Friday, November 10, 2017

TV Series Review - The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale
Based on the book by Margaret Atwood
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, O-T Fagbenle, Jordana Blake, Samira Wiley, Yvonne Strahovski, Joseph Fiennes, Amanda Brugel, Max Minghella, Ann Dowd, Madeline Brewer, Alexis Bledel, Tattiawna Jones, Nina Kiri, Jenessa Grant, Bahia Watson, Ever Carradine, Stephen Kunken, Zabryna Guevara, and Christian Barillas
Release Date: April 26th, 2017 - June 14th, 2017
Rating: ★
To Watch

Offred was once called June. She was married to Luke. They had a daughter called Hannah. When the Sons of Jacob felled the US government and established Gilead June and her family attempted to escape. She and Hannah were caught and she believes Luke was killed. Hannah is the proof that she is fertile in these times of sterility and therefore she was trained to become a handmaid. She was sent to a Commander's house, assumed his name, and once a month "participates" in the ceremony that will hopefully bring forth a child to his family. The ceremony is nothing more than sanctioned systematic rape. Yet Commander Waterford wants Offred to be happy, as does his wife Serena Joy. They think that this is not just an acceptable life but a good life for Offred. Yet Offred doesn't understand the game Commander Waterford is playing, and it is literally a game. He calls her into his study when his wife isn't around to play Scrabble. Such luxury to play with lettered tiles, to form words, to read when women are no longer allowed to. Yet who knows what Serena Joy would do if this aberrant behavior in her husband were discovered. The two of them literally helped write the rules of Gilead, yet Serena herself is willing to bend them a little if she could get a child, having Offred couple with her husband's driver, Nick. Yet she would never violate them outright no matter how stifled she feels now that she's nothing more than a Commander's wife dressed in blue. But if anyone is stifled, if anyone should be revolting, it's Offred. She makes contact through a fellow handmaid with the Mayday resistence group, but then her contact Ofglen is gone one day. But through her new daring Offred learns that Luke is alive, as is her best friend Moira. She now has even more reasons to fight. She is June and they will not destroy her.

I genuinely went into watching The Handmaid's Tale with high expectations. I mean it won ALL the Emmys so it had to be good right? Wrong! I think voting for The Handmaid's Tale was like a protest vote, it says the right things but in truth Westworld should have won. But I would have also taken The Crown or Strangers Things as acceptable substitutes. And the thing is, I'm not sure if I'm alone or not in this dislike. The people I know who liked the miniseries haven't read the book and those whose opinion I trust haven't watched it because they in turn trust my opinion. On paper the show sounds great, even if you're not a fan of Elizabeth Moss like I am. But the execution was just self-indulgent television that felt like it was done by a student filmmaker. While I can understand certain changes, moving all the big events that are excruciatingly paced throughout hundreds of pages of reminiscences into the first episode makes sense. You HAVE to hook the viewers right away. There can't be an entire episode with Offred deliberating about telling the Marthas about the arrival of oranges in the shops because no one would watch that and yet it's over fifty pages in the book. So I'm being generous here, I get these changes, even if it means you've wasted almost all the good plot points in the first episode, it was necessary. But there's the fact that with all the directors there is no fixed style. It's so varying that there is one episode that literally spends the entire hour with only Offred's eye in focus. What student level BS is this? But what I won't ever forgive is the annoyingly repetitious sound design. Low, ominous noises drawn out for what felt like eons. Or a musical cord or strident sound played over and over for entire blocks of the show. If this show wanted to go for sound design over music look to how David Lynch did the revival of Twin Peaks, that is masterful, this is shit. And yet the sound design is NOTHING compared to the music choices. Each episode had some classic used inappropriately or mashed up in some horrific way, WTF was that "Heart of Glass" remix? At the start of every episode I kept wondering, which classic song is going to be ruined in this hour? The answer is whatever song they used.    

Yet the use of the songs from "Don't You (Forget About Me)" to "You Don't Own Me" underscore a larger problem in the series. The book has a timelessness to it, and the soundtrack, no matter how "appropriate" the title or the lyrics date the show. In making this show NOW they made everything too definite. Yes, whatever time you make a series in dates it to an extent, but just because our political climate is so similar at the moment doesn't mean the series should be set in the moment. It might give it immediacy, but will it give it longevity? I don't think so. By giving such specifics, even down to making sure we know all the characters real names, there's a universality that has been taken away. Though oddly there is one thing that is less emphasized amongst all this specificity that further strips any meaning out of the narrative. This story is set in Cambridge and Boston. It's very clear in the book but it's not very clear in the show because they didn't film it on location, instead they took the benefits that Atwood's country gives in tax breaks and damn the consequences the show was filmed in Canada. The problem is NO town can be a substitute for the Boston area. It has a very specific look and use of red bricks that when gone, well, you notice it. What's more is that by having the story set in and around Harvard, there's symbolism attached to having the bodies of the traitors hung on the University's wall that can never have the same impact by just having some bodies on a wall next to a river. This is a MAJOR statement about how the current regime views education and betrayal and here it's just gone, entirely lost. What's more, Boston is the cradle of America! This is where the revolution started! This is where Paul Revere made his midnight ride! To have that which created us under the yoke of an evil regime? That is a statement that can only be said by seeing Boston on the screen! 

