The moment’s mechanics are its most insidious feature, a form of theatre that venerates violence. The Handmaid, in scarlet, kneels at the foot of the chair, awaiting her mistress and master; the others are soon waiting, too, signaling—with the tap of a foot, a frustrated sigh, an impatient drag from a cigarette—that the act has become routine. And, after a fashion, it has: The man’s metronomic thrusts, once the ceremony begins, suggest an imposition, as if he were interrupting his reading to take out the trash. He rapes her with his hands on his hips, almost prudish in the discharge of power, and as he does so he faces his wife, cradling the Handmaid’s head in her lap.
This sequence, from the series premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale, is a microcosm of its forthright purpose, its aesthetic assurance, and not only in the unsettling stagecraft or cruel splashes of color. The episode’s director, longtime cinematographer Reed Morano (Lemonade, Looking), positions the camera to emphasize the situation’s complex arrangements of coercion and submission, collaboration and force: As the Handmaid, Offred (Elisabeth Moss), sinks to the floor, we peer up at the driver, Nick (Max Minghella), and the cook, Rita (Amanda Brugel); by contrast, the woman of the house (Yvonne Strahovski), the wife of Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), is much closer to Offred’s eye line, as if to remind us that she, too, is subject to the system’s control. With such precise compositions, The Handmaid’s Tale envisions the intersectional, drawing the interlocking influences of gender, sexuality and status into its portrait of a puritanical dystopia not far from our own: “Blessed are the meek,” Offred says in scornful voiceover, referring to the extremists’ empty dictum. “They always left out the part about inheriting the Earth.”
In its attention to the iconography of oppression, creator Bruce Miller’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel reflects the source material’s keen understanding of draconian language, rendering literal the Handmaids’ formulaic salutation, “Under His eye.” In the three episodes made available to critics, Miller and Morano sustain a taut tug-of-war between action and speech, image and thought, replete with speculative fiction’s usual rash of hideous details: schoolgirls in pink smocks marching past armed men in black; the springtime pastels of the birth ritual, in which the leaders’ barren wives perform sympathetic labor as a Handmaid breathes through contractions in a separate room; three corpses hanging high on a concrete wall, demanding passersby pause for reflection. “A priest, a doctor, a gay man: I think I heard that joke once,” Offred, once known as June, observes of the latter. “This wasn’t the punch line.”
As June’s acerbic monologue suggests, The Handmaid’s Tale, set in the theocratic Republic of Gilead, is at once a depiction of the hegemonic state—training Handmaids to shame the victims of rape, prescribing the reproductive process down to the movement of bodies—and a dispatch from its interstices; the series finds suspense in the tiniest cracks in the regime’s façade. Against its suggestions of despotism (Morano frames the Handmaids’ faces in claustrophobic close-ups, mirroring the restrictive sightlines of their “protective” bonnets), The Handmaid’s Tale also levies gestures of resistance. As the hint of a rebellious smile comes to the corners of June’s mouth, or as she uses a forbidden word (“gay,” as opposed to “gender traitor”) to refer to a fellow Handmaid (Alexis Bledel), the narrative shimmers ever so slightly, as in the foreshock to a coming quake. The point, as I see it, is not to promise revolution, but rather to remind us that the dream thereof persists even in inconceivable circumstances: Totalitarianism, despite its most strenuous efforts, is never exactly total.
What it is, as The Handmaid’s Tale acknowledges, is shrewd, omnipresent, unrelenting, using the hierarchies it constructs to divide and conquer its opponents. In Gilead, Handmaids inform on each other, and house servants on Handmaids; the wives of the elite, made brittle by the state’s intrusion into their intimate lives, exact vengeance on the women in their employ; men stand by in silence, whether out of fear of reprisal or hope for advancement. There are other gradations, other classifications—the fertile and the pregnant receive certain privileges, abortionists and homosexuals certain punishments—but the specifics, despite dovetailing with a fascistic strain that permeates American life, are less important to the drama than Gilead’s grand design: It is at the intersection of our multivalent identities that the powerful exert pressure, because it is at that self-same intersection that collective action is born.
That the series’ narrative flows through these circuits of power is enough to recommend it; that it also aims its vigorous aesthetic in this direction qualifies it as one of the year’s finest to date. Witness the second episode’s most wrenching sequence, in which Janine (Madeline Brewer), Handmaid to Mrs. Waterford’s friend, Mrs. Putnam (Ever Carradine), produces her mistress’ first child. Upon the newborn’s removal, the birth mother’s face lapses into horror, and the Handmaids encircle her in a sea of scarlet. But it’s not only the stagecraft, nor the color, that points to the terrifying truth; it’s also the high angle of the camera, recalling another ritual, another division—this one known, cryptically, as “the salvaging.”
The correspondences between the two images are so crisply imagined that their connection is clear: In birth and in death, in rage and in pain, in privilege and in punishment, The Handmaid’s Tale asserts, patriarchal dominion is the unifying principle, the poison that soaks through the body politic under His watchful eye. Nonetheless, June persists, Janine persists, she persists, we persist. In this sense, the first great political drama of our authoritarian age is also, as with Atwood’s now three-decade-old novel, a kind of instant classic: Forever of our time.
The Handmaid’s Tale premieres Wednesday, April 26 on Hulu.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.