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The Bumpy Telling of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

After a white-hot start, the Hulu series was beset by frustrating choices, dead-end plots, and garden-variety freshman struggles

(Hulu)
(Hulu)

Once The Handmaid’s Tale was done being a phenomenon, it had to start being television, and that, more or less, is where the problems began. Created by Bruce Miller and starring Elisabeth Moss, the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel almost effortlessly achieved the cultural dominance Peak TV had seemingly rendered a thing of the past. Critical raves and successful viral marketing were inextricably tied up in an audience newly receptive to a story about industrial-grade misogyny in the wake of November 2016. And the show made the most of its timing: a flashback to pre-Gilead protests, before fertile women were forced into child-bearing slavery by an evangelical regime, bore a striking resemblance to January’s Women’s March; an indoctrination session in the pilot had a near-explicit rebuke to the “this is not normal” mantra beloved by liberals after the election. (“Ordinary is what you are used to,” says Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia, in a quote pulled directly from the book.)

But The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t planned with the Trump administration in mind, nor was it designed as a faithful transmutation of the original book or its ending. The show was always meant to be an ongoing series; its lead was signed to a multiyear contract right from the start. And as the season went on, the ways Miller and his writers built that intended longevity into the show’s structure introduced several unforced errors — giving certain characters near-plotless detours, ignoring others, and changing the overall tenor of the action. As a springboard for the second season — one that seems poised to leave the book behind almost entirely — the hourlong finale, “Night,” showcased those flaws in dramatic fashion.

The most glaring issue with The Handmaid’s Tale — even in its first, very strong episodes — was its changes to the novel’s tone. The jarring undercurrent of what The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum called “go-girl defiance” seems fundamentally at odds with Atwood’s depiction of near-numb surrender. Part of the novel’s horror is that narrator Offred has all but accepted her fate, but a TV show requires both an active, participatory protagonist and a dynamic plot that looks forward to future seasons rather than simply orienting us in the present. Miller’s solution was to gradually convert the show from an excruciating alarm bell into a story of slow-motion rebellion. At least at first, The Handmaid’s Tale embellished the novel and shaded in its details, like a study of Offred’s mistress, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), without significantly tweaking its DNA.

But then the hashtag resistance started. “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” — the famous Latin approximation of “don’t let the bastards grind you down” — got an unnecessary “… bitches” tacked onto it at the end of Episode 4, complete with an all-Handmaid rendition of the “everyone walks in a line in slow motion” shot from every Fast & Furious trailer. Later on, Offred volunteers to smuggle a package for Mayday, the underground uprising-in-the-making. The finale, “Night,” injects yet another empowering slogan into Offred’s omnipresent voice-over: “They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army,” Moss intones. By episode’s end, they’ve refused to stone one of their own to death, after which Offred leads a second slo-mo victory lap through the wintry streets of Boston.

The Handmaid’s Tale prioritizes fist-pumping moments like these without giving them proper context. A frequent complaint from viewers is that the scenes that make Offred fun to watch should also get her killed, if Gilead’s autocracy is as all-encompassing and draconian as viewers have been led to believe. The uplift feels all the more forced when accompanied by the show’s on-the-nose music cues. The post-stoning-refusal stroll, for example, proceeds to the tune of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”; the finale ends with “American Girl” barging in as Offred stares directly into the camera from the back of the van that’s come to take her away — whether to prison or safety, she doesn’t know. The songs are an especially obvious symptom of a larger problem: The Handmaid’s Tale needs to undercut its dystopian doom and gloom with just enough optimism that the audience can actually look forward to what comes next, or at least entertain the possibility that what’s next is not just more pain and suffering.

The Handmaid’s Tale ends its first season unable to live up to its breakneck start. Beyond the tonal and political issues, the later episodes suffer from kinks and awkwardness, too: squandering an hour on an uninformative flashback to an escape we already know works out, or inconsistent world-building on significant issues like technology. (Why would a fertility-obsessed society in the process of greening its power grid outlaw a basic technology like pregnancy tests?) Those missteps are forgivable and even inevitable in a freshman series on a platform airing its first true prestige product — but because of the way The Handmaid’s Tale opened, the bumps have been particularly noticeable.

But between-season breaks allow creators to take stock of what’s not working and alter course, and there are developments to look forward to in a second season of The Handmaid’s Tale: seeing more of the American government-in-exile and its espionage network, for example, or learning where the series goes with Offred’s surprise pregnancy. There’s also the opportunity for the show to improve its treatment of race, both in general and in the character of Offred’s best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) in particular. It’s almost certainly too late for Handmaid’s to go back on its puzzlingly colorblind approach to race, in which Handmaids, Aunts, and Commanders alike could be people of all races. (The book, in which Gilead exiles black people to a colony in the Midwest, is not much better on this issue.) The show can, however, give Moira the same prominence and depth afforded to the likes of Serena Joy; “Night,” in which Moira has escaped to Canada and teamed up with Offred’s ex-husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), gestures toward doing just that.

Despite what some of the series’ major missteps may indicate, making Handmaid’s a viable long-form narrative and preserving the novel’s best qualities aren’t necessarily at cross purposes. Offred’s cliff-hanger, which removes her from her Commander’s household altogether, raises the tantalizing possibility that the title character of The Handmaid’s Tale may no longer be a Handmaid at all. The wide-open potential of Offred moving past the events of the novel and joining up with Mayday full-time is almost exhilarating. Atwood’s blueprint is in the rearview, and the show’s tone can’t feel unearned if it’s set anew next year. Then, at least, we might actually see a female protagonist empowered rather than be commanded to feel empowerment for her.