Thursday, January 4, 2018

For my people are foolish; they know me not

"They are stupid children and have no understanding. They are shrewd to do evil. But to do good, they do not know." - Jeremiah, 4:22

Simone got a student subscription to Spotify, which came with a Hulu subscription. (Media consolidation. Yay?) I'd held back on getting one because there's so much to watch on things we're already subscribed to (Netflix, Amazon, HBO; we also watch Vikings and Top Chef on "regular" TV) and I didn't feel like paying for yet another service. But I was interested to have it dropped in our laps for "free" because I had wanted to see The Handmaid's Tale. I'm a fan of both Margaret Atwood's novel and the 1990 film with Natasha Richardson and Robert Duvall. I'm also a fan of Elizabeth Moss, as while Peggy was not always among my favorite characters on Mad Men, she was always one of the more grounded and realistic and, thus, interesting ("Why are you using your sexy voice?") people in the series. I have an attachment to characters that are placed in extraordinary circumstances and get played in the same manner that you or I or people we actually know would react. In the series, Offred is like that.

It's a departure from the two previous tellings of the tale, but I think an appropriate one. 2017 is a different world for women than 1985 (book) or 1990 (film), although regrettably not that different (#metoo.) The gloomy, ethereal Offred that appears in her journal as represented in the book or the timid and cowed stance that Richardson played in the film, while certainly possible, wouldn't be quite as believable as the more confrontational and outraged approach that Moss has taken. She's still largely keeping herself within the boundaries as set forth, as the idiots have the power at the moment (MAGA!), but she's pushing back occasionally (we're only to episode three) and constantly fuming to the camera when alone.

Similarly, the "ceremony" in the TV series is a much different atmosphere than it was in the film. In the latter, the event was emotionally traumatic for Richardson and Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy. In the series, Moss has gone for the psychological protection of simply checking out while it happens and the only one emotionally impacted seems to be Serena (Yvonne Strahovski.) I think some of that is the difference between a film and an ongoing series. In the film, you have a discrete number of times that you're going to be able to impact the audience with the shock of the event, so it's played to that impact. In the series, this is a regular thing, both within the story and the structure of the series, so either you have to play it up as an event of outrage at every opportunity, which would likely get Offred sent back to the Red Center and the audience tuning out after the fourth or fifth time, or you have to show that it's something that she's adapted to as best she can, so the audience can adapt to it, as well, without questioning why she hasn't committed suicide or taken some other action of finality or escape.

Production design was another series of contrasts that I noticed. The book never really gives a timeframe for events and neither does the film, but the situation has clearly been present for some time. Although the Red Center in the film is clearly a former high school (the sleeping chamber for the handmaids being a former gymnasium), everything is very clean and formal. Furthermore, the Guardians of the Faith all have detailed uniforms. The series, OTOH, is specific about the fact that the transformation from the United States to the Republic of Gilead has happened within the last few years. The Guardians all wear black clothing, but not a standard uniform (a variety of jackets, knit caps instead of berets, etc.) and the Red Center is depicted as a school, but one with peeling paint and dirty windows; clearly an ad hoc operation taking place in a school that was no longer needed with the reduced number of children. Despite the series having a significantly greater budget than the film, an attempt was made to make things appear less shiny for the sake of the story and it was clear that the Gilead system was still being put into place. I always appreciate that level of care. Also, the series takes pains to return to some of the particular detail that Atwood provided in the novel. The film showed the handmaids in red headscarves and fairly form-fitting dresses. They were still objects of attraction. In the series, they're in loose gowns that hide their bodies and they wear the large bonnets that prevent anyone not directly conversing with them from seeing their faces. They've also been careful to keep the actresses playing them as plain as possible. These are women that are not intended to be objects of attraction, but simply objects; possessions; tools of the state and the god that looks over it.

On the acting front aside from Moss, it was interesting to see Joseph Fiennes as the Commander, although we haven't seen that much of him yet. It's a fairly reserved role compared to the things he usually plays. I was pleased to see Samira Wiley as Moira, since she was a favorite from Orange is the New Black. She and June's former husband, Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) were also the first indication that the series producers had decided to do away with the "children of Ham" theme from the previous versions, which drew clear racial barriers, in addition to gender, sexuality, and ethics. As many others have noted, Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia has been a particular highlight, although I have to say that I loved Victoria Tennant in that role in the film.

The extra storytelling space that a series permits also allows some greater space for clarifying cultural changes. When Janine's birthing scene takes place in the film, there's a lot of moaning and wailing from the assembled handmaids, but that could easily be interpreted as another example of the cultish behavior that they've been programmed with, akin to the group slaughter of a rapist or the group shaming of a rape victim. Instead, in the series, we're shown the very real desperation that the nation has developed over the years of declining birth rates, as the birth of a healthy child is met with a paroxysm of joy from not only the handmaids and wives, but even the aunts in attendance, one of whom embraces Janine in a show of genuine affection. This is cultural expression on the order of Children of Men, where the despair at the dissipation of the race and the absence of children is deeply rooted in the public conscience, whether they agree with the current political structures and policies or not.

Some of the difference in approach is also a sign of the times. Religious fanaticism and the political expression of same has become more prominent in the last thirty years, from the manifestation of ISIS to the prominence of a man like Mike Pence in American government. Reviews for the film were generally average to poor (Roger Ebert gave it two stars), with a lot of disdain heaped upon it for it being an incomplete expression of a scenario that "certainly couldn't happen here." Reviews of the series have, of course, been almost universally positive, with notes of concern dropped in over the possibility that "It's already happening!" Since the emergence of our current gerrymandered state and the accession of the current Idiot-in-Chief, people have become far more cognizant of not only the encroaching backlash against expanded civil rights (for "gender treachery" and other things) but also the insidious nature of the fascist mindset that fuels that backlash. It's important to note that Atwood has repeatedly stated that she doesn't consider the people who created and maintained the Republic of Gilead to be genuine Christians and the story demonstrates that with Catholics being targeted by the state as a primary perpetrator of resistance against the new order.

So, needless to say, I'm enjoying it. I have a vague concern in the back of my head that comes from reading and viewing the story multiple times before, in that I question how much of the power of that story will be lost in successive seasons as they have to find a way to keep the essential tension of the resistance extant. But there are certainly ways to do that and I'm eager to find out which ones they take (and, for that matter, see how far it gets by the end of the first season.)