In the lead-up to the launch of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, which finally premiered its first three episodes last week after months of critical hype and a marketing blitz, something unusual happened. Or maybe it was inspiring. Or perverse. Or energizing?
The more pieces that were written about how chillingly resonant, upsetting, and portending the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 politically charged dystopian screed was—given the political climate in the United States as the Trump administration came into power—the more desperate people seemed to watch the series.
One might expect people to flinch in reaction to such a bleak reflection in the looking glass. Instead, the desire was to gaze deeply at it, and feel it all.
“One of the things we talk about in the show, and that is in the book, is that people didn’t look up from their phones until it was too late,” says Elisabeth Moss, who stars as oppressed protagonist Offred in the series. “There’s this concept going around now, this phrase of ‘waking up,’ you know? Or being ‘woke,’ as the kids say.”
Moss lets out an endearingly girlish laugh as she uses the term “woke.” Because, on top of the Mad Men alum being famously charming and endearing in interviews, when you’re discussing subject matter like this, you need to let out the levity whenever you possibly can.
Atwood’s novel, so confrontational and controversial even when it was published 32 years ago—in the wake of Trump’s election, it finds itself back on the bestsellers list—depicts a not-so-distant American future in which a regressive patriarchy comes into power and begins stripping away women’s reproductive rights.
An unspecified ecological disaster has rendered most women barren. Those who are still able to reproduce are violently rounded up and forced to become “handmaids,” where they are assigned a “Commander” to breed with, whose child would then be raised by his barren wife.
The result is an eerie Pleasantville evocative of a Puritanical past, in which people greet each other by saying “under his eye,” begetting the response “praise be.”
Gilead, where we encounter these characters, is full of religious fundamentalists insistent on bringing a violent end to any resistor who doesn’t morally uphold their values. Homosexuals are labeled “gender traitors,” and executed for the crime—unless, of course, they are female gender traitors who have the ability to reproduce. They become handmaids.
“I think that people are desperate for things that reflect that time that we’re living in,” says Samira Wiley, who plays Moira, Offred’s best friend from “before”—how the time leading up to this new dystopian age is referred to—and, yes, a gender traitor.
“Something being scary can also be exciting,” Wiley, previously best known for playing ill-fated Poussey Washington on Orange Is the New Black, says. “This show has become a little more scary relevant than I think I wanted it to be and my cast members wanted it to be.”
“Scary relevant” is a chorus sung by everyone involved in The Handmaid’s Tale, from its cast to Atwood herself, who warned in an interview with The Daily Beast that, under Trump, “this might actually happen.”
Extreme violence against minorities by law enforcement with unchecked authority and no repercussions. The rolling back of reproductive rights and the abrupt end of female empowerment. And it all progresses when societal fear following a supposed terrorist attack fuels people to happily surrender certain liberties to government in return for their safety, only to find the threat of more terrorism weaponized by the government in order to enact martial law, strip citizens of privacy and agency, and create this Gilead out of the United States of America.
“The series shows gradually how it happened,” Wiley says. “That it didn’t come all at once. That it came piece by piece, you know? Things that we’re seeing right now in our world that we thought could never happen are suddenly things that are happening.”
The series actually began filming before the election, with everyone involved with production under the assumption that Hillary Clinton would be the next president. While certainly engaging with the idea that the themes of the series became more powerful after the election, they are also careful to point out that the cautionary tale Atwood carefully researched three decades ago, sadly, never stopped being relevant, and would still be so had Clinton won.
Nonetheless, Wiley says playing Moira became all the more harrowing: “She’s black, she’s gay, and she’s a woman. Those are all things that are true about Samira as well. It affected me greatly. Just in terms of how scared it me.”
Being compelled to speak out about politics and hot-button social issues, as all of the actors have during this press tour, is something Wiley has had considerable training with coming off Orange Is the New Black, in which diversity, homosexuality, prison reform, and, given the circumstances of her character’s death last season, #BlackLivesMatter and police brutality have all been topics of conversation in interviews.
For Moss, who has been hailed as “The Queen of Peak TV” by New York magazine for her turns in The West Wing, Mad Men, Top of the Lake, and, now, The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s still unfamiliar and, as she’s learned, volatile territory.
At a recent Tribeca Film Festival panel celebrating the series’ premiere, Moss said she didn’t see The Handmaid’s Tale as a feminist story—a comment that saw quizzical looks transform into dismayed head-shaking as her comment continued.
The controversy took Moss a bit by surprise. But, she says, “For me, actually, it’s funny because I actually do welcome it. I think it’s great, in a way. Because I think that’s the conversation we should be having. Any conversation that brings up feminism, for me, is a great thing.”
As for the actual statement she made, which argued that Offred’s story is a human story and not a feminist, story, she’s eager to clarify what she meant, and express her frustration that she forgot to include a key word in her argument.
“Like, I’m such a card-carrying feminist,” she says. “I think in that particular statement that got a bit of air, I left out a very important word, which was ‘also.’ My entire statement that I said was ‘women’s rights are human rights.’ For me, of course it’s feminist. It’s The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Her voice morphs into italics while she stresses the book title: “I don’t know if you have a more feminist book. I don’t know if there is one!”
She keeps it light, giggling as she discusses how confused she was by how, after her unfortunate misspeaking, she found herself being criticized by those whose beliefs she shares entirely.
“For me, of course it is a feminist work,” she says. “I think it’s also a human work. It’s also about human beings. It’s about human rights as well. I’m not one to shy away. If anyone’s read interviews with me lately or looked at my Instagram feed, I’m not one to shy away from feminism.”
She’s much more eager, as is Wiley, to see how elements of the show that resonated so deeply with them will be felt by audiences. Parts of the first batch of episodes felt, when they read them and acted them, like they were ‘Lizzie and Samira: TV fans’ as much as they were actors in a show.
For Moss, it was Offred’s line, “I don’t know what I did to deserve this,” because, she says, “as women we’re so often blamed for things.”
And for Wiley, the most affecting scene is one she is not even in, but which hit a very personal chord. In episode three (light spoilers follow), Alexis Bledel’s Ofglen is found out to be a gender traitor after getting caught in a relationship with another servant in Gilead.
Both are arrested and the woman, Ofglen’s lover, is hanged right in front of her—faster than she can even process what is happening. (Ofglen, who can bear children, is spared, albeit with her own inhumane punishment.)
Wiley, who this year married Orange Is the New Black writer Lauren Morelli, had to turn off the show after that scene.
“I can’t just watch that scene and sympathize with the person because it feels like it could be my own life,” she says. “It becomes real. It’s gut-wrenching. It’s unspeakable. Unfathomable.”
She mentions how Moss is always warning people not to binge-watch the series, and after needing to take a break from viewing to truly process that one scene, she understood why.
But would you believe that in the end The Handmaid’s Tale is actually hopeful?
For one, it’s waking people up, they say. For all the talk there is about how watching television is a lazy, mind-numbing endeavor—the proverbial “boob tube”—here is a case in which a series is educating, illuminating, and energizing. And, by the way, it’s women who are doing it, too.
“There are so many lines in the book and in the show that are incredibly inspiring,” Moss says. “One of them is ‘you can mean more than one, you can mean thousands.’ That idea of not only people banding together and speaking out, but women banding together. And now these women are enslaved and part of the way they are enslaved is by stripping away their individuality, stripping away their right to speak to each other. They’re prevented from banding together.”
“They’re prevented from forming a resistance,” she continues. “Because if women get together and form a resistance, you can’t stop them.”