In Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Elisabeth Moss gives the most layered and powerful performance of her career as June Osborne, a woman living in a dystopian America known as Gilead. She earned an Emmy nomination as Best Drama Actress and is also nominated as a producer of the show in the category of Best Drama Series, so even if she were to lose for her acting she would still win an Emmy if the show were to take home the biggest award of the night. She’s used to losing, of course. Moss was nominated six years for “Mad Men” (2009-2013, 2015), yet unfortunately never won for playing the fan favorite Peggy Olsen. In 2013, she was recognized for her performance in the limited series “Top of The Lake,” but lost that, too. Can she finally win an Emmy thanks to “The Handmaid’s Tale”?
In Gilead, due to an epidemic of infertility striking the human population of the world, fertile women like her are enslaved and used to breed new children for couples who cannot procreate on their own. When June and her family tried to run across the border to Canada, her daughter was taken away by the Gilead government and her husband was apparently killed as well. Now, June is known only as Offred, since all her fellow slaves known as Handmaids are given the name of the men they serve and her master is Gilead Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). Offred must struggle to survive the conservative theocratic patriarchy that has stolen everything from her, save for her will to live through this nightmare.
Moss portrays the entire spectrum of human emotion over the course of the 10-episode season, from her moments of happiness in flashbacks with her family, to her scenes of sadness, pure terror, and rage, all of which she showcases in her Emmy episode submission “Night,” the Season 1 finale. In the episode, Offred has been taken in a car by the Commander’s wife Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) to a house, where she finally sees her daughter Hannah outside, but she cannot go out and reunite with her. Trapped inside the car as Serena meets with her daughter, we see Offred screaming and hitting the car window, desperate for her child to know that she is still alive. Then as Serena and Offred are driven back to the Commander’s house, Serena tells her that her daughter is doing fine, and that nothing bad will happen to her as long as nothing bad happens to the Waterford’s baby, which Offred is pregnant with.
Seeing how she is being blackmailed with the life of her child, Offred finally loses it, and curses out Mrs. Waterford in a passionate and brutal tirade, only for Serena to respond by telling her not to yell, as it would not be good for her baby. If episode submissions still matter in the slightest, this heartbreaking scene ought to guarantee her an easy win. In the previous episode, she meets her old friend Moira (Emmy nominee Samira Wiley), now a sex club worker called “Ruby,” for giving up on life and dreams of escaping to freedom. Offred had long thought Moira to have been killed trying to escape, and she tries to get her to retrieve a secret package from the bar of the club. However, Moira refuses, and we see the rage on Offred’s face as she gets very angry when she sees how her former best friend has apparently lost all hope, and we feel the sorrow and despair she feels when Moira leaves.
It also helps that “The Handmaid’s Tale” could not be more culturally relevant, with its themes of patriarchy, homophobia, misogyny, and fascism striking as disturbingly allegorical for Donald Trump’s America. More than merely show the dystopian future as most stories might have done, the series dares to show us in flashbacks how the “Land of the Free” gradually fell to theocratic tyranny. Moss’ character narrates the show from her perspective, and in a powerful speech in the third episode “Late,” she recalls how, “I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then either. Now I’m awake.” The Emmy voters can show that by recognizing “The Handmaid’s Tale” that they are also awake to the dark reality we currently live in.
Moss has been heralded by many critics as “The Queen of Peak TV” due to her consistently high-quality and diverse performances in such a large variety of acclaimed TV shows. At 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, TV critics are completely united in their support for Moss and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Here is a sampling of some of their stellar reviews:
Daniel Fienberg (Hollywood Reporter): “Moss also gives glimpses of feral intensity and fiercely guarded intelligence. Best of all, sometimes only in her narration, Moss injects the finest threads of humor, exactly the humanizing nuance the show needs to avoid falling too much into coldness or darkness.”
Sam Wollaston (The Guardian): “Moss, who has already been one of the best things about two great shows, ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Top of the Lake,’ is again utterly captivating. A brilliant performance – quiet, not giving anything away, because she can’t, and yet also saying so much, via inner voice but also with her face and her eyes.”
Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune): “Her eyes often framed here by a literally Puritan bonnet, Moss is an actress ready, willing and subtly eager for this dystopian nightmare set in a brutally nostalgic near future. Even when she’s non-verbally registering the latest appalling turn of events, Moss activates the interior life of novelist Margaret Atwood’s main character.”
Leah Greenblatt (Entertainment Weekly): “Moss is a brilliant muse, a fantastically unsettling alloy of fury and stillness; if this doesn’t earn her the Emmy she was robbed of for her years on ‘Mad Men,’ the voting Academy should sue itself for gross negligence.”
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