Concubines and Dystopias – The Handmaid’s Tale: Season One (DVD Review)

The Handmaid’s Tale is an interesting show. Lauded by critics and audiences alike, it currently holds a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes, 8.6 on IMDb and 92 on Metacritic. But while it does have some particularly striking moments and a fascinating premise, you can’t help but feel it’s falling into a lot of the same issues as a lot of other modern-day television.

The show follows June (Elizabeth Moss) after the fall of America and the rise of a new nation in its place; Gilead. Gilead has come about partly due to the falling fertility rates around the world, and with so few children being born, the powers that be round up all the fertile women and force them into servitude as ‘Handmaidens’. These Handmaidens are each shipped off to wealthy households, where to undergo day-to-day tasks such as shopping, help with community matters and, once a month, are forced to act as a substitute to their owner’s wives in a ceremony that sees them raped and forced to bear children.

The reason this show is so interesting, is in part, because it’s so uncomfortable. Not because watching someone be raped, tortured, beaten or imprisoned is unpleasant (don’t get me wrong – it is, but in a world of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and other high-profile television shows, such things are not uncommon viewing), but because what we’re seeing happen on screen and in the minds of these characters, doesn’t seem like such an unrealistic possibility. There is no doubt a lot of people out in the world who would relish the prospect of a society where women are concubines and anything other than the hetero-normative is removed from sight.

One of the greatest strengths of this show is the world-building. While we don’t get to see much outside the house and surrounding area where Moss’ character is based, we come to understand the politics, both global and domestic, the society, it’s people and their beliefs as if they are our own. Everything is so meticulously crafted, and every new detail leaves you dying to know more about this dark, demented reality.

What makes this horrific potential future fully realised is the other greatest strength of the show, and that’s the actor’s pervading its cast. Elizabeth Moss and Yvonne Strahovski are great as the show’s central female leads, not only delivering their lines in a raw and emotional manner, but also handling the silent scenes to an outstanding degree; the subtle facial expressions and passive looks tell you infinitely more about what’s going on in those characters minds than any dialogue ever could. Similarly great are the villainous figures played by Joseph Fiennes and Ann Dowd, who both straddle the line between charming and absolutely vile in their behaviour.

But this leads us to the show’s issues. While Moss, Strahovski and Fiennes do get a lot of screen time, there are a lot of characters on their periphery that seem so much more interesting. Ann Dowd, for instance, plays Aunt Lydia; a character who’s forced to take these kidnapped girls and train them to become handmaidens and later oversee their placements in their new households. Some of the things she does in this series are truly horrible, yet at times you can see that there is love for these girls that she has, in a way, raised, and loathing for anything that causes them harm. Yet her devotion to her twisted beliefs forces her to stay true to her role.

But what’s her story? How did she get here? What leads a woman into a position where she can, effectively, sell other women into such a horrible existence? Similarly, other handmaidens like the ones portrayed by Madeline Brewer and Alexis Bledel. Sure, we get glimpses of all these character’s lives, but they’re not as much as a focus as Moss, Strahovski and Fiennes. You could argue that this is because they’re not central characters, and exploring their stories would draw out the show far too much. Which, of course, is understandable, except for the fact that alongside the three main characters, as the series goes on, we also get to see a lot of Max Minghella’s Nick, a character who is both extremely dull and, in his position as Moss’ sort-of love interest, superfluous (for reasons you’ll come to understand if you watch it). And yet the show continues to linger on this character we have no reason to give a shit about. There’s so much of this world to explore, and yet here we are; stuck with Nick. Not getting to invest in other characters would be fine, if we weren’t forced to watch this one. And therein lies the biggest problem with the show.

While it is a fascinating and well-crafted world with (mostly) intriguing characters, a lot of the time it seems like it’s directionless and stalling to cover that fact. What is this show about? Is it about the rise and fall of this totalitarian regime? Is it a character study about the breaking down of Elizabeth Moss’ June? Is it about the search for her pre-regime family? Is it a perverse love story? It could be any of these things, because for over half the season, it presents new opportunities the show could go in, then just… doesn’t. In terms of the overall cast, there are changes, sure. But with Moss’ character, she doesn’t seem to be moving in any direction until the last couple of episodes, and when she finally finds her sense of urgency and does something to truly upset the balance of her new world… then the season ends eight minutes later. Which, while a bit annoying, would be acceptable if the show was shorter – instead, you’re essentially watching a ten-episode prequel series with a story that probably could have been told in about six-to-eight (at most), were it to cut out unnecessary aspects (ie. Nick).

The Handmaid’s Tale: Season One is out on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital Download now, while Season Two starts April 25th 2018.

Created by: Bruce Miller

Prd: Margaret Atwood & Elizabeth Moss

Scr: Bruce Miller, Leila Gerstein, Dorothy Fortenberry, Wendy Straker Hauser, Lynn Renee Maxcy, Kira Snyder & Eric Tuchman

Starring: Elizabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski, Max Minghella, Alexis Bledel, Madeline Brewer, Ann Dowd, O.T. Fagbenle & Samira Wiley

Country: USA

Original network: Hulu

Year: 2017

No. of Episodes: 10

Episode Run Time: 2×60 mins, 2×45 mins, 6×50 mins