The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu is harrowing, painful to behold, and impeccably crafted. Filled to the brim with exceptional direction, production design, and performances across the board. There’s one element I want to speak explicitly about, and that’s the flashbacks in the series.
The world of the Handmaid’s Tale is not an old dystopia. In fact, it’s only about two years old. The conflict of declining birthrates have been around for a while but Gilead, the radical christian country that burrowed out from within the United States like a zealot Xenomorph, has only recently arrived. It’s an element I personally had trouble digesting at the start of the show. That people could so quickly bow to a regime change as violent as this. But there’s as much to be gleamed from what the flashbacks choose not to show us.
Happy memories are framed very specifically in the Handmaid’s Tale. They are tight on the subject. On June’s husband and daughter in the ocean. On Moira and June at the college party. Moira and her daughter at the aquarium. The backgrounds are out of focus, the conversations and moments intimate. We’re with them. Tight in these happy times. The most interesting example of this framing happens on June and Luke’s date.
June and Luke sit in a cafe somewhere with a window taking up the entire back wall. A frame within a frame. Inside the cafe people eat and talk. It’s all fairly innocuous. That’s the point, as both characters admit they probably shouldn’t be dating. Outside the window, children play. Little girls in red. Little girls in red led around by teachers or nannies. Essentially the future is outside that window, and right now there’s a barrier between June and them. But she’s the one on the inside and they’re the one’s on the outside. Eventually she’s going to have to enter that world.
These framing choices represent how we choose to see the past. For June those are her happy memories, but if we were to open up the frame just a little bit we would see more signs of the world coming undone. Once those signs become impossible to ignore, those flashbacks open up to show their effect on June and her family.
It’s a cold world where any stranger is a potential threat. You find yourself looking around for more oncoming elements of Gilead in their lives. It speaks to the smart film making behind the harsh story that makes you want to come back for more.
Flashbacks are a dangerous expository device that can be more cumbersome than useful in storytelling. Where The Handmaid’s Tale succeeds is they put emotion over information. Yes, we are learning how the world got this way, but we’re being told this in a non-linear order. What matters in an episode is how those memories inform us of June’s current emotional state, not what they can tell us about world history.
They do this not just with what is in the text but with what is in the frame (or what is outside it), which is the whole point of a visual storytelling medium. Information can be conveyed through language, dress, color, location, and most importantly by what the camera chooses to show us.
The past was full of good times, maybe not perfect, but the present is just so much worse. So we focus tightly on those good moments and flush out everything surrounding them. It’s similar to life, though we don’t live in a dystopia– and feel free to make a comment like, “yet”, based on the current sociopolitical climate. Seriously this show could not be more timely –and that’s just one of the many reasons The Handmiad’s Tale connects so deeply with it’s audience.
I’ve literally never said this before online but, if you can get your hands on a Hulu subscription, do so. This series is worth the price of admission alone.
PS, that being said, good luck on the existential drama sure to follow watching a few episode. Especially the third episode. You’ll know what moment I’m talking about when you get there.