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Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale is an extraordinary adaptation of an enduring classic

The stunning series, which stars Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, is about this moment in history — and every moment in history.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Elisabeth Moss stars as Offred in Hulu’s tremendous new series The Handmaid’s Tale.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In the third episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s extraordinary new adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s enduring 1985 dystopian novel, women throughout the United States take to the streets, marching to make their voices heard.

They’re protesting the rise of an authoritarian religious conservative state, one that has stripped them of many of their rights and promises to strip them of more. Among their number is our hero, played by Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, who shouts and pushes back, even as the police arrive and meet the protest with violence.

Then the explosions ring out, and chaos unfolds. What’s meant to be a peaceful protest becomes a massacre. Whatever the marchers stood for is lost in the smoke, the haze, and the blood.

Years later, Moss’s character will be held as the slave of a government leader. Now dubbed Offred, she is called a “Handmaid,” and she is valued only for her fertility, for the fact that she once gave birth to a daughter, even in the midst of a fertility crisis, even as the world was falling apart.

As a Handmaid, she wears red and barely gets to speak to anyone. What thoughts she has, she keeps to herself, though we hear them in a stream-of-consciousness voiceover monologue.

She doesn’t know where her child is. She doesn’t know for certain what happened to her husband. She doesn’t really know anything about the world at large, and the forces that would control her hope they can keep it that way. (She is not, for instance, allowed to read.)

We know, as we see the above march play out, that it will fail. It takes place in a flashback; we’ve already seen Offred as a Handmaid. But we still hope it might succeed, despite all evidence, because we want to believe we’d be on the protestors’ side. What The Handmaid’s Tale makes clear is that many of us wouldn’t be.

The first thing you’ll note about The Handmaid’s Tale, perhaps based on the description above, or perhaps just in general, is that it’s “timely.” At this moment in history, fears about authoritarian religious conservative leadership in the US are ever-present for many.

But what Hulu’s series makes you grapple with is that The Handmaid’s Tale is always timely, that we are always slipping a little bit toward the black hole at its center. The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just a show about now; it’s a show about always.

The Handmaid’s Tale is exquisitely crafted at every level

The Handmaid’s Tale
Director Reed Morano’s choices of when to go wide help inform the series’ world.

Handmaid’s Tale shows a high degree of skill at every stage of its production. In particular, the show’s visuals are stunning; Handmaid’s looks like no other show on TV, and that’s in large part thanks to director Reed Morano, who helmed its first three episodes (the only ones Hulu sent to critics).

Morano is a cinematographer whose debut feature as a director, Meadowland, simply didn’t suggest something with this level of visual acumen and control. But here, the director — in collaboration with cinematographer Colin Watkinson — films much of the show in a tight, tight close-up on Moss’s face. Morano uses a wide lens, which gives Moss’s face a slightly alien quality and which washes out much of the background.

But this beautifully works for the series. Offred is forced to wear a wimple that cuts off her line of sight, so she can’t always see what’s behind her or to her side. She’s always focused on what’s directly in front of her, which provides a neat visual representation of how the dystopian society she lives in attempts to limit just what she does and doesn’t know. Morano’s close-ups, then, subtly force the audience into Offred’s point-of-view. She knows very little, so we also know very little.

Yet Morano also chooses, from time to time, to go wide — to reveal the bodies of traitors hanging from an overpass, or to film the handmaids from above as they file in, one after the other, for a ceremony — and in those moments, Morano reveals just how easy it is to forget that Offred’s world is as horrific as it is, when you keep yourself focused on the immediate path ahead of you, as Offred does.

Essentially, Morano uses the camera to replicate the blinkered way anyone living in an authoritarian state attempts to hide the madness of their society from themselves, even if they have to live inside it. (This choice, too, works beautifully. Indeed, one of Offred’s inner monologues suggests that what’s “normal” changes very quickly in circumstances like hers.)

Just as much credit goes to The Handmaid’s Tale’s writers, headed up by showrunner Bruce Miller, who have used Atwood’s immortal book not as fodder for a direct adaptation (which would make for a very different TV show), but as a door into another world, one very like our own but with enough changes to make both its horrors and our own world’s terrors more acute. The result is a series that both embellishes and stays faithful to the world of Atwood’s book; as the very last word of the first episode will indicate, the adaptation is poised to remain true to the spirit of the book, if not the exact letter.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Every element of the series’ design is painstakingly crafted.

Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale uses actual dialogue sparingly, because saying the wrong thing can mean certain death in its dystopian society. Its general approach is to let Morano’s images and Moss’s face speak for themselves, then slide in with a tart quip from Offred’s inner monologue. (Refreshingly, the voiceover narration never explains things we can surmise from seeing them on screen.)

The design of the series is pitch-perfect too, from the bold reds of Ane Crabtree’s designs for the Handmaids’ costumes, to Julie Berghoff’s worn-down production design. Every element contributes to an elaborate world that invites you to get lost in it, even as you try to pull away.

But none of this would work without a great performance at its center, and as Offred, Moss is astonishing.

So much of this show is Elisabeth Moss’s face. Its success should cement her as one of our finest performers.

Think about the degree of difficulty inherent to playing Offred. You have the camera pointed directly at you for long, long swathes of screentime, but you can barely move a muscle, because you’re playing a character who can’t convey any emotions beyond vague pleasantness. You have a voiceover monologue to help, but it’s extremely limited and can only get you so far.

That’s why it’s so impressive that Moss makes a meal of even the slightest of eye twitches, or lets the tiniest corner of her lip creep upward when something amusing happens. The society she lives in is designed to ostracize humans from one another — often literally — because that keeps them from plotting against the state. Moss’s performance has to simultaneously suggest the heaviness of such a way of life and a rich, inner life that the state cannot quash. Somehow, she does. It’s the kind of performance awards were made to recognize. (Even the critics I know who don’t like The Handmaid’s Tale nearly as much as I do will admit that Moss is tremendous in it.)

The Handmaid’s Tale
Elisabeth Moss is giving an award-worthy performance.

But Moss ends up leading the way for a rich ensemble full of great actors — as well as actors you didn’t know could be so great.

Samira Wiley of Orange Is the New Black turns up as Moira, an old friend of Offred’s whose presence as a fellow Handmaid becomes an important lifeline for Offred. Ann Dowd of The Leftovers and “Ann Dowd is always good” fame plays Aunt Lydia, a tyrannical but loving guardian of the Handmaids. And Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski play the Commander who takes Offred as his Handmaid and the Commander’s wife, Serena, whose marriage doubles as a kind of prison.

Perhaps the most unexpectedly terrific performance arrives thanks to Alexis Bledel, who plays Ofglen, a wary companion to Offred. Still best known for playing Rory on Gilmore Girls, Bledel has never been better. Many of The Handmaid’s Tale’s darkest moments are reserved for her, and she plays them with a raw immediacy that suggests the worst horrors of dystopian regimes rarely involve death.

At every corner, The Handmaid’s Tale brims with invention (the way Morano films an execution in the third episode — almost as an afterthought in the background of this society — has stayed with me for literally months at this point). It knows its story is powerful, and it knows its story has immediacy.

But what keeps the show from functioning as some kind of #RESIST history bin is the way it’s careful to keep in mind that everything that happens on the show has happened before (literally; nothing that takes place is something Atwood couldn’t find a direct analogue for in history), and everything that happens on it will happen again, if we’re not careful.

The world of The Handmaid’s Tale might have sprung up thanks to a fertility crisis that doesn’t reflect our current reality, but it feels, for all the world, like the series has scratched off some layer of our reality and revealed a darker one that’s always existed within. This is a deeply feminist work, but not because it serves as a warning for what happens to women when they’re not respected and valued, but what happens to all of us when they’re not respected and valued.

The show’s society is a prison for Offred most of all, but it’s also a prison for Serena and for Aunt Lydia and even for the Commander. To limit any other human’s rights is to limit your own, and to deny someone else their autonomy is to turn yourself into a hollow agent of your own worst impulses. We are not living through The Handmaid’s Tale, thank God, but we are always living through The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaid’s Tale’s first three episodes debut on Hulu on Wednesday, April 26. Future episodes will debut on Wednesdays, one per week.