The Handmaid’s Tale – story, restraint and the temptation to grab my phone

Emmys hit last weekend. Always a fun time of year. I was super interested to see who was going to win the writing in a television drama award. With all the buzz about The Handmaid’s Tale, it seemed like it was a shoo in… which I had mixed feelings about. I was totes rooting for The Crown, which blew me away, but sadly… the firm favourite walked away the winner. Congratulations to Bruce Miller for his win, along with all the other nominees. You can have a read of the pilot script here.

My mind has been racing with thoughts about The Handmaid’s Tale since I watched it, and this Emmy win has really kicked my butt into gear about putting some of these thoughts down to try and make sense of them. I think why I was so hesitant about having the series premiere episode win was that I found it a real struggle to watch, and found it the weakest of all episodes in the season. Any of the other episodes would have been a deserving win, but the first?

There’s no doubt I think Handmaid’s Tale is a good show. Brilliant even… once I got past that first episode. While we’re in this period of far-too-much good television, I’m trying to stop myself from consuming things that aren’t satisfying me by developing a bit of a litmus test – if I grab my phone and look at it while watching something, then the show isn’t holding my attention and I need to be disciplined enough to drop the show and just move on. Very difficult for me to do, since I’m such a completist. If I start it, I need to finish it!

In this premiere episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, the world-building is intricate. The show is absolutely beautiful to look at. The performances are grand. But man, I just wanted to lookkkk atttt myyyy phoneeeee. Why? Because nothingggggg happenssssss.

I was listening to an episode of Nerdist’s The Writer’s Panel podcast (you should listen to this if you don’t, it’s brill), where Bruce Miller was talking about how the show does everything generally considered ‘bad’ – prominent use of voiceover and flashbacks being the central examples referred to. But that’s not the only thing – there is no story in the opener. And when I say story, I mean story in the structural sense, you know, a causal chain of events, events which are set into motion by characters making active choices and the like. There’s just none of that. There’s a lot of showing us Offred’s world. This first episode is a whole lot of and then, and then, and then, and then…

And, that’s kind of the point of the world of Gilead which is established in the first episode. People may differ in their interpretation of the episode because of that. But… just because that’s the way the book is, or just because the protagonist can’t make an active choice because of the power structures of the world, doesn’t make it… okay? I don’t know… It definitely didn’t make it engaging for me. And of course, that’s more something to do with my appreciation of a certain tone and storytelling more than anything else. And also is evidence of the way in which television is changing so rapidly and what is becoming acceptable and celebrated. It’s a great thing that so much different forms of storytelling are finding their way to screens.

By far, the most interesting dynamic of this first episode for me was in the character of Serena Joy. She is the woman who clearly wants a child, and yet has to be fine with inviting a woman to live in her house who will regularly screw her husband in order to give her said child. And the way this was explored in this first episode was incredibly restrained, as most things in this series are.

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How hard this situation is for Serena Joy is played out mostly by the actress in the face, and this scene is one of the only times it gets clearly externalised. This is because there is no one for Serena Joy to talk to about this in her first episode. But the difficulty Serena Joy is having with the concept of the handmaid plants intriguing seeds about what this will mean for the future, and ends up having real surprising turns as we come to understand her history in the world before the new regime took over.

When you consider this notion of story, it fairly easy to understand why I found Serena Joy the most interesting character. She’s got a goal, she wants something: a kid. And yet there’s clear conflict around obtaining this. Wanting the kid also means facing having to keep and care for this woman in her house who roots her husband. There’s some pretty juicy emotional stuff to mine there.

BUT, also. Within this episode, there’s some amazing, amazing, amazing, small moments of beautiful tension. It’s often in these small moments that the series really shines for me, that makes you think – oh shit, this crazy good. For those that have seen the second episode – SCRABBLE. MACAROON. That is all.

In this first episode, there’s this, where Offred reaches out to Nick.

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It’s small, very small. Tiny even. A test, to see if Nick is someone that Offred can talk to. Maybe watching this show is about living though the banality waiting for these glimpses of hope, glimpses of a possible future. I love these very understated moments, they’re still immensely powerful without being overplayed. This particular example is beautifully written in the script.

But I’m clearly into watching television for the emotional trajectories, and this wasn’t really a factor in that opener. We get this beautifully dynamic scene of Offred and the other handmaids being allowed to beat up a rapist. It’s clear that Offred is controlled, it’s clear that she’s been stamped down, it’s clear the thought of losing her daughter Moira is  hard. But the scenes don’t feel like they connectively build to that rage being redirected at the rapist, and it all gets a little lost in the ‘and then this happens’ over here and ‘then this happens’ over there.

And then at the very end of the first episode, we get this…

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And there we have it. It’s there, what I’d been waiting for. The protagonist. The goal. The story. And then when we get to the second episode, the story kicks into high gear. And things just rock. It’s engaging, and there’s much less temptation to look at my phone – pretty much none, actually. Cos SCRABBLE. MACAROONS.

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