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How the Symmetry and Aesthetics of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is Essential to Its Storytelling

The Handmaid’s Tale series based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel of the same name demands its audience’s attention from the start. The narrative of Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and her female friends living in Gilead (Chicago in “before” time) is a brutal, incredibly violent tale. The series is skillfully crafted and well suited in today’s society of the #MeToo movement, Time’s Up, subject of abortion, and women’s rights. In The Handmaid’s Tale, females are deprived of their capability to talk, to write, to read, and are even deprived of their own names. For example, Offred was previously known by June before being owned by Fred Offred. In this world, Handmaids are continuously raped, beaten, shamed, and abused. The scenes are brutal and depressing to watch, as it’s a strange feeling to view the scenes of rape while hearing the narrative of Offred, who reveals to you how to endure it.

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Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, and Joseph Fiennes © Hulu

The Handmaid’s Tale has a storyline that hits close to home in contemporary and political culture but is also remarkably pleasing to the senses. It sounds crazy to type that, but it’s true. Like some sort of cosmic peculiarity, our eyes experience a painful, cruel story, but at the same time, we witness beautiful images brimming with symmetry. Yet, the symmetry and colors play a crucial role in the storytelling of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Women in The Handmaid’s Tale are the most essential piece of the story, this is not surprising as the series is mostly written and directed by women. Every scene brings a new feeling that is inverse to the one preceding. If you are a fan of the production or have a keen eye, you most likely noticed that there are four primary colors; red, green, black and grey. In this world, hierarchy is made clear by shades of clothing.

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The viewer can notice the primary colors in the picture above. © Hulu

When examining tones in The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s easy to remark Handmaids and their scarlet gowns, blouses, and dresses. It symbolizes their fight  — the blood they sacrifice each time they are raped, hit, or give birth. If one watches the episode, one can see that redness is continuously emphasized by its very own temperament and by the camera.  But why this color is assigned to Handmaids? It may be because it’s easily located, even in the distance. Handmaids try to escape the eternal torture over and again hence the shade making perfect sense, yet, it’s the bravest, fiercest color in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale palette — just like Handmaids.

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Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) in June’s room.  © Hulu

During episode twelve of the newest season titled  “Sacrifice“, directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven and written by Lynn Renee Maxcy, and Bruce Miller, the creators used a lot of natural light. It’s mostly practiced in scenes with June sitting in her room and narrating or shots characterizing conversations between characters. The light comes from the window, rays of sunshine show the capacity of the interior. Many times, in mentioned scenes with June in her room, that sun rays seem to represent the contentment of the moment.

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The scene shows the play of light (Ever Carradine, Elisabeth Moss, and Ann Dowd). © Hulu

Colors and light like the ones in “Sacrifice” make a significant impact on the aesthetics of the series. The importance of geometry is highlighted every time Aunt Lydia (Ann Down) manages the gathering with her proteges, as Handmaids always compose the perfect squares or circles, divided by the paths for their Commanders and their wives. This is a repetitive sequence that ideally shows the symmetries that are used by  The Handmaid’s Tale directors and writers; it appeared in season three, episode “Household”. In the scene, Commander Waterford makes a speech while the came is behind him (main photo). Viewers can see his blurred posture while the focus is held by the squares of Handmaids. The only thing you can see is red and white, feel the distress of women who don’t know what will come next.

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Handmaids create perfect geometry. ©Hulu

Alongside geometry, there is symmetry. Servants always stay in the perfect line, perfect circle, or any given shape. There is an “eye-pleasing” symmetry in the way Handmaids are presented; either when they’re secretly meeting or see each other during shopping. The camera work altogether with the storyline and narrative makes a fascinating mix. When experiencing a heartbreaking moment in the plot, you are simply mesmerized by the craft of each angle, shot, and music selection. All of which is mostly the opposite of the present situation happening on the screen. These details wake ambivalent feelings. Making the art aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale so vital to the plot — awakening viewers’ perception to the fullest.

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Perfect symmetrical circle in the down shot. © Hulu

There is one particular scene showed at the beginning of each episode. The scene depicts Handmaids going down the staircase captured by a downward shot. The stairway is shaped like a fish – Ichthys. The symbol was used by Pagans as a fertility talisman in ancient times and appears in mythology, as well as in Christianity. The other one that roots deeply in my memory is June making the propaganda video in the latest season. The scene was reconstructed many times before by other productions, but at this moment, it seems to fit like a glove. The scene in reference is of the main character standing, angel wings behind her (the last picture). Television audiences recently saw a similar shot in Game of Thrones (with Daenerys and her dragon). Though this type of sequence was used many times before, it is still of incredible significance. June, with a serious face, demonstrates that she will fight until her last breath — leaving the audience to reflect on this image with no words — just feelings and emotions.

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Stairway as a fish symbol. ©Hulu

Another crucial element that adds to the aesthetics of the show is the camera work for The Handmaid’s Tale; A zoom-in shot that portrays the character’s expressions and emotions – frequently June.

There isn’t one episode where this shot is not used, and is without a doubt, a signature of the Hulu series. The emotion, conflict, and utter disgust for the Gilead manifested on June’s face became a symbol of rebellion and freedom. Together with Offred’s narrative (often with profanities and a grand soundtrack), the shot creates a token, metaphor  —women empowerment depicted by one face. This is enhanced by Elisabeth Moss’ splendid acting. Similar angles are also used for Yvonne Strahovski who portrays Serena Joy Waterford — a woman who seems to loathe other women, yet, becomes a friend, mother, and traitor. Strahovski solitary portrays each one of those characteristics just by acting with her facial highlights.

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© Hulu

The variety of music in Bruce Mille’s series will satisfy any viewer. The soundtrack is composed by Adam Taylor. However we can also catch hits like: “I Don’t Like Mondays” by The Boomtown Rats, “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” by Leo Sayer, and Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place On Earth”. The last one plays during a pivotal scene at the hospital (episode “Heroic” from season three). The scene consists of  June losing her sanity as a patient. As the hours and days blur into one, the life machine starts beeping in the rhythm of “Heaven is A Place On Earth”. It’s one of the most memorable scenes from the latest season. The Handmaid’s Tale is the barbarous story of the end of women’s rights, but the 80s inspired soundtrack evokes feelings of dancing. Like the case of other aspects mentioned above, this creates a sense of ambivalence while watching the series. Perhaps that is the goal — diverse emotions — but that’s a question for the creator.

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June with the wings symbolizes the strength of all Handmaids. © Hulu

There are similar scenes that you can fall in love with, but it’s hard to see in writing —  you simply have to see it. Although the main subject of The Handmaid’s Tale is controversial, perception by the senses takes power as well. All these components described combines into one picture that harmonizes perfectly with the acting.  As noted, a good storyline is always essential, but the way the product is made is crucial too. Everyone should experience these ambivalent yet so pleasing emotions — and of course, hear Moira (Samira Wiley) say:

Praised be, bitch!

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