The brutality unfolds with a precision so choreographed it’s worthy of Busby Berkeley. In the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian theocracy that has supplanted the United States, women are arriving for a “particicution”—an execution by mob. The execution relies on the subset of Gilead women who have been compelled to bear children for elite households. In compliance with the society’s rigid sumptuary laws, these “handmaids” wear red cloaks and white, face-concealing bonnets. In the lead-up to the execution, the camera gives the viewer a bird’s-eye-view of the women as they glide, in demure red-and-white lines, past black-clad men toting submachine guns. In an open-air death chamber, the handmaids kneel—a corps de ballet ready for a delirium of killing.
This sequence, in episode 1 of the Hulu drama The Handmaid’s Tale, epitomizes the harrowing power of this small-screen series, adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel about a patriarchal theocracy. The show features a sterling cast, headed by the extraordinarily expressive Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) as Offred, an intelligent, brooding handmaid. Launched in April, the series has struck a chord with Americans chafing at the policies and personality of President Trump, whom many consider an exemplar of misogynistic male privilege. Real-life protestors have recently donned red-and-white handmaid-style garb to demonstrate against what they see as infringements on women’s rights around the country. Meanwhile, Hulu has renewed its hit for a second season.
To judge by the first seven episodes, the show faithfully reflects Atwood’s novel, while amping up the political-thriller elements and allowing Offred more small consolations, such as moments of solidarity with other handmaids. Avoiding the monotonous tone of—The Man in the High Castle—Amazon’s recent dystopian series—The Handmaid’s Tale prudently employs shifting moods, often flashing back to pre-Gilead days, when Offred was a happily married editor and mother. That life was not to last: in the wake of a devastating plunge in fertility rates, apparently caused by environmental degradation, a coup toppled the U.S. government and imposed a regime in which women are forbidden to read or (mostly) work outside the home. Gays and lesbians (condemned as “gender traitors”) and religious dissenters (including Catholics) are persecuted or killed.