I’ve now seen all of season one of The Handmaid’s Tale and I’m going to give my thoughts on the season as a whole. This is quite hard for me to do because it feels really mixed. Every TV show has better and worse episodes, but this show has had some of the best TV I’ve seen this year so far and then follows that with some of the most of the most ordinary, it has some of the most brutal but compelling female-centred story-telling, then it follows that with two episodes of what someone coined as man-cation that, to my mind at least, totally threw the narrative impetus under the bus and were frankly so mediocre it hurt.
Part of this is that they’re adapting a rather slim novel into a moderately long TV series and so they’re doing TV series things. For example, we’re seeing the world of Gilead through more eyes than just those of June/Offred. Sometimes that’s really powerful, the Serena Joy centred episode is dark and twisted but excellent. However, as mentioned above, two episodes put male characters front and centre which feels really jarring, and isn’t helped because I didn’t find them very interesting characters nor were their stories interesting so those episodes dragged for me and two of them back to back was, in my opinion, a terrible choice.
Adding to that, with ten episodes to fill from a thin book, the writers decide to do some world building. I wouldn’t have a problem with that, per se, except the world building they chose to do strongly suggests that Gilead has a viable solution to the fertility crisis and other countries don’t. Given they’ve kept the wildly religious, anti-scientific stance of Gilead, I have strong objections to that. It could be that we’re supposed to know that what is being said is a lie but if so, that bit was left on an editing room floor somewhere so there are serious issues with how it’s presented.
All that said, The Handmaid’s Tale broadly covers much of the same territory as the book, some is updated for the more modern brutalities societies have inflicted on women, and some of its wider insights into how other women are affected are also strong. The immediacy and engagement of watching TV makes some of the episodes particularly brutal and while possibly not every episode should carry trigger warnings, many of them should, for rape, FGM, homophobic language, slut-shaming, violence towards women and more.
There are choices made in the filming and editing of this series which make me wonder what it would have looked like in other hands. There are times when the subject matter needs to be dealt with in an unflinching, head-on way, and, without being confrontational about it, that is more than achieved. However, very often there’s a total lack of subtlety, in fact the show normally has the subtlety of a team of navvies swinging sledgehammers. Too many of June/Offred’s victories are small, tiny even, but this lack of subtlety means they’re presented as if she’s just won the Nobel Peace Prize and it rings a slightly false note to me.
I still think, despite the brutality, the lack of subtlety and the weak episodes, this is worth a watch. It is probably not something to binge watch and you might seriously consider having something light and fun, or something that reminds you people are capable of love and joy and great artistic communal effort to watch after each episode, particularly the first few.
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