Going back to the specificity that this adaptation has embraced when it's convenient to them Offred herself is just too specific, she's too defined. Yes, Atwood's book gives us a lot of information about Offred's previous life, but at the same time she is generic enough, she can be the everywoman she's supposed to be. You can scarily see yourself in her shoes because she could be you! She's a passive vehicle for the atrocities of Gilead to flow through. Here with Elisabeth Moss's portrayal of Offred we see a woman who is not going to just lay back and take things, she's going to stand up and fight. She's going to hold onto her name, she's going to hold onto her memories, she's going to hold onto hope. She is going to be the rallying point for the rebellion. Offred here is not so much just one of the handmaids, she is front and center, punching and kicking during the punishment, helping in the birth, she's June goddammit and she's going to talk other handmaid's off the ledge and be a force for change. And THAT is a big change from the book. There suicide was an option because hope had run out, here hope never runs out. There is a far more optimistic bent here because Offred is willing to show when she's pissed off or sullen or sulky, she's not the blank vessel for her Commander. She doesn't always follow the rules, and while perhaps we can root her on, I don't think we can relate as much. I totally think there's a time when hope does run out, but for some reason this show was unwilling to embrace this fact. Yes, I know that all this makes sense when switching from one medium to another, but I think more than that this was done in an effort make this more than just an adaptation of the book and more an expansion of the story. This is just the beginning of the series, one that will be full of rebellion, whereas Offred's story in the book is just the beginning of the horrors of Gilead, her rebellion in that context would have meant nothing, would have had no impact, she was just the voice of the oppressed with no actual impact expect for historians.   

Yet as much as I don't like the changes to Offred I have to say they occasionally got it so right that I was, for the moment, happy. In fact I will begrudgingly admit that Elisabeth Moss is the perfect actress for this version of Offred, which is understandable given how much creative control she had in this instance. Therefore I have partially forgiven her for all the times I've hated her in the past, burn in hell Peggy Olson! OK, back to The Handmaid's Tale, in episode two "Birth Day" the handmaids attend the labor of Janine, Ofwarren. Offred goes downstairs to inform the wives of the commanders how things are progressing and one of them asks if she'd like a cookie. Of course this decision is in the hands of her mistress, Serena Joy. Serena asks Offred if she would like a cookie, in the way you'd ask a very small child. There's this big beautiful tower of macaroons and the range of emotions on Elisabeth Moss's face is exquisite. You can see how much she does want that cookie but simultaneously how much it pains her not only to have to ask but to ask it of these women. What's more, she's not even given a choice about asking, because once the suggestion is out there she must do as they say. All this is embodied in this one simple scene, and for once I thought, maybe they get it, maybe they get what Margaret Atwood's story was all about, but then Offred goes to the bathroom and I can see they didn't. Because what happens in the bathroom is that Offred spits out the cookie, but in the biggest act of rebellion she just leave it there, so that those women will know what she's done. Therefore I guess you could say this one scene embodied both what the book was about and likewise the rebellious nature this adaptation is going to take. Yet I have to say it, that at this point it's not the adaptation that is drawing me in no matter the level of acting, it's the expansion. I want to see where this goes. Offred so far has been too omnipresent, she needs to step back out of our faces and let the other characters have the spotlight for once.

Speaking of some other non-Offred characters, let's talk about Commander Fred Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy. In the book the Commander is a bit of a silver fox and Serena a washed up televangelist. In other words, 70s to 80s age range given the timeline. Here we have Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski, 47 and 35 respectively. In fact Elisabeth Moss is the same age as Yvonne Strahovski. Now there are two ways to take this change, one is good, one is bad. Let's start with the bad. The bad is that this is Hollywood and they couldn't have an unattractive elderly man raping Elisabeth Moss, so instead we have the beautiful though perfectly brooding Joseph Fiennes who is only a mere 12 years older than her. In an aside, am I the only one who wonders if the Fiennes brothers used to spend their time trying to see who could be more menacing? So vanity wins even in the darkest of stories in this interpretation. Perhaps Elisabeth Moss even insisted on a pretty face to act to? This is Hollywood, weird things are the norm. The unlikely "dark" yet infinitely better interpretation is that by making Offred's oppressors young and beautiful we can see the true horror of what they are doing. Because somehow it would be more understandable if the Commander and his wife had no way of having kids because of their age and an old guy barely getting it up isn't as much of a threat? Also here the crisis of infertility is also brought home by this beautiful couple. This really pushes the message on the inability to procreate which kind of gets lost in the horror of oppression and rape. But going beyond this, going back to the whole infertility crisis, one thing that I just don't get is this need of all the women to have children. I understand the biological imperative what with the fact that the world could end without procreation, I just don't understand this sickening need to have a baby. Is it because it's all that the men have left them? But that's something that needs to be thought on more... biological clocks and imperatives and parental desires can not be covered in a paragraph or two, you need a book, like The Handmaid's Tale, not just some series you can stream and be done with in a few hours.


Newer Post Older Post Home