The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are available now on Hulu. Future episodes premiere every Wednesday.
The ten part dystopian series that premiered on Hulu today is based on Margaret Atwood’s book of the same name. It is primarily the story of Offred, a handmaid in the new country of Gilead, where she is forced to bear children for wealthy men and their barren wives. While there are many strong performances by the supporting characters (Alexis Bledel as Ofglen, Samira Wiley as Moira, Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski as the Commander and his wife, Serena, and Max Minghella as Nick), the show is carried on the shoulders of Elisabeth Moss, who throughout the first three episodes portrays Offred perfectly.
The story is told in the first-person narrative by Offred, often via the thoughts in her head which viewers hear while viewing Moss’s face up close. The tenor of the scenes is set through her facial expressions and the tone of her voice (expressing her unheard thoughts, fears and plans). The show uses often uses the exact text of the book for its script. Atwood is a masterful writer, and in showrunner Bruce Miller’s adaptation, Offred’s narration is fantastic as well – both sarcastically funny and despairing. “I don’t need oranges, I need to scream,” she says in voiceover at one point, staring at the fruit in a grocery store. In her head, she can speak freely. The powers that be haven’t taken that yet.
Moss does a superb job of expressing a range of emotions within minutes, letting us have a sense of the tension and inner conflict Offred experiences. In a situation in which someone is not supposed to be registering seething rage, for instance, you can see her trying to keep a straight face. Moss filmed without makeup and looks “tired and baggy,” making for a very realistic portrayal. The acting is very direct and every little twitch and twinge is visible. There isn’t anything between her and the camera. Moss, in an interview in Time said, “… if I went paler or if I flushed or if I was cold, you could really see it. And we also did very, very close shots.” The handmaids are kept captive with the sole purpose of reproducing. Close-ups amplify the feeling off claustrophobia; Ms. Moss said that the camera sometimes came so near to her face that she would bump up against it.
Like in the book, the story moves back and forth between the not-too-distant future and flashbacks to a chaotic, toxic and barren Boston of the fictional present day. Here too, Moss’s portrayal of June (her character’s name before the takeover) is eerie and real. We see how the new government came to power and slowly took away women’s rights, with sheer force. Her simple depiction of June’s relationship with her husband and daughter, and her friendship with Moira make her relatable and helps the viewer be sympathetic to her new situation.
Moss’s performance makes for a gripping, chilling and brutal adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, one that will be remembered for a long time to come.