Never mind “Netflix and chill;” all hail the new era of “Hulu and panic.” If 2017 feels like both the best and worst of times for dystopian tales, it also continues to be an exceptional year for straight-to-streaming originals. And the platform’s 10-part adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s landmark 1984 novel plays like true prestige television: A masterfully unnerving vision of a near future in which a Christian fundamentalist sect has turned what remains of America into a Fascist state called Gilead, and environmental ills have left only a handful of fertile females — Elisabeth Moss’s titular Handmaid among them — to carry on the human race.
“My name is Offred,” she intones wearily in the opening episode. “I had another name, but it’s forbidden now. So many things are forbidden now.” In the hierarchy of this bleak new world, Offred and her fellow maids (which include Alexis Bledel and Orange Is the New Black’s Samira Wiley) are expected to be pliant, pious vessels for the ruling class: menial maternity servants who live like semi-hostages, regularly submitting to the reproductive demands of their Commanders — though only under the strict supervision of their seething, barren wives. (These joyless three-ways may be some of the most unsettling “sex scenes” ever put to tape.)
In her long crimson robes and flying-nun bonnet, Moss’ Offred is a model of modest compliance: speaking only when spoken to, and even then in little more than obedient affirmations and Biblical proverbs: “Under God’s Eye”; “Blessed be the fruit.” Flashbacks, though, reveal a drastically different former life: A sun-dappled dream of urban-boho normalcy in which she’s a thoroughly modern book editor with a loving husband, a little girl, and a droll sense of humor. With her plant-filled apartment and Sunday brunches, June (that’s her given name) could be a character in one of those wry, shambling Noah Baumbach dramedies about Brooklyn problems, and some faithful Atwood readers may chafe at the script’s cultural updates. But the show’s decision to reference totems of modern digital life like Uber and Craigslist inject a jarring currency, and director Reed Morano (The Skeleton Twins, HBO’s Vinyl) brings an immediacy to pre-revolutionary scenes that make the stakes in Gilead feel that much more crucial. This June really lived, and still lives, behind Offred’s guarded, affectless gaze.
Moss is a brilliant muse, a fantastically unsettling alloy of fury and stillness; if this doesn’t earn her the Emmy she was robbed of for her years on Mad Men, the voting Academy should sue itself for gross negligence. But Morano also pulls impressively nuanced performances from Bledel, Wiley, and the rest of her supporting cast: especially Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski, as the Commander and his wife, respectively, and Ann Dowd, as a brutal Handmaid administrator, who eschew easy, one-note takes on what could have been stock villains. Their performances — and the show’s consistent sense of textural, lived-in realism — anchor the drama in something beyond speculative sci-fi, making the story feel less like a quasi-fictional fable than an entirely possible preview of what’s to come. A