Shared from the 2017-04-25 Chattanooga eEdition

CELEBRITIES | MOVIES | TV | MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT NEWS TELEVISION REVIEW

‘Handmaid’ tells tale of baby-making dystopia

Picture

HULU VIA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Elisabeth Moss portrays Offred in a scene from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which premiers Wednesday on Hulu.

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 babymaking 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.

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.

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.

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 also is attentive to how progressive men can back-burner the concerns of women. Offred’s husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), for instance, is convinced 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 reeducation 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 these are the bad old days.

See this article in the e-Edition Here