If I were writing a review blurb for The Handmaid’s Tale (the show, streaming on Hulu), it would look something like:
“…terrifyingly relevant! Five stars!”
I don’t remember how old I was when I first read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It remains one of those books for me that changed me, left a mark. I reread it from time to time, mostly to remind myself of what I’m fighting for when I talk about feminism, and the right to choose, and women’s autonomy.
If you are unfamiliar, The Handmaid’s Tale imagines a dystopian future society called Gilead, which is a theocracy ruled socially and politically by white Christian men — Matt Walsh’s wet dream, basically. Women have zero rights; they aren’t even allowed to read. Because of environmental factors, the birthrate is very low. Women who have proven themselves fertile are conscripted to be handmaids to the ruling class. They lift this idea (and most of the laws of the society) out of the Christian Bible. Each time the commanders have sex with (read: rape) their handmaids, they read a passage from Genesis, the story of Jacob and his wives, sister Leah and Rachel:
“And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” (King James Bible)
The story is told by Offred, the handmaid of The Commander (in the show, Commander Waterford).
If anything, the show is more terrifying than the book. The camerawork is almost uncomfortably intimate. Joseph Fiennes as The Commander is creepy af. What happens after her “transgressions” to Ofglen/Emily is horrifying. In short, LGBTQ people in Gilead are viewed as ‘gender traitors’, and punished, usually by hanging. But because Ofglen is a fertile handmaid, her life is spared; other parts of her, not so much. It’s truly shocking.
In one of the bitterest of twists, the show reveals that Serena Joy/Mrs. Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) came up with a lot of ideas for Gilead’s rule of law. The show gives her a depth of character that the book decidedly does not. She’s *almost* sympathetic. The casting in the show is younger than in the book, or at least that’s my impression. As a result, Mrs. Waterford seems to be in much more direct competition with Offred for the commander’s affection.
The show also gives us some back story for Nick (Max Minghella). It reveals Luke’s fate after the escape attempt. The show also gives us a very diverse cast, which I liked. When I read the book, I pretty much pictured everyone as white (duh), but the show is cast much differently.
Some of the most chilling moments from the show:
After The Commander’s first handmaid kills herself, which is shown in a flashback, as they are taking the body out, Mrs. Waterford looks at her husband and says, “I told you.”
In another scene, after an illegal game of Scrabble with the Commander, he tells Offred that they created the system of handmaids “for your own good…. You’re free now, to fulfill your biological destiny.” Offred says, “What about love?” and he dismisses her as if she’s a child.
This is the part of the show that scares me the most, probably. Because it’s not fiction that plenty of men (and not a few women) do believe that a system that takes choices away from women is actually freeing them for what they should be doing. Women don’t need to work; they don’t need access to reproductive health care; they don’t need to read. They should just submit to sex, conceive babies, and be happy.
The casting of Handmaid’s Tale is extraordinary. There is not a weak character. (Look for a cameo by Atwood in Episode 1.) Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia is amazing. She captures the zeal of the Aunts — women who have been chosen to “train” the handmaids in their new roles. Aunt Lydia is a true believer in Gilead. The comparisons comedienne Michelle Wolf made between Aunt Lydia and Sarah Huckabee Sanders weren’t about SHS’s looks. They were about SHS’s willingness to be a mouthpiece to the powers that be. I don’t know that SHS is as much of a zealot as Aunt Lydia — who is also quite the sadist — but both women are willing participants in the culture of lies and oppression, one fictional, and one very much not.
But all the credit goes to Elizabeth Moss who plays Offred/June. She manages to capture the surrealism of her situation while also recognizing the horror of it. Her facial expressions, and her voice as she speaks in the voiceovers, starts as incredulous — “How is this life?” But as the story goes on, she finds her core and her power. “They shouldn’t have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army,” she says in one of the last episodes of Season 1.
The show ends exactly where the book does (sans epilogue), so I am curious to see where Season 2 takes us.
If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it, but I will warn you: It’s not easy. It wasn’t easy to read twenty-plus years ago when I first discovered it, and it sure isn’t going to be easy now. The show is also quite difficult because it pulls very few punches. The characters in the show are not as one dimensional as in the book — which is scary. These could be real people in power; arguably they are. Don’t tell me VP Pence and his wife wouldn’t be perfectly content in Gilead.
Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale, or watched the show? What do you think?
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