The Handmaid’s Tale: Season 1 created by Bruce Miller (Hulu, MGM Television)
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Max Minghella, Amanda Brugel, Joseph Fiennes, Madeline Brewer, O-T Fagbenle, Ann Dowd, Samira Wiley, Tattiawna Jones, and Alexis Bledel.
Facial Expression: A Necessary Component of Verbal Communication
Most people can read the temperature of a room without hearing a word. Words have meaning, of course; it’s literally their definition. But, words often don’t communicate the entire picture. In my consulting work, we begin our projects with a series of interviews. This primary research expands on organizational story. We want to hear people talk about their work using their own words, ideas, and stories.
Yet, at the same time, we want to see what’s not said. We look for the shifting of weight on a seat, a stolen glance at a co-worker, a pause before a diplomatic response. What’s not said, often, provides more meaning than what is said. Why? Socially, we use more than words to communicate who we are and how we feel. Whether we make eye contact or avoid it offers meaning to relational dynamics. In fact, research suggests as many as seven specific emotions humanity tends to convey through facial expression: fear, anger, surprise, contempt, disgust, happiness, and sadness.
When you walk into a silent room, our inherent natures write these emotions on each of our faces. In fact, our facial expressions can dissuade others from believing the words we say. A friend can sourly express her happiness and the facial expression will suggest doubt to the veracity of the words spoken.
Welcome to Gilead
Given the suffocating context of the dystopian world upon which Margaret Atwood (and showrunner Bruce Miller) builds The Handmaid’s Tale, the facial expression becomes the cue for the viewer to understand this dark, overbearing vision of America’s future.
This world looks similar to our current context, but suggests how far and how quickly society flies off the rails when a crisis emerges.
In a series of flashbacks juxtaposed against the harsh realities of present-day Gilead, a nation state established from the ashes of the United States, we see how a flourishing nation falls into the hands of religious zealots.
Reducing Woman to Reproduction
The central thesis upon which the entire show operates focuses on the reproductive capabilities of women. In this near future, the show asks you to believe what would happen if humanity’s ability to procreate greatly diminishes. If a majority of society loses the ability to conceive children, the laws of supply and demand suggest the women still able to make children become incredibly valuable.
What if, given this scenario, a fundamentalist uprising takes control of the United States government and imposes strict authoritarian guidelines on women across the country? Within this context, it can be easy to see how a conservative-minded viewpoint might make these conclusions. Surely, the ability to control procreation as a social good ensures the continued viability of the human race.
From this context, the nightmarish Gilead emerges.
The viewer observes this new reality through the show’s protagonist, June (Elisabeth Moss). Having proven her ability to bear children, the new governing order captures her as she attempts an escape to Canada with her husband and child. The husband shot and the child taken from her, the authorities send June to a center that trains child-bearing women as handmaids, essentially sex slaves of the elites so that they can bear children. This act, unfortunately, has Scriptural precedent. See the narrative of Rachel and her maidservant Blihah in Gensis.
From here, June receives the name Offred (literally of Fred) and serves the needs of her masters the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).
The Fate of the Handmaid
Encountering ritualized rapes and constant monitoring from this newly formed police state, Offred lives in constant fear, her only motivating factor to continue living is her daughter, believing if she can resist while remaining alive, she will someday reunite with her.
Shot with stunning cinematography with stark reds, greens, browns, and whites, The Handmaid’s Tale offers aesthetic joy. But even better, Elisabeth Moss shines underneath her hood. Given the dangers surrounding Offred, Bruce Miller relies on the facial expressions of Moss to communicate the fear, horror, and disgust of Offred’s situation. Moss flourishes in this role and I fully expect award nominations, if not a win. This disquieting situation sits with your soul, not only for it’s too-close-for-comfort vision of how society might fall apart but also because of Moss’s impeccable acting.
The Handmaid’s Tale is must-watch television.
Verdict: 5 out of 5