Writing about television is a pleasure, almost all of the time. It’s a chance to champion excellent performances and smart writers, to pick apart something that’s not quite working in an attempt to find the cause, to cheer for great writing and follow compelling characters for weeks, months, years. Writing about really good television is even better, as the best art often grows even more resonant under closer examination. The Handmaid’s Tale is better than good television, and yet the most apt review might be to write “this is great, please watch it immediately,” and call it a day. The reason is simple, and it’s also the best reason to watch: this is a story that speaks for itself. No stray observations required.
That’s not enough, of course, and there’s much to say about this episode (and those that follow, two of which were released for critics early). Still, Bruce Miller’s gripping adaptation of a dystopian classic arrives so boldly, so plainly, that the temptation to get out of its way is strong. The to-do list for “Offred” is long: Miller and company have to introduce the characters, build the world, ratchet up the tension and the stakes, and set the stage, both thematically and narratively, for the series to come. They do almost all of that by the end of scene two, all while including a surprising amount of the text from Margaret Atwood’s remarkable novel. It’s workmanlike and graceful, painterly and ugly, dramatic and understated all at once. All it needs to check each one of those boxes is Elisabeth Moss’s face, director Reed Morano’s camera, and that incredible text.
That’s not to say everything else we get in “Offred”—particularly the performances from Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black), Ann Dowd (The Leftovers), Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck), Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls), and others—isn’t remarkable. In another series, even something as nuanced as, say, Mad Men: the Peggy Olson Story*, the painterly cinematography, killer costume design (by Ane Crabtree of Westworld), and stellar ensemble would be not just valuable, but necessary to an episode’s success. Here, though, Morano tucks the camera inside Offred’s (Moss) bonnet for a significant portion of the hour runtime, letting the combination of the handmaid’s wry voiceover and Moss’s flinching face do a somewhat staggering amount of the heavy lifting. Want to learn everything you can, not just about Offred’s inner life, but about the world into which we’ve been dropped? Look for when her jaw clenches, or her lids flutter, or she takes a tiny breath. Like the Eyes of the story, the camera is always watching her, but unlike the spies Offred fears, it seems to be on her side.
We’ll spend time with other characters over the course of The Handmaid’s Tale, and the level of Moss’s work is matched by nearly everyone else in the cast (particularly Dowd, who’s a treasure as always, and Bledel, who’s better here than she’s ever been). Still, as both the title and the episode make clear, this is Offred’s story, and the only factor more key to the outing’s success than Moss’s performance is, of course, Atwood’s story (and Miller’s adaptation). We’re with Offred from moment one, jumping back and forth between her past (on the run with husband and child, smoking weed with friend Moira (Wiley), encountering same friend at the Red Center and cowering from the Aunt there (Dowd)) and her nightmarish present, where she’s just entered into “service” for the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Strahovski, excellent). Moss’s face tells us about the world—how much control she must have, the revulsion she feels, the struggle to “keep your shit together,” the paranoia necessary for survival—while her narration tells us about who she is, or was.
When Morano’s not lingering inside Moss’s bonnet (or Bledel’s), she often puts the camera in the place of the God in whose name these atrocities have been put forth. We watch the handmaids flock smoothly in their blood-red cloaks toward the Salvaging (and the particicution, an act as horrifying as the word is silly) from above, just as we peer down on Offred’s ritual rape. That’s also the point-of-view taken by Serena Joy, who sits above Offred with the latter’s head in her lap. There have been countless rapes depicted on film and television, many of them shamefully unnecessary, but this one couldn’t be more vital to the story. Gripped between man and wife, the act renders Offred little more than a sexual tool, a breeding mare used by the wife to provide for the husband, used by the husband to provide by the wife. The handmaids are “prime breeding stock,” we’re told—Offred also describes herself as a “prized pig,” and the cattle prods aren’t decorative. We peer down from great heights through an impassive lens, as distant as the deity so often praised in the conversations of the household staff.
It’s good, is the point. It’s shocking, and vital, and unfortunately timely, and incredibly well-made. ”Offred” sets the stage for a series that won’t be easy to watch—this isn’t escapist fantasy or sci-fi, unless you count the protagonist’s fervent desire to escape—and does so with a beauty that underlines the ugliness around every corner. And it lets us witness one of the best artists of the medium as she gives what may be her finest performance yet. The Handmaid’s Tale speaks for itself, but it does so through Offred, and thus through Elisabeth Moss.
Watch out, because she just gets better.
- Hey, I’m Allison! Exclamation points feel odd in conjunction with this show, even in this context, but here we are. You can look for reviews of the already-released second and third episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale to hit at 10 a.m. tomorrow and Friday. After that, reviews will run Wednesday mornings.
- It’s amazing how much a line like “Yeah, I fucking pinky swear” can say when so much of the dialogue is obviously state-mandated. It feels like a rebellion because it is a rebellion.
- Great profile of Atwood from earlier this month.
- Speaking of, did you catch her cameo? She’s in the Red Center, and she has a particularly striking interaction with Offred. (Couldn’t help myself there.)
- If you want a good sense of how wild Dowd’s range is, check her out in TNT’s Good Behavior.
- Obligatory inclusion of this nonsense, which strikes me as more of a misunderstanding of what feminism is (from people who are more than old enough to know better) than an actual assertion that one of the most defiantly feminist novels ever written isn’t feminist.
- If you haven’t had the pleasure, here’s Erik Adams’s excellent pre-air review.
- Choice of song for the credits punched me right in the guts. I don’t care if it is a little on-the-nose.
- A-: the voiceover at the very end felt a little too intentional-cliffhanger-y to me; some of the music was a bit much. These are obviously very minor complaints.
- Rory Gilmore has primo bonnet face.