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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Broadens Its Vision

Seven episodes in, the Margaret Atwood adaptation is using the tools of TV to expand the novel’s scope

(Hulu/Ringer illustration)
(Hulu/Ringer illustration)

In the earliest episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, the show focused on translating Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel as faithfully and forcefully as possible. That breakneck rush across the border, the Maoist indoctrination sessions, the appallingly euphemistic insemination Ceremony that America’s new rulers hope will solve the plague of infertility: All of them came straight from Atwood. But a few changes mark the adaptation. Elisabeth Moss plays Offred, a woman exploited for her fertility in the totalitarian theocracy of Gilead, as a more active, defiant character than the narrator of Atwood’s book. Director Reed Morano, who established the show’s visual universe in the first three episodes, shot Gilead as a color-coded caste system playing out in cars and office buildings and well-appointed kitchens just like ours. And creator-showrunner Bruce Miller infused Atwood’s deliberately abstract world with logistical detail, right down to how Offred’s future overlords planned and executed their takeover.

But the Hulu series, already renewed for Season 2, isn’t just an adaptation of Atwood’s work. It’s an expansion, one that Moss signed a five-to-seven-year contract for before production even started. Unlike Taboo and The Night Manager, which retroactively transformed from miniseries to series once they became hits, Miller planned The Handmaid’s Tale as a long-term project from the start. Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale is Offred’s story, told with a first-person perspective that emphasized her isolated, claustrophobic experience of this misogynist dystopia. Over the last few weeks, Miller’s Handmaid’s Tale has shifted from establishing an atmosphere toward building out the cast and broadening the series’ scope, both necessary to make Offred’s story sustainable over more than a handful of hours. The result feels like an act of foundation laying and boundary testing. Can a show called The Handmaid’s Tale move beyond the titular handmaid?

The two most recent chapters have slowed down the larger story while moving it forward by going deep on individual characters. “A Woman’s Place,” the sixth installment, gave the pre-Gilead flashback treatment to career antifeminist Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), reminiscent of anti–Equal Rights Act crusader Phyllis Schlafly. In Gilead, Serena is a neutered housewife addressed exclusively as Mrs. Waterford; like Offred, she’s been deprived of her name and defined by her relationship to a man. In an even more dramatic break from the show’s typical structure, this week’s “The Other Side” abandons Offred altogether except for flashbacks from the point of view of her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle), as he makes his harrowing escape to Canada.

“A Woman’s Place” and “The Other Side” showcase the payoffs and the drawbacks, respectively, of The Handmaid’s Tale’s augmentative approach. “A Woman’s Place” doesn’t humanize Serena Joy, an abusive monster who takes her frustration at a larger system out on a powerless Offred. The episode does, however, illustrate the tragedy — and yes, the delicious irony — of a woman successfully advocating to marginalize women, and in the process marginalizing herself, too. Serena made a career out of claiming other women shouldn’t have careers, a plan that elevated one woman by denigrating others until her campaign worked too well for its own good. Working the system has its limits when it means you’re accepting its terms: Women are meant to make a home and reproduce, nothing more. Unable to consult on actual matters of state, Serena puts her all into choreographing the only part of a diplomatic visit she is allowed to control: a state dinner, intended to woo the Mexican government into trading with Gilead for fertile women. Before the coup she and her husband helped organize, Serena wrote a book about how women were “forgetting their families”; now, she isn’t allowed to read.

But “A Woman’s Place” twists the knife by offering what feels to Serena like a happy ending. By the time the credits roll, she’s still disenfranchised, only allowed as much autonomy as the society she helped design sees fit to grant her. And yet by persuading the Mexican government to trade for Handmaids by showing off Gilead’s precious children, Serena’s managed to prove her worth within the confines of the domestic sphere. Her triumph does nothing to materially change her situation, and yet it successfully saves her from being forced to confront her own hypocrisy.

“A Woman’s Place” helps us understand Serena in her depravity as well as her delusion. It’s also a reminder that Gilead’s social hierarchy isn’t as simple as one class unilaterally ruling another without their consent. There are women, like Serena, who proudly participate in other women’s subjugation — the true “gender traitors,” as Gilead brands its gay people. There are even Handmaids who’ve managed to find solace in their new positions, like the one who has a history of drug addiction who admonishes Offred not to “mess this up” for her. A system like Gilead’s needs both to function, and a show like The Handmaid’s Tale needs their presence to become something more rich and thought-provoking than a cavalcade of misery.

“The Other Side,” meanwhile, is a non-Offred story that proves a distraction from the book and show’s themes. The glimpse of Toronto’s “Little America” toward the end is an intriguing piece of world-building, but that’s all it is: a piece, a fragment for the show to build on in later seasons. The rest of the episode is all straightforward action (the timeline following Luke’s escape) and uninformative flashbacks (the lead-up to his and June’s attempted border crossing, which they spend at a cabin in the woods with their daughter, Hannah). There’s plenty of theme and character work for The Handmaid’s Tale to do in a Luke episode; one of the most darkly fascinating concepts in the book is the idea that Luke might enjoy the power he’s been granted after women are disallowed from working or owning property. Offred’s friend Moira (Samira Wiley) floats that possibility in the superlative third episode, when she half-jokingly calls Luke “the fuckin’ problem.” Like so much else in this show, Luke’s situation has contemporary resonance: When you’re opposed to persecution but aren’t affected by (or even indirectly benefit from) it, what do you do? Instead of exploring those questions, however, “The Other Side” leaves them largely unaddressed in favor of only superficially illuminating plot. By failing to justify its detour from the main narrative, “The Other Side” becomes at best filler — and at worst the needless accommodation of a man’s experience of women’s oppression.

Together, “A Woman’s Place” and “The Other Side” suggest that expanding The Handmaid’s Tale into a multivolume series won’t necessarily hamper what made the book so effective. There’s plenty to explore in Gilead, both physically — apart from Toronto, we’ve barely left the Boston metro area — and conceptually. Strange gray areas remain around race, a dynamic that’s gone unmentioned on a show that’s otherwise obsessed with Gilead’s minutiae; Miller’s offered explanations in interviews (“If one issue comes to the fore, like fertility, all of a sudden those other things disappear,” he told me), but the show would do well to explore them in front of the camera, whether through Wiley’s Moira or someone else. And there’s plenty of room for an episode about, for example, Ann Dowd’s magnificently creepy Aunt Lydia, the schoolmarm who both delights in torturing her charges and, in her own twisted way, caring for them. (One of the best scenes in “A Woman’s Place” involves Lydia’s genuine disappointment that “damaged,” i.e. visibly harmed, Handmaids won’t get to be part of the state dinner.) If Serena’s story manages to be so gut-wrenching, what about Gilead’s matronly enforcers, who have all of the Wives’ complicity but fewer of their material benefits? Or as Miller himself suggested when we spoke last month: What’s going on in the toxic Colonies where Gilead sends its dissidents?

The question, then, isn’t whether the show should stretch its legs; it’s decided to do that. When those additions simply feed the plot machine, as “The Other Side” does, they distract from The Handmaid’s Tale’s best qualities rather than amplify them. When they add to the complexity, heartbreak, and terror of Offred’s waking nightmare, they help bring Atwood’s vision further into its new medium.