TV Review: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Is a Violent Dystopian Thriller

While dystopian films, novels and TV series continue to gain in popularity, few truly embrace the darkness of their subject matter. With the end of the world and societal norms, violence and evil are alluded to, but hardly ever overtly shown. That is not the case with Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood‘s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The series takes place in an alternate reality and jumps right into a heartbreaking story of fascism and misogyny. The result is an intensely brutal depiction of a dark future that makes for a tough, yet extremely satisfying watch.

The story begins as a woman named June (Elisabeth Moss) and her partner are running from police. They have a small child and while her partner is seemingly grabbed by the police, it seems like June has escaped with their child. However, not long after they are captured and separated. We find out over the course of the first three episodes that most women no longer have the ability to have children. The exceptions are the women referred to as Handmaids, who can still have children despite the fact that so few women can. With a deeply religious and extremely fascist government in charge, these women are captured and given to “commanders” of the ruling class. These men rape and impregnate the women in order to have children.

The premise in itself is a very dark future of the world. It is an extremely misogynistic world that we are introduced to, but one that feels real given political discourse in the last few years. The violence depicted in the show is the truly shocking element that grounds the series in a dark dystopian future. When watching the series, you see rape as it occurs. You see the other women who hold down the handmaids. You see newborns taken away from the handmaids, and handmaids are beaten into submission. There are dead bodies hanging in the street, and lynchings occur using cranes and chains. Even the language is real and graphic in its description.

The series turns in some strong performances in its first few episodes. The anchor of the show is undoubtedly Moss, whose character’s name is changed to Offred when she becomes a handmaiden. She brings a sense of loss and desperation to the show that grounds us in a personal story, and the stakes are real and affecting. This gives us a strong character to build a massive world around.

Other TV veterans are giving strong performances on the show as well. Ann Dowd as the “teacher” of the handmaids is effectively brutal and horrific in her role. Dowd showcases her intensity, and she might be the best actress in TV today when the scene calls for her to use it. Alexis Bledel and Samira Wiley also come in and give strong performances in limited roles. Bledel showcases an emotional range in the third episode that might help break her out of the “Gilmore Girls” box she’s been placed in. Considering the scenes in the episode, she communicates and emotes without speaking. It’s a harrowing scene that might be the most iconically dark image of the first three episodes.

With a very strong environment built around the characters, the series has considerable promise. There are certainly many other characters that could emerge as big players for the series. When you have Joseph FiennesYvonne Strahovski and Max Minghella in the cast there is a lot of potential. Through just three episodes the series showcases a very strong narrative and strong cinematography. Hulu’s hoping it has a real Emmy player here, and given the start for the show, it’s certainly a possibility.

What do you think? Is “The Handmaid’s Tale” the next great dystopian series? Let us know what you think in the comments below and on the Awards Circuit Message Boards

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is available on Hulu. New episodes release every Wednesday.

Grade: (★★★★)