A 'Handmaid's Tale' for a new age

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One line in Hulu's new adaptation of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale,'' premiering Wednesday, is not only a summation of one of the story's central themes, but why the series will should make contemporary audiences shudder.

"This may not feel ordinary to you now,'' says the tyrannical Aunt Lydia to a young woman trained to be a breeding slave to an infertile couple, "but in time it will. ... This will become ordinary.''

The observation contains the shared answer to every question history has ever posed about why tyrants, dictators, fascists are allowed, at least for a while, to get to get away with dehumanizing, merciless behavior. No matter how loud the initial outrage, human nature's gift of adaptability kicks in and "this will become ordinary.''

Elisabeth Moss stars as Offred, one of the very few fertile women in a dystopian near-future — very near, we're convincingly led to believe—where the United States is now a totalitarian state governed with neo-puritanical rigidity and religious absolutism.

Women have no power or status. They cannot hold jobs or even maintain a bank account. Years of environmental abuse has made most of the population infertile, save for a very few women who are enslaved to married couples as human broodmares.

Before being captured, re-programmed at an official Red Center and sent to live with the Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his steely wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), Offred had another name, a husband (O.T. Fagbenle) and an eight-year-old daughter. As a handmaid, she has learned to be subservient and invisible in the household, until her services are needed.

But she has never forgotten either Luke or her daughter, or what it means to be free to love, think, read, speak.

Her fellow handmaid, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), is also her designated companion whenever she leaves the Waterford house — handmaids are not allowed to travel alone. In time, the two open up to each other, but friendships and candor are dangerous in the half-lives of handmaids.

Oppression prompts different reactions among its victims. Moira (Samira Wiley), one of Offred's friends from "before,'' and other handmaids plot their escape, and in some cases, rebellion. Janine (Madeline Brewer) is defiant from the start, which only earns physical punishment from Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), pushing her into a state of quasi self-delusion.

The genius of Atwood's story is that it speaks to every era, every generation, because hate, discrimination and tyranny of one kind or another are always with us. Women are victimized and subjugated, all but completely devalued, and that extends beyond the handmaid class. Wives like Serena Joy — named, of course, with sad irony—are embittered, lost to themselves and exist as mere attachments to their husbands. Having been supplanted by the handmaids, their job is to climb onto the bed behind the handmaid as their husbands inseminate them. Later, if the handmaid conceives, they mimic the sounds and physical movement of giving birth in a hollow pantomime of what they can never be.

The performances are chilling and brilliant at every level. Moss has never done better work, but what's especially impressive here is that she manages to do the seeming impossible: Create Offred and her previous identity as June as different women at first. Offred has held on to the core of her real identity, and as her determination to find her daughter increases, we see more of June re-emerge.

Bledel offers a similar duality in her performance. Ofglen is detached, taciturn and cool toward Offred at first, until the women find they can trust each other. Then another Ofglen emerges.

Fiennes, Strahovski, Wiley and Brewer add to the quality of the production. As for Ann Dowd, she remains among the most interesting character actors in the business.

Like Margo Martindale, she disappears brilliantly into every role as only a great character actor can. Aunt Lydia is brutal, inhuman, merciless in her actions, but there is a kind of sad hangdog look on Dowd's face that only enhances the irony of one woman inflicting pain on another.

Creator Bruce Miller has both preserved the fundamental focus of Atwood's novel and opened the lens even further so that its message resonates even more specifically for a 21st century audience. It's not just that we can relate to xenophobia, racism and homophobia in our less than brave new world, but that we see the common cause of those social maladies: Fear and insecurity. Far too often, those who are not comfortable in their own skins can are driven to hate and punish the ``other'' in society.

We should know that the cancer of hate will always be part of our world, but the message made resoundingly clear in ``The Handmaid's Tale'' is how much we stand to lose by acquiescing to its existence.

``When they slaughtered Congress we didn't wake up,'' Offred says, narrating her tale. ``When they blamed terrorists and suspended the constitution, we didn't wake up then either. They said it would be temporary.''

It doesn't take long for temporary to become ordinary.

David Wiegand is an assistant managing editor and the TV critic of The San Francisco Chronicle.

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