Praise be! I knew Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s tale” would win Best Drama Series last night at the Emmys. I’ve known it for weeks, despite the appearance of a real race to the finish line between it and Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” Not only did “Handmaid’s” win the big prize, but it pulled off a sweep of the awards it was up for last night, winning Best Drama Actress (Elisabeth Moss) and Best Drama Supporting Actress (Ann Dowd), as well as directing (Reed Morano) and writing (Bruce Miller) for the pilot episode “Offred.” It also made history, as the first ever streaming show to win a top series award on Emmy night, giving Hulu bragging rights against its high profile rivals Netflix and Amazon.
In the days leading up to Emmy night, the consensus was that “Stranger Things” over-performed at the Creative Arts Emmys and was primed to continue its winning streak during the main Emmy ceremony. But I wasn’t convinced. Here’s why.
There’s no other show this past season that has so perfectly captured the current political and cultural zeitgeist like “The Handmaid’s Tale” has. Based on the acclaimed novel by Margaret Atwood, the series is set in a dystopian near-future America in which the government has been overthrown by religious zealots. In what is now called Gilead, widespread infertility has led to a barren autocratic class enslaving fertile women as concubines, or “handmaids.” It is a dark and unsettling look at oppression, propaganda and fascism, striking a chord with audiences, TV critics and ultimately Emmy voters as uncannily timely in the age of Trump. But it has also resonated so powerfully because it is beautifully written, directed and crafted, representing one of a handful of truly cinematic works of art to the grace TV screens this past season.
Last month, “The Handmaid’s Tale” took home the top Program of the Year prize as well as the dramatic achievement award from the Television Critics Association. Although not necessarily precursors for Emmy success, the TCA wins demonstrated a groundswell of support for the show.
Then at the Creative Arts Emmys last weekend, “The Handmaid’s Tale” won three Emmys out of a total of six. Alexis Bledel won Best Drama Guest Actress for her role as Ofglen in the episode “Late,” and it won Best Single-Camera (One Hour) Cinematography and Best Contemporary/Fantasy Program (One Hour) Production Design. But consensus started to congeal around its chief competition “Stranger Things.” The 1980s throwback fantasy drama appeared to out-perform “The Handmaid’s Tale,” winning five Emmys (Best Drama Single-Camera Picture Editing, Best Main Title Theme Music, Best Main Title Design, Best Drama Casting and Best Series Sound Editing). But what many of us didn’t take into account was that it also lost nine times last weekend, including in sound mixing, hairstyling, makeup, period production design, and particularly Best Music Supervision (to Emmy juggernaut “Big Little Lies”).
Most tellingly, in the eight categories won by either show last weekend, “The Handmaid’s Tale” beat “Stranger Things” twice, for Best Guest Drama Actress (Shannon Purser) and cinematography, while “Stranger Things” only bested “The Handmaid’s Tale” once, in Best Drama Casting.
As for the main ceremony, Emmy producers wisely left the biggest question mark of the night — Best Drama Series — until the end. Early on, “Stranger Things” started losing awards, as David Harbour predictably lost Best Drama Supporting Actor to John Lithgow (“The Crown”). We knew that “Stranger Things” looked formidable in Best Drama Directing, with only one entry (the pilot) in contention against two entries for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which could have fallen victim to vote-splitting. In Best Drama Writing, both shows contended with one nomination apiece for their pilots, which made for a fairer fight. But “Handmaid’s Tale” won both. Ann Dowd then took home Best Drama Supporting Actress in one of the biggest surprises of the night, as Dowd had to fend off fellow “Handmaid’s Tale” cast member Samira Wiley, plus favorite Thandie Newton (“Westworld”) and a surging Millie Bobby Brown (“Stranger Things”). Elisabeth Moss then took home the penultimate award of the night, winning Best Drama Actress after six previous losses for “Mad Men” and a loss for “Top of the Lake.”
As Oprah Winfrey took to the stage to announce the final award of the night, you could sense it in the air. “The Handmaid’s Tale” was really the show to beat. After three wins last weekend and four wins last night, it staked its claim as the Best Drama Series of the year, and rightly so. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! Blessed be the fruit.