Set in a futuristic world where fertile women have become the property of the state, The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t kind to its female characters. When it comes to the actresses playing them — ranging from Elisabeth Moss’s starring role as a Handmaid with memories of a much happier past to Yvonne Strahovksi’s mixture of cruelty and maternal yearning to Alexis Bledel leaving Rory Gilmore far behind — it’s another story.
Watch the first episode of The Handmaid's Tale here:
Indeed, boasting a formidable cast any television series would be envious of, the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel serves up powerful female performances on a platter. Recognisable faces playing challenging parts, respected character actresses doing what they do best and newcomers holding their own — The Handmaid’s Tale has them all, and in career-best form. Here are the six stellar women who are about to become your new favourite ladies on television.
Elisabeth Moss as Offred
As Peggy Olsen in Mad Men, Elisabeth Moss turned a mousy secretary into an ambitious trailblazer, all-round advertising force to be reckoned with and one of the best characters to ever grace the small screen — and that’s just one of her many excellent acting credits. She first came to wider attention as Zoe Bartlet, daughter of the president, in The West Wing, however Moss’s career includes everything from a short run on early '90s series Picket Fences, featuring opposite Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted and headlining crime miniseries Top of the Lake.
Then came Offred. First seen fleeing from gun-toting pursuers with her husband and their young daughter in the time before, she’s the determined but conflicted heart of The Handmaid’s Tale. A Handmaid under Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), Offred is subjected to the same rules and horrors as her fellow fertile child-bearing women, all while struggling with memories of her past life. In a resume filled with remarkable performances, conveying that inner turmoil easily ranks among Moss’s best work.
Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy Waterford
In a society that subjugates women, it takes a certain kind of person to not only watch on while others suffer, but play an active role in cultivating and maintaining an oppressive system. Serena Joy Waterford, the Wife of Offred’s master, is that type of woman. She preached that women should remain in the home before Gilead’s formation, and is now forced to live that life — and while she mightn’t have much leeway to behave otherwise, her cruelty is inescapable, as is her desire to become a mother.
The latest US television role for Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski, Serena is worlds away from her other high-profile TV parts in Chuck, Dexter and 24: Live Another Day. Given two of those shows involved playing CIA agents, that’s hardly surprising, however it’s the delicate balance of competing urges bubbling beneath her performance in The Handmaid’s Tale — equal doses of ruthlessness, desperation, yearning and viciousness — that gives Strahovski the standout role of her career so far.
Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia
Whether it’s cruel or kind to give the Handmaids a guiding hand in the form of overseeing Aunts — and more often than not, it’s the former — Aunt Lydia takes her job seriously. She’s both an enforcer and a guardian, responsible for ensuring her charges tow the dutiful and submissive line, know their place and do what’s expected of them. In fulfilling her task, dishing out punishment to those who dare act otherwise is as natural to her as spouting indoctrinating propaganda.
And yet, there’s nothing one-dimensional about Aunt Lydia. Dowd makes the pivotal character both a textured member of the Gilead community and a certain force to be reckoned with. It’s the latest in a string of highlights for the character actor, whose previous roles including Compliance, Masters of Sex, Olive Kitteridge and her show-stealing work in The Leftovers.
Alexis Bledel as Ofglen
For nearly two decades, Alexis Bledel and Rory Gilmore have been interchangeable in many viewers’ minds. Even when Bledel ventured beyond Gilmore Girls in Sin City, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and its sequel, and a three-episode stint on Mad Men, Rory proved a tough character to shake. And while that claim to fame might remain her most remembered role, her turn in The Handmaid’s Tale is about to provide some stiff competition. The show’s producers clearly agree, with Bledel slated to become a series regular in the second season.
As Ofglen, Bledel doesn’t sling quick, witty words — in one episode, she doesn’t talk at all (sometimes, an anguished scream just says more). That’s merely one of the ways the part defies expectation and reveals how Bledel can be a forceful presence when given the right material. First viewed as a pious collaborator by Offred, who Ofglen is assigned to watch, it’s soon evident more lurks beyond her compliant exterior. In fact, in no small part thanks to Bledel’s performance, Ofglen might just be The Handmaid’s Tale’s most fascinating character.
Samira Wiley as Moira
Like Alexis Bledel, Samira Wiley comes to The Handmaid’s Tale boasting a strong association with another prominent role - as Orange is the New Black favourite Poussey Washington. And like her co-star, Wiley uses that to her advantage. Just as she did during her five-episode stint on the third season of You’re the Worst, she’s not looking to top the role she’s best known for, but showcase her versatility.
Accordingly, playing Moira, Wiley steps into a different kind of prison to demonstrate why she’s one of the most exciting members of The Handmaid’s Tale’s cast. Moira is Offred’s long-term best friend, hailing back to the time before Gilead, Handmaids and a life of sexual servitude, however, adjusting to a subjugated existence isn’t the only change she’ll have to make. Ever adept at rolling with the punches, Wiley ensures Moira’s path is compelling from start to finish.
Madeline Brewer as Janine
Another Orange is the New Black alum (she was in the first season), Madeline Brewer ranks as a relative newcomer of The Handmaid’s Tale cast. But as Janine, who openly struggles with her new place in Gilead, she makes a decidedly big splash.
With Helmock Grove and an episode of Black Mirror her only other significant credits to date — a more significant role in the Bret Easton Ellis-directed series The Deleted is on the way — it’s not hard for The Handmaid’s Tale to prove Brewer’s best work. However, it also illustrates how many multilayered, complex and challenging roles the show offers for women, even in smaller parts.
The Handmaid’s Tale is available to stream at SBS On Demand.