The golden age of TV gained a few extra carats this week with the UK debut of The Handmaid’s Tale (Sundays at 9pm, Channel 4), adapting Margaret Atwood’s cult 1985 novel into one of the most disturbing, riveting shows of the year. It’s set in a very, very near future where the United States has become a strict theocracy following a crisis of falling birth rates and environmental pollution. Our heroine, played by Elisabeth Moss, is known as Offred. She’s stripped of her rights, independence and even her name. Pregnancy is strictly monitored by the state; fertile women are dubbed “handmaids” and forced into service of powerful men, where they are raped monthly in a grotesque ritual of reproduction. Cuddly Sunday-night TV it ain’t, but appointment viewing it most certainly is.
After all, the book may be a literary masterpiece, but it’s also a feminist horror story. It imagines all our freedoms being stripped away, and the brutalised survivors being forced into a horrific new reality. Atwood rooted her fiction in fact: every outrage inflicted upon her handmaids is taken from human history, or human present. The show will touch on issues of slut shaming, rape, LGBTQ rights and female genital mutilation. All the flashbacks that explain Offred’s previous life as a typical woman and mother (her real name is June) are set in a world that is terrifyingly familiar – and the idea that the USA might fall into the hands of right-wing autocrats who attack women’s rights doesn’t seem so far-fetched as it might have a year ago.
“The fervour and enthusiasm for the show [is] due to what’s happening, the political and social climate and the relevancy, of course,” admits Moss, who took time to talk to me on a visit to London this week. “But there’s something about this story that really grabs a hold of your heart. It did for me and I think that’s what’s happening for other people. It's empowering; it's dark, but you can't turn away. It's dark, but it gives you hope.”
Moss – tiny and blonde and dressed like an off-duty rock star; quick to laugh despite fighting a cold – is no stranger to must-watch TV. Her breakthrough role came as President Bartlet’s fiery daughter Zoe on The West Wing. She followed that with Mad Men’s ambitious Peggy, forging her way to success despite all the sexism the 1960s and ’70s could throw at her, and then came Top of the Lake, uncovering abuse as a detective in a misogynist small town (the eagerly-awaited season two starts on BBC2 this summer). But The Handmaid’s Tale is even more explicitly, though not exclusively, a feminist text. It’s a distinction that got Moss in trouble recently, when she described the show as “human” as opposed to feminist.
A lot of women like me have had to recently take ownership of their feminism and become vocal and active in a way that maybe we didn't feel like we needed to before. We live in a different time
“I don't think I said the right thing, clearly!” she says ruefully. “But it's not only a feminist story. There are many groups that are much maligned in the show. That's what I was trying to get across and I obviously didn't say it right. I thought I didn't want force my political agenda on other people. Now I don't give a shit and I'm just going to have to, because that's how I feel! A lot of women like me have had to recently take ownership of their feminism and become vocal and active in a way that maybe we didn't feel like we needed to before. We live in a different time.”
Given that so many of her characters have had to battle sexism, it’s no surprise to find that Moss is so passionate on the subject. She acknowledges that she’s had a relatively privileged life as a white woman in America, the daughter of two musicians. But, “as a woman in this world, I've always felt women's rights were very important.” She may not have consciously chosen roles for their feminist content – Mad Men, she says, “was a job” at first – but through Peggy she explored and discovered her feminism.
“Women don't make as much as men. I'm sure, I am 100 per cent positive I've been a victim of that: not on Handmaid's because I'm the lead! The other thing I have experienced is pitching something that is female-led, [and] I have been told that something was ‘too female’ by execs. In the last couple of years. It's shocking. It's almost illegal to say! It wasn't said to my face. I would dare a male executive to say that to my face now. [But] we're making it, it's fine. Just not with those people.”
Moss won’t confirm if that rejected project was The Handmaid’s Tale, though as a producer on the show she would have been involved in pitching. But if it was, that executive must be kicking himself as he sees protesters dress as handmaids across the US (“The fact that a symbol from a piece of art can give people a voice is fantastic,” says Moss), the book race back up the bestseller charts (“That and 1984, that's exactly what people should be arming themselves with”) and the show win universal acclaim.
Offred narrates her life with a sardonic sense of humour, allowing us a glimpse of the free woman underneath the heavy yoke of oppression
What makes the Tale so fascinating, and the brutality bearable, is the personal side of the political story. Offred narrates her life with a sardonic sense of humour, allowing us a glimpse of the free woman underneath the heavy yoke of oppression. That underlying defiance is something that Moss and her team worked very hard to preserve.
“Margaret has this amazing, intelligent, dark sense of humour that is rampant in that book, and capturing that tone and her voice – which becomes Offred's voice and June's voice – was so important. We didn't want it to feel like a lesson. I don't want to watch that, let alone be in it! As far down as you take these characters you [have to] bring them back up and give hope.”
It hasn’t always been a comfortable shoot – one scene in the series finale left Moss exhausted and barely able to lift her arms after the first take – but there’s no way she’s going to make things easier for herself. The show has already been greenlit for a second season, and without getting into any spoilers it’s fair to say that there is no happy ending just yet. “Wait till you see what's coming!” laughs Moss. “It's going to get worse, girl. Season two is going to be bad too, really dark. Something to look forward to, yay!” Offred’s future may be dark, but with the character herself as our guiding light, it’s a journey you’ll want to take with her.
The Handmaid’s Tale continues on Channel 4, Sundays at 9pm
Top of The Lake will air this Summer on BBC Two