‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Reinvented Dystopia
In anticipation of Sunday’s Emmy Awards, this week WIRED staffers are looking back at some of their favorite shows from the past year.
The Handmaid’s Tale couldn’t have come to Hulu at a better—or worse—time. The adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel started production in 2016, when it looked like the United States was on a course to elect its first female president; it got released in 2017, after that same country elected a man who dismissed his use of the phrase “grab ‘em by the pussy” as locker room talk and saw a swell of white nationalism in its borders. Atwood’s dystopian world of Gilead was modeled after an America that had succumbed to totalitarian theocratic rule. It’s not quite Trump’s America—but as The Handmaid’s Tale’s first 10 episodes rolled out, it was hard not to see similarities.
But really, the apropos-ness of Hulu’s breakout series only served to draw attention to what was already compelling television. It elicited a career-topping performance from Elisabeth Moss (a feat considering she put in seven amazing seasons on Mad Men), and found a way to make it acceptable that Samira Wiley was on a show other than Orange Is the New Black. (Both actresses are nominated for Emmys on Sunday.) But above and beyond its masterstrokes of casting, it found a way to reinvent how people saw dystopian drama. There are no water-starved deserts in Handmaid’s Tale, no off-world colonies. No dictator holds power over the Gilead’s natural resources. There is simply a world, not too dissimilar from the one that already exists, where women have no control over their bodies or what they’re used for. An all-too-possible scenario that seems far more horrifying than drought or an AI takeover.
Credit for this belongs in a lot of hands. Colin Watkinson’s, for starters. The cinematographer, who already won an Emmy last weekend for his work on the show, shot Handmaid’s Tale the way most people experience lucid dreams. Everything is a little hazy, but the show’s muted palette makes it feel almost inviting—and overly real. The colors are warm, even though the world is cold. The same goes for the show’s production design, which also just snagged an Emmy. Gilead doesn’t have rain-soaked Blade Runner streets or Hunger Games arenas; It’s a dystopia that looks like a nightmare you’ve had before, full of people who talk about late Ubers, relationship woes, and scores of other mini-problems most real people fret over.
There are no water-starved deserts in Handmaid’s Tale, no off-world colonies. There is simply a world, not too dissimilar from the one that already exists, where women have no control over their bodies. An all-too-possible scenario that seems far more horrifying than drought or an AI takeover.
That fretting, too, is very essential to Handmaid’s success, its urgency. Showrunner Bruce Miller, who enlisted the help of Atwood herself, updated the author’s material to include not only references to modern conveniences, but also to include language and scenarios familiar to audiences watching now. Flashbacks to the era before Gilead evoke a time that could’ve easily been last week, not a memory of a time before the fall. Even the writing of Offred’s (Moss) voiceover, a narration the book had in abundance, has a cadence that sounds like someone speaking today, as if a friend was telling you about their own horrific experience.
But more so than the dialogue, cinematography, and neck-and-neck with the performances, is the show’s direction. It’s actually nominated twice in the same directing category on Sunday—once for Reed Romano for the pilot and once for Kate Dennis’ work on the season’s wrenching “The Bridge”—but almost any episode could’ve been included here. The show’s tight focus on Offred’s field of vision coupled with the wider scope it gives to the world around her, recreate the perfect amount of claustrophobia. World-building is often praised when it is magnificently large in breadth, as if size matters. Handmaid’s Tale challenges that notion, pouring as much drama into a scene in Offred’s closet as other shows fit into whole cities.
Dystopia embodies pretty wide parameters. It just means a time when things are bad—in the future, probably. Yet the vision most people conjure when imagining one is that of post-apocalyptic ruins, barren wastelands, and techno-cities run by ominous overlords, where the setting does as much narrative heavy-lifting as the people in it. Handmaid’s Tale does little to none of that. Its world feels familiar, maybe even too much so, and its inhabitants look and sound like someone you know, making the probability of its human-baby-farm world seem much more real. And if that doesn’t feel dystopian, nothing does.