and a cattle prod, by Aunt Lydia (a coolly imperious Ann Dowd). “This may not seem ordinary to you right now,” she tells them. “But after a time it will.”
The line is terrifying, because it rings so true. You may not believe that anyone, in real life, is actually Making America Gilead Again. But this urgent “Handmaid’s Tale” is not about prophecy. It’s about process, the way people will themselves to believe the abnormal is normal, until one day they look around and realize that these are the bad old days.
Where to watch
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is streaming on Hulu.