'The Handmaid's Tale' Spoiler Review: What Worked And What Didn't In Hulu's Ambitious Series

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick...and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: the first season of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale.)

There's no denying that The Handmaid's Tale is powerful. Its story of a distinctly American dystopia in which women's rights are oppressed and their bodily autonomy is stolen by a totalitarian government is gripping and timely, with more real-world implications by the minute. But it is a TV show, and "powerful" can only take a series so far.

The Hulu show inevitably had to make some deviations from the Margaret Atwood novel upon which its based, transforming The Handmaid's Tale from a dismal cautionary tale into a more conventional, hopeful sci-fi thriller. And while this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it presents a whole new host of problems for the show to deal with in its confirmed second season.

Spoilers ahead for the first season of The Handmaid's Tale.

When Atwood wrote the novel in 1985, it was a far-fetched "what-if" scenario melding America's Puritanical roots with the realities of oppressive fundamentalist regimes that could be seen in countries like China, the then-Soviet Union, and Afghanistan. Her Offred was passive, nameless, and espousing rebellious inner monologues that she never acted upon — ultimately paralyzed within her station until events were set in motion around her.

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale went in an ostensibly different direction, as Offred (with a stellar, simmering performance by Elisabeth Moss) shed that passivity in favor of the kind of sci-fi dystopian heroism we're used to seeing onscreen. But as much as the show wished to display a typical pseudo-Katniss empowerment, it had difficulty balancing that with the greater social commentary of the original story.

The Handmaid's Tale

What Happened

The first season works on setting up the world of Gilead — the Christian fundamentalist government that has replaced the United States — and its new social strata. The men in power, the Commanders, lord over women who are grouped into various castes: the dutiful Wives, the commanding Aunts, the servile Marthas, and the enslaved Handmaids — fertile women who had become a commodity because of a worldwide drop in fertility.

This is all told from the point of view of Offred, née June, who begins her story after the rise of Gilead. Though at first she proclaims that she "intends to survive" to find the daughter that had been separated from her, Offred becomes increasingly confrontational with the Wife who abuses her, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), Aunt Lydia who tormented and "re-educated" her (a terrifying Ann Dowd), and Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) who routinely rapes her in the monthly "Ceremony" created to impregnate the Handmaids. When she is unable to get pregnant, Serena Joy enlists the help of Nick (Max Minghella), the Waterfords' loyal chaperone, to impregnate June, but unbeknownst to Serena their affair turns into something more illicit. With her agency and identity stolen from her — June, like all Handmaids, is called by the name of the Commander who owns her — Offred takes refuge in memories of her husband Luke (O. T. Fagbenle), her daughter Hannah, and her best friend Moira (a standout performance by Samira Wiley), who was able to escape her own fate as a Handmaid.

But June is brought to reality by a connection with a fellow Handmaid Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), who reveals herself to be an ally of the resistance group, Mayday. Reluctant at first to risk her life to help Mayday, June eventually steps up after she learns that the Handmaids are intended to be traded to other countries like livestock. Spurred on by her discoveries that Luke is alive and that Moira hadn't escaped but ended up in a brothel, June receives a package for Mayday full of letters describing stories like her own. But after a tense confrontation with Aunt Lydia, June's brief tenure as a spy is cut short when she gets detained by Gilead's secret police, The Eyes.

The Handmaid's Tale

What It Got Wrong

"It's their own fault. They should have never given us uniforms if they didn't want us to be an army," June narrates triumphantly at the beginning of "Night," the final episode of the season. She strides with a small smile in front of a row of Handmaids, an empowering pop song playing in the background as the imagery strangely echoes the concept of "girl squads" that Taylor Swift popularized so many years ago.

This moment typified the various moments of rah-rah feminism throughout the series that ultimately felt inauthentic, especially when paired with jarring songs that act as a heavy-handed statement of theme. "You can oppress us, but we're girls! In it together!" the show screams, before it curls up in a fetal position once again.

The show never acts on these moments of catharsis that June seems to reach at the end of each episode, to the tune of something like Tom Petty's American Girl. It feels atonal to have these unsaid triumphant moments fizzle into nothing, and each time June declares, "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches" (translating to "Don't let the bastards grind you down," itself was an invention by bored schoolboys), it rings hollow. Especially when the final episode features the Handmaids rallying against Aunt Lydia, stones in their hands, refusing to kill Janine. The dropping of the stones on the ground feels like a symbolic rebellion, sure, but girls — you have weapons in your hands. Throw some at the guards.

