BINGE-R #59: The Handmaid's Tale + El Chapo
THE HANDMAID’S TALE S1
Streaming Service: SBS on Demand
Availability: All 10 episode now streaming
As much as The Handmaid’s Tale timeliness has been linked to Donald Trump’s election and conservative misogyny, the underlying strength in this nightmarishly compelling adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 novel is in providing a metaphor for how easily a woman can be cut off from everything that underpins her life: freedom, love, and seemingly even hope. In this updated dystopian America, where Christian religious extremists depose the United States and found a dictatorial theocracy, June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) loses her husband, her daughter, her job, her possessions, her reproductive rights, and her name. She’s a slave glorified as a healthy womb serving the new rulers.
Bruce Miller’s show doesn’t dwell on what led to the change – “terrorists” massacre Congress, martial law imposed – but rather the strictures that surround June, a former book editor who is brutally re-educated after trying to flee with her family, and then renamed Offred to mark her as the possession of Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). In his Puritanical household, she’s at constant risk. Informers stoke murderous paranoia and she’s barely tolerated by Waterford’s wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), who expects Offred to be a surrogate who falls pregnant to her husband to help avert an unnaturally low birth rate.
At every turn Offred is fearful of what may transpire, wary of a slip that might cost her life or prevent her finding her daughter; a hint of genuine rapport with her fellow Handmaiden, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), is laced with uncertainty. The mood is menacingly quiet – the modern world and its mores no longer exist – and the new rituals, whether it’s Waterford raping Offred weekly as Serena Joy holds her or the Handmaids being loosed upon a criminal, dislocate reality. “This will become ordinary,” promises Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), the Handmaiden’s instructor, and that’s what you sense happening, right down to a new nomenclature and invasive surgery as an act of punishment.
Offred’s narration, conversational in tone instead of portentous, is a crucial interior monologue, but it’s matched to a vivid cinematic intensity. Streams of natural light flood bare rooms, while shots lensed from above show the group dynamics of the oppressors and oppressed. Cinematographer turned director Reed Morano is integral to the initial episodes, giving palpable intimacy to Offred’s surreptitious meetings with the remote Waterford, or her alliance with his driver, Nick (Max Minghella), while revealing the cruel expediency of punishment through kangaroo courts and institutional execution (one important exception: the show mostly ignores race, unlike the book).
There’s so much you can engage with in this gripping, must-see series, whether it’s the intuitive depth of Moss’ performance, or the telling commentary on how woman are willing to subjugate each other for the crumbs of patriarchal power. The Handmaid’s Tale will leave you reeling at points, yet desperate for more. Try putting a name to that.
>> Bonus Binge: If the dystopian is your thing, consider Netflix’s Brazilian series 3%, which is set in a future where the wealthy elite live in their own society while the poverty-stricken masses are offered a single chance to compete for admittance [full review here].
EL CHAPO S1
Streaming Services: Netflix
Availability: All nine episodes now streaming
Netflix has a taste for headline-grabbing Latin drug lords. It has produced two seasons of the middling Narcos, which documents the bloody circumstances of Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, and the same character (played by a different actor) features in the first episode of its new co-production El Chapo, giving a gilt-edged chance in 1985 to an up and coming Mexican drug smuggler named Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. That challenge – get my product from Medellin to Los Angeles in 48 hours or be killed – is typical of this bristling drama: all or nothing stakes, with a surplus of tension but a lack of insight. El Chapo likes to get high on its own supply.
The real El Chapo, who last made headlines in 2016 after escaping from a maximum-security Mexican jail via a 1.5km-long tunnel and subsequently giving an interview to Sean Penn, is currently awaiting trial in the United States, but as played by Marco de la O he’s first seen as an ambitious middle manager in the hierarchical Mexican drug cartels. His two day journey with Escobar’s cocaine establishes the character as a persuasive risk-taker who smarts at his minor status and covers his tracks with a combination of bribery and murder. “The more power I have, the more I’ll enjoy it,” he tells a comrade, and the narrative is bluntly illustrated by swaggering rivals, piles of cash, and mordant illegal innovation.
The most intriguing character is one who at first doesn’t interact with El Chapo. Conrado (Humberto Busto) is his political equivalent, a ladder-climbing functionary in the governing party. He also double-crosses rivals and cuts corners, but he’s veiled by a respectable career. The idea that the two men are interchangeable says something about the way power resides in Mexico, with the government and the cartels at times sharing members and resources. But that’s not an easy idea to turn into an ongoing series (a second season has been commissioned), so El Chapo settles for the garish wealth, petty executions and occasional piece of psychology as exposition from a worried associate. It’s a busy, perfunctory show you can’t dig down into.
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