After the otherworldly social rituals and rigidly structured patriarchy of "Mad Men," it was just a hop, skip and a jump into the realm of "The Handmaid's Tale" for its star, Elisabeth Moss, who also serves as producer on Hulu's 10-part television adaptation.
The first three episodes arrive Wednesday, with new installments arriving weekly until the June 14 finale. It's looking very good so far. Moss became a stealth sensation as Peggy Olson, emblem of a shape-shifting decade on "Mad Men," and in movies such as "Listen Up Philip" (terrific, by the way) she cuts through the bull of the mansplaining protagonist like a buzz saw, without histrionics.
Her eyes often framed here by a literally Puritan bonnet, Moss is an actress ready, willing and subtly eager for this dystopian nightmare set in a brutally nostalgic near future. Even when she's nonverbally registering the latest appalling turn of events, Moss activates the interior life of novelist Margaret Atwood's main character. The series' somewhat protracted early sequences introduce us to life, and death, in Gilead, aka America: The Second Edition.
Three episodes, all directed by Reed Morano, were available for preview. In the third, flashback-intensive episode, especially, Morano experiments more freely with shot length, tonal change-ups and the like. This is when a solidly effective adaptation eases into a superior one.
This is the sternest sort of speculative fiction, shot through with gallows humor. Hulu's adaptation of the 1985 Atwood novel, without which no "Hunger Games" or other young adult adventure-time dystopian knockoffs would've gotten out of the gate, has been greeted as almost supernaturally relevant to a nation now being run by Donald Trump. The world of "The Handmaid's Tale," in Atwood's description, is the result of a populace refusing to "wake up," even as women lose their money, their property, their identity.
Some of the language in the miniseries is straight from Atwood's novel. Screenwriter and executive producer Bruce Miller adds much of his own, as when Ann Dowd's Aunt Lydia, the fearsome, cattle prod-wielding overseer of the re-education camp for handmaids, seethes about the loose morals that led to the revolution. "Morning-after pills … murdering babies. Just so they could have their orgies. Their Tinder," Dowd growls, and Tinder never sounded so incendiary.
Her husband murdered by border guards (Canada, this time, not Mexico), their young daughter captured, Moss' Offred serves the Gilead society as a coveted handmaid. The environment in this near-future has been laid to waste by human-made environmental disasters, leading to mass infertility. Those with functioning ovaries, like Offred or her confidante Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), become the breeders. At more than one point, the Commander (Joseph Fiennes, a bit dull), copulates with Offred as she lies on a bed with her head in the lap of the Commander's infertile wife (Yvonne Strahovski). And Offred's one of the lucky ones; other women are consigned either to a career as a "Martha," i.e., the help, or as some other designated cog in the Gilead caste system.
"When they slaughtered Congress," Offred tells us in voice-over, "we didn't wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn't wake up then, either." When Atwood wrote "The Handmaid's Tale," she was hyperbolizing the worst of what she saw as dangerous Reagan-era rollbacks in women's rights. Now we're in a very different era, and to millions, Reagan's time is looking pretty sweet. And, though conceived two years ago as a miniseries, "The Handmaid's Tale" plays like the warning bell sounding the end of Donald Trump's first 100 days.
In the third episode, we see the America we know falling apart by mundane, brilliantly observed degrees. At a coffeehouse after a jog with her friend Moira (Samira Wiley, excellent), Moss' character tries to pay for her drink with an ATM card. It is declined; her assets, she soon learns, have been reaccommodated to a designated male. She's no longer employable, or a real citizen. On the way out, the women are casually slut-shamed by a snippy barista who clearly knows his time has come, and that the men need no longer put up with uppity women. Moss plays this scene perfectly as a scrambled moment of realization.
We'll see where the adaptation goes from here. Already, though, Hulu's series has erased the pale 1990 feature film version directed by Volker Schlondorff, starring Natasha Richardson. The writer Harold Pinter disowned that adaptation, and you could tell the film was made by men without much feel for Atwood's imagination. My favorite scene in the Hulu version so far comes in segment three; it's a nearly four-minute shot at a breakfast table, with Moss' Offred, believed to be pregnant and therefore revered by her betters, being treated to a dish of stewed apples. It takes its time, but as Atwood wrote: Nothing in any society happens quickly, or without warning, and "in a gradually heating bathtub, you'd be boiled to death before you knew it."
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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