I wonder if it's the fact that the series has a male showrunner, Bruce Miller. It would explain the series' shallow depiction of feminism which seems to think that sisterhood and declarations of "girl power!" are enough to herald this show as some sort of feminist second coming. It doesn't sit well with the passivity that the women are forced to wear in order to survive in this society — a different kind of strength that women of color have had to struggle with and struggle with today. This feminism, and the show's problematic setting in a post-racial society, feels like it ignores the history of racism in America that lays the foundation for The Handmaid's Tale.

Perhaps the show's biggest misstep was in its casting of a young Mr. and Mrs. Waterford. I spoke about this previously in my recap of the first three episodes of the season, but the de-aging of the Waterfords into sexy Young Republicans misses the point of their characters as symbolic of the older generations' dangerous romanticization of "simpler times," and turns the story into a lurid sexual thriller.

"The element that was missing for me was the direct competition between the two women," Miller said of the age change in an interview with Business Insider's "Showrunners" podcast. "I felt that it was a more active dynamic if Serena Joy felt like this person was usurping her role not only as the reproductive object of the house but gradually taking away the wifely duties, the intimate duties, the romantic, sexual duties."

I disagree that women of different ages can't be in direct competition — in fact, it's an age-old dynamic: the younger woman arriving to replace the older, less beloved model. The older Serena Joy had an aura of karmic retribution to her as well — all the traditional values that she espoused was now being forced on her, and her role in the formation of Gilead was only to be forgotten, like every older woman's achievements in modern society. The dynamic too between the Commander and Offred takes on a sexual, passionate tone, missing the punch of  an old man's laughable actions trying to seduce the young Offred.

The Handmaid's Tale

What It Got Right

Despite its problems, there's no taking away from how relevant The Handmaid's Tale is. The series is part of a new era of frighteningly timely TV — I wrote about it and American Gods' unlikely prescience a month ago — and though it fell into the trappings of a conventional sci-fi dystopia, it doesn't lose that timeliness.

I have been wrestling with whether the more dynamic Offred and plot of The Handmaid's Tale is a positive thing. While it makes for more engaging television, does it make the show's messages of oppression feel more distant? The series has a distinctly sci-fi flair, with the Sons of Jacob discuss herding up the "fertile women" in dark, dramatic courtrooms and Offred becoming a full-fledged secret agent, making it feel more removed from our reality.

But the things it got right — tapping into current-day paranoia and xenophobia with the Sons of Jacob seizing power by bombing government institutions and blaming it on terrorists, using that fear to ultimately enslave half the population of the country; by exploring the idea of "gender treachery" with lesbian characters like Ofglen and Moira; by striking a chord about women's autonomy — The Handmaid's Tale got so, so right.

The Handmaid's Tale Elizabeth Moss

What's Next

The season ends on an strangely triumphant yet ambiguous note. Offred has stood up to Aunt Lydia for the first time and is in an almost transcendent state, accepting that she'll face dire consequences, but not caring. Perhaps the child that she carries will act as some safeguard for her, or maybe the old June is finally back and "invincible" once again.

But her fling with Nick, and his wrestling with his affection for her despite being a spy for the Eyes, may have finally worked in her favor. The Eyes who have come to detain Offred are under his instruction, he hastily tells her, and she'll be kept safe. This is where the show will explore new material from the book — the novel ends here, with Offred being detained to somewhere unknown by double agent Eyes. Will they help her escape Gilead? Will she be introduced to the unseen resistance movement, Mayday? That's to be seen in Season 2, which is already taking a more action-oriented tone than the first.

Meanwhile, Moira has fled to Canada after Offred's desperate pleas had galvanized her back into action. Using the familiar sharpened pipe out of the toilet bowl to presumably kill one of her clients and escape the brothel, Moira is now a refugee and reunited with Luke. I'm interested in whether Moira will go back to her old self, becoming a political activist working to expose and bring down Gilead from the outside. Her storyline has a shade more realism than the sci-fi thriller turns that June's has taken, and it will be fascinating to see how Gilead is viewed by the rest of the world.

All 10 episodes of The Handmaid's Tale are available on Hulu. The second season will air on Hulu in 2018.