In its 10-episode first season, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale expanded far beyond the bleak dystopia first laid bare in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name. (This post includes Handmaid’s Tale spoilers for the book and television show.)
These liberties both benefit the series and come at the cost of the despair within Atwood’s original telling. The book version of The Handmaid’s Tale ends with little hope: Offred, still unnamed, is taken away in a black van with darkened windows and we never learn whether or not she’s being smuggled to safety or dragged off to a likely fatal punishment. She never fully becomes a spy of the resistance and she has no moments of glory, whether it be standing up to the Aunts, Serena Joy, or Commander Waterford. Her husband is presumed dead. She’ll likely never again see her daughter. Her best friend Moira hasn’t been heard from since their final run-in at a seedy brothel frequented by Gilead’s commanders and foreign dignitaries. It’s a vague and depressing conclusion—without reward or victory for our heroine—but it’s also a realistic one. Women and others who suffer in silence historically go out with a whimper, not a bang.
Hulu’s version, in an inspiring though less grounded turn, allows Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss) to have a name: She is June. June ends the season proud, having smuggled and read a bundle of humanizing letters from the other handmaids, screamed (in an emotionally torturous, though cathartic scene) at her commander’s wife (Yvonne Strahovski), and resisted a demand from Aunt Lydia (the always excellent Ann Dowd) that she stone another handmaid to death, leading all the other handmaids to do the same. She is pregnant, hopefully with the baby of Nick the driver (Max Minghella), but possibly with that of Commander Waterford (played to absolute simpering moral weakness by Joseph Fiennes). Moira (Samira Wiley) escapes to Canada, where she has an emotional reunion with June’s husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle).
At the conclusion of the season, these changes feel necessary both for the emotional state of the audience and for the show’s creators. As we know that there will be a second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, there has to be some light at the end of the tunnel or at least a tension suggesting things could get better for its protagonists. And plot aside, the expansion of the world presented in the television series vs. that of Atwood’s novel was practical—the writers had 10 one-hour-long episodes to write so moving beyond June’s perspective and immediate circumstances was practically obligatory for the sake of pace. Selfishly, it was immensely satisfying as a viewer to get to find out what happened to Luke, to see Moira escape, to explore Serena Joy’s development from a proud Megyn Kelly-esque puppet of the right to woman suffering in a prison of her own making (kudos to Strahovski for making Serena alternately loathsome and pitiable), and to learn—at least in part—how the United States turned into the theocratic authoritarian state of Gilead.
I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not sure if June’s evolution into a soldier of the rebellion makes for a better story than the one originally told by Atwood, but I am sure that it makes me feel better. “They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army,” her increasingly righteous inner monologue snarls in the finale and, indeed, it’s uplifting to see the handmaids drawn together in bravery rather than divided by fear, as is her down-to-the-wire alliance with Rita (Amanda Brugel), the house Martha. Equally desirable, but also grounding is seeing Moira attempt to fathom her new existence as a refugee in Ontario—and her reaction to freedom, more terrified than relieved, speaks both to the reality of trauma and Wiley’s stunning acting.
With Hulu’s viral campaign around The Handmaid’s Tale—which included sending Handmaid’s hoodies (complete with white hoods) to the press and bringing women dressed like handmaids to SXSW—being both questionable and detracting of the warning put forth by the novel and the show, it became sometimes hard for me as a critic and viewer to separate the excellently crafted series from its bad marketing. Thankfully, endless bad thinkpieces and one good SNL sketch later, the art speaks for itself. Practically every scene of the first season includes gorgeous and moody directing, an evocative screenplay, and visceral humanistic acting—particularly from star Elisabeth Moss whose ability to simultaneously capture fear and fury, hopelessness and humor, proves her to be one of the great actors of her generation (just in case you still weren’t sure after her stellar performances in Top of the Lake and Mad Men).
With Season 2, The Handmaid’s Tale will no longer have Atwood’s source material to keep it on track (though, ideally, she will still consult for the show) and I’m curious, though admittedly nervous, to see how they do. Maintaining Atwood’s original vision requires a much needed dose of pessimism and danger, especially if Hulu wants the hype-bolstering “Handmaid’s Tale Is Our Near Future” essays to keep coming.