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The Handmaid’s Tale: How to Build a World Without Exposition

By Caroline Cao · May 9, 2017

In a refreshing change from Hollywood’s routine lack of faith in audiences, The Handmaid’s Tale chooses not to open with a wordy opening-crawl, or an immediate exposition dump. This is particularly notable considering the show’s literary roots. After all, Margaret Atwood’s original novel is a complex, and deeply textured work of dystopian fiction that takes its sweet time bringing readers up to speed on what exactly is going on in the world of Gilead. Fortunately, Hulu’s new adaptation is no different, which feels radical in today’s climate of over-explaining.  

This disorienting deep-dive into the world of the The Handmaid’s Tale is apparent from the very first moments of the pilot, which after a brief prologue, immediately transports viewers into the everyday dreariness of Gilead. In other words, in media res.

It achieves what any competent opening should: lurching us straight in to the action, without a life jacket. In this case, as a woman, her husband and their child, are chased by police until the woman is captured and her child is ripped from her arms. We don’t know what crime the couple committed or what made them flee in the first place. We only see the aftermath – the woman,  now called Offred, sitting alone, in a threadbare bedroom. 

So began my somewhat-belated viewing of the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s woman-centric dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale, which adheres to the classic source material with faithfulness and restraint, while also managing to be top-notch television in its own right.

Artwork from Margaret Atwood’s influential novel

As in a lot of dystopian storytelling, The Handmaid’s Tale features an-all-to-familiar world driven to a nightmarish extreme in an effort to shine light on some important, real-world issues.  The key to such an ambitious balancing act lies in the shows use of worldbuilding, which delivers detail after horrifying detail, without much in the way of exposition.  In order to understand how it does this so effectively, let’s parse through the pilot’s worldbuilding elements in more detail.

Other-worldy Jargon  

As per the conventions of speculative fiction (particularly of the dystopian variety), one of the first things we notice about the world of Gilead are the strange utterances and unfamiliar vocabulary, all of which hints at the function of the society. “Blessed is the fruit,” and “May the Lord open,” we hear almost immediately, hinting at the Christian-fundamentalist nature of Gilead. Not to mention the title of “handmaid” bestowed upon Offred, and others like her. 

And yet the show never stops to explain the language. We don’t know what exactly these new phrases mean, nor what they mean for the world at large. Instead, the show is confident to let their meaning, much like Offred’s role as a Handmaiden, unravel gradually, mostly through visuals, before the audience’s eyes.

Letting Context Build Innately

In the midst of all the unfamiliar, acutely religious jargon, we learn of a Ceremony – though its function remains a mystery beyond Offred’s participation. This plants a key question in the audience’s head: in a culture as deeply restrained and unsettling as this, what could this “Ceremony” possibly involve? Of course, the succession of scenes gives us the answer.

In the episode’s most deliberately cringe-worthy scene (as it is in the novel), we see the “Ceremony” play out in the bedroom where the Commander has ritualistic intercourse with Offred. More bizarrely, we’re forced to behold the rituals oddly demeaning choreography as Offred lies on the lap of the Wife, who, in turns, holds Offred’s hands. It’s shocking enough even for those well versed with Atwood’s original novel, but for the uninitiated, it’s on another level altogether.

Elisabeth Moss stars as Offred

Notably, Offred’s usual voiceover is remarkably muted here, rendering her completely voiceless. She does not comment as the ritual plays out before the audience’s eyes. Instead, the sequence is overlaid with the Commander’s reading of a Biblical verse from the Old Testament. 

Pay close attention to the verse in particular. For a variety of thematic reasons, it feels particularly fitted to a Ceremony this disturbing. It regards the Biblical tale of the barren wife Rachel. How, desperate to bear children, she gives her husband Jacob a handmaiden to act as her surrogate.

For those who have not read the book, listening to the in-context telling of the Biblical passage, particularly the mention of the “Handmaid” marks a potential eureka moment. Namely, that the heinous ritual we’re witnessing represents the literal realization of this cherry-picked Biblical passage, and that, more importantly, this is what Offred, and the other Handmaids, are being subjected to.

Seamless Transitions to Flashbacks

Reed Morano, the pilot’s director, places logical visual triggers for Offred’s flashbacks. For example, Offred sees a line of children exiting a church. She scans their faces, thinking of her daughter in pre-dystopian times, playing at the beach. Likewise, Offred bathes before the Ceremony, triggering memories of the aquarium she and her daughter visited.

In what is perhaps the most essential flashback in terms of plot, Offred spies the face of an old friend in the seminary. They hold each other’s gaze – perhaps a moment longer than they should. Then, in the flashback that follows, we see a younger Offred spending time with this familiar face, whose name is Moira. Not only does this moment launch the show into a series of season-spanning flashbacks concerning the past, it establishes, through their once-care-free relationship, just how much has changed.

This marks an ingenious, character-driven approach to worldbuilding and exposition. Scant details about Gilead are provided directly. Instead, everything we learn is in reference to Offred herself, with an emotional, character-focused trigger for each new memory and detail.  

Restrained Voiceover Narration: The Interplay of Internal and External

Harkening back to the introspective first-person nature of the book, Offred is given a low-key voiceover. Of course, voice-overs are infamously tricky territory, given how often they’re misused as an easy, opportunistic tool for slathering on wordy exposition. Fortunately, Offred’s own thoughts are often in direct-contrast to what we see on screen. Hers is the voice of reason, offering a necessary dosage of insight and frustration that complements the situation at hand.

An early scene from The Handmaid’s Tale

In terms of worldbuilding, Offred’s innermost thoughts are most apt at providing perspective, though exposition is thankfully kept to a bare-minimum. There are no speeches detailing every single procedure of the society’s operation – no elaborate monologues outlining character motivation and future plot goals. Rather, Offred’s narration offers insight into her emotional well being (or lack thereof), along with the finer-details of her situation. And, more often than not, her internal dialogue is in sharp juxtaposition to her immediate external response

For example, consider the following moment: we see guards holding guns in the shopping center. Offred’s internal narration flirts with the idea of stealing a gun. She doesn’t, of course, but the thought itself relays her deep temptation to rebel, which clashes with her practiced public gait.

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One could mute the voiceover and still have a good idea of how Offred feels about her predicament simply through the camera’s stark close-ups on Elizabeth Moss’s on-point performance. In this way, the voiceover prose serves as an additional layer, building upon what’s already there, and bringing it into razor-sharp focus.

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