“Blessed be the fruit.”
“Be the Lord open.”
“Under his eye.”
Those are the bone-chillingly strange, vaguely biblical/fundamentalist/repressive greetings that pepper “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a phenomenal drama now streaming on Hulu.com.
The 10-part series is based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel of that same name. Four episodes are now available on the site. The visually meticulous futuristic thriller looks to be Hulu’s breakout hit, just as “Mad Men” put AMC on the map lo those many years ago. (Caution: spoilers and indelicate language and musings ahead.)
Another connection between "MM' and "THT": Each stars the luminous Elisabeth Moss, an actress with the ability to express more in her eyes and one micro-movement of a facial muscle than most performers can while emoting through pages of dialogue.
From a marketing point of view, Hulu has played this making-of-a-humungous hit just right, going so far as to promote “The Handmaid’s Tale" during the Super Bowl.
Hulu also sent droves of “Handmaids” to march through Austin while the Technorati gathered at SXSW.
Wearing their Puritan/old Dutch regalia — blood-red, full-length modesty gowns and white-winged, face-covering bonnets — they were easy to identify. In the series, they are the subjugated women used as walking wombs, to deliver healthy babies for upper-class women who have become infertile, due to widespread infections and pollution. The ruling dictatorship officially frames the problem as God's punishment for slutty women on Tinder having orgies and premarital sex.
You see, the U.S. has devolved into a military theocracy, renamed Gilead. There are secret police (called “eyes”) disappearing those who stray. The enemies are killed, or sent to “the Colonies” to clean up toxic waste.
Women are treated as little more than rigidly stratified chattel, based on the health of their ovaries.
How did this happen? First, women’s bank accounts were stripped, taken by the state; then they lost the freedom to work, and later, even to read. Women are hunted, like animals, conscripted, and taken to Red Centers, where they are brainwashed into submission.
In the midst of all this horror, I always thought it was funny the barren housekeeper class are known as “Marthas,” though Ms. Stewart had not yet begun her meteoric rise as the Minister of Housewifery when Atwood was writing her tale in the early ‘80s. (Literally, in longhand on pads, and then on a manual typewriter.)
Atwood, the brilliant Canadian author and environmentalist, was then living in West Germany, and said she was very influenced by her visits during that time behind the Iron Curtain, where she met wary citizens who were mindful that they were being spied on. (The Berlin Wall had not yet come down.)
They tended to say things like: “This used to belong to ... but then they disappeared,” she wrote in the preface to the new edition of her book. She also noted the rise of fundamentalist religion in the U.S. at the time.
A movie version was released in 1990, but was not a success.
Hulu’s drama has been deftly updated for TV, and some of the brilliance of the show is how it reflects the upending chaos of the world in which Moss’ character, Offred, tries to survive. As with all the other women, her own identity is erased as she takes on the name of her “Commander,” Fred. So she is “of Fred.”
Some of the dissonance for viewers is that in her robe and severe, monastic garments, she looks like a 17th-century person or a Puritan, living close to Salem witch-trial territory in bombed-out Cambridge, Mass. But in voiceover, she also reflects on her pre-theocracy life, when she was a mother, wife and assistant book editor in Brooklyn, using the F word and throwing in mentions of “Uber.”
While Hulu has promoted and produced the series smartly, the company also benefits from the luck of some impossible-to-predict political timing.
Had Hillary Clinton won the presidency, the story would not even seem plausible, never mind resonate so disturbingly. Indeed, a military and religious takeover with the enslavement of women, based on their reproductive abilities would have seemed like an over-the-top horror story in its “Can’t-happen-here”-ness.
But now there’s this week’s Congressional rollback of Obamacare, making pregnancy a preexisting condition that is not covered by health insurance. What will happen? Will entrepreneurs start filling the void with Wombs-R-Us–style franchises? (“Clean up in Aisle 9!”)
The Handmaids, who wear geo-based ear tags, are picked up weekly in red-curtained vans called “Birthmobiles” to get checked out by state doctors, and their menses are closely monitored.
Thankfully, the most extreme aspect of life for Handmaids still seems insanely farfetched. The sex act is performed by the Commander on his own bed, with his wife sitting across from him, holding down the open-legged Handmaid in her lap.
It’s odd, brutal and hard to watch. It also created the one cavil I have with Hulu. Because I chose the cheaper subscription, “with commercials,” I was flabbergasted to have to watch the dramatically underlit, seemingly clinical cruelty of the Commander doing his, uh, dramatic insertion, followed instantly by the insertion of a technicolor, upbeat, jaunty commercial.
That sudden invasion of such a different unreality seemed to come from another planet, making the advertisers look ridiculous, and creating a creepy and tasteless way to annoy viewers. Hulu needs better judgment about when to cut to commercials.
But back to Gilead, where Offred’s battle is an uneasy balance between resistance and complicity.
“Now I am awake to the world,” she says in a voiceover. “I was asleep before. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up either. They said it would be temporary. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”
A new episode is streamed from the site every Wednesday. And on those nights, I drop watching St. Rachel of the Maddow to watch "THT" — because it suddenly seems so much more urgent.