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Television Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale – Season One (Hulu; 2017)

Recently awarded the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, The Handmaid’s Tale is a quality production marked by visual flourishes, powerful performances, and resonant themes amplified by contemporary political applicability in a revanchist era of resurgent authoritarian ideologies and empowered anti-woman figures. It’s also deliberately an extrapolation and an expansion of its seminal source material, Margaret Atwood’s 1986 dystopian novel of the same name. In opening up the imagined totalitarian American theocracy of Gilead and the key role that the red-robed Handmaids play in it, the show’s creator Bruce Miller and his collaborators re-direct and re-focus its implications and meanings.

Told entirely from the first-person narrative perspective of a young woman known only as Offred (a slave name linked to her controlling male authority figure), Atwood’s novel imagines an alarming but eerily familiar near-future in which the United States of America as we now know it is no more. Taking advantage of social and political crises related to plunging birth rates caused by pollution and STDs, Christian fundamentalists have launched a violent coup and gained power over an indeterminate portion of the country: the Eastern Seaboard for certain (geographical clues place the immediate setting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Atwood attended Harvard University), with the Midwest as an apartheid-type mass internment zone for African-Americans and unspecified “Colonies” spoken of as hellish penal settlements where the most undesirable are hidden away to expire. A perpetual territorial war is fought by young soldiers known as Angels, who battle Baptists in Appalachia and the South and serve as convenient vessels for unifying national propaganda efforts.

The Republic of Gilead organizes itself as a fascistic patriarchal theocracy. Democracy is abolished, religious freedom has been eliminated, and adherents of other faiths who do not convert are executed, their corpses exhibited publically as medievalesque warning about the costs of defying authority (along with homosexuals – called “gender traitors” – and anyone else resisting Gilead’s power). All political and social power is held by the Commanders of the Faithful, a rich white male cabal who decide policy on strict Old Testament grounds (though, typically, do not hold themselves to such pious standard of personal behaviour) and enforce it brutally with jackbooted armed men called Guardians and secret police known as Eyes. Women cannot work, hold money or property, read, or manifest any independence outside of subordinate roles to Gilead’s men; they are the either blue-dressed Wives of the ruling class, the lower-class Econowives who marry men of lower status, the household servant Marthas, or the red-clad Handmaids, who are trained and monitored by the strict nun-like subalterns of state power, the forbidding Aunts.

The Handmaids are women identified as fertile in an increasingly infertile society and therefore are treated as valuable if unfree human breeding stock. They are to live with Commanders for two year terms, where they are regularly forced to have sexual intercourse (in a twisted ritualistic “Ceremony” involving not only the Commander but his presiding Wife as well) in hopes of becoming pregnant and delivering the children of the ruling class. They are allowed out of home confinement only for brief walks to shop, as well as for ceremonial occasions such as rare births by their fellow Handmaids and propagandistic communal executions of enemies of the state called Salvations.

Atwood teases out these details entirely through Offred’s narration, interweaving them with memories of Handmaid training and of her life before the Gilead revolution (when she had a husband, Luke, and a young daughter, who was taken from her), as well as her heroine’s psychological reactions and observations on her plight and small notes of defiance. The television version of The Handmaid’s Tale accomplishes the same effect with a primary focus on Offred (played with steel and commitment by Best Drama Actress Emmy winner Elisabeth Moss, whose cloistered and intimate perspective is smartly imparted in cinematographic terms) but with tangents, backstories, and multiple perspectives filling out the picture of this world (not to mention some punchy, interesting musical choices, including an uncertainly-pitched but definitely memorable closing-scene use of the late Tom Petty’s “American Girl”).

We see things not only through the perspective of Offred but also of Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), who gets his own standalone episode detailing his escape north into Canada (the series was filmed in Southern Ontario, a Hamilton mansion serving as the Waterford house and Cambridge, Ontario’s riverfront standing in for that of Cambridge, Massachusetts); of Offred’s Commander, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his Wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), a power couple within the Gilead-establishing Sons of Jacob movement who tensely see the arrangement of influence shift considerably once the unforgiving gender hierarchy is in place; of Offred’s pre-Gilead-era best friend Moira (Samira Wiley), who escapes Handmaid school and is relegated to duty as a Jezebel, a caste of entertainers and prostitutes used for the amusement of the ruling men; of Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), Offred’s strolling partner, a resistance underground member, and a lesbian; of Ofwarren (Madeline Brewer), a fellow Handmaid whose successful pregnancy exacerbates her mental problems; and of Nick (Max Minghella), the Waterfords’ driver, Offred’s clandestine lover, and either an Eye or a member of the resistance group Mayday (or perhaps both; the second season may portend more revelations on this point).

The expansion of Atwood’s vision of Gilead and its translation into a visual storytelling medium involves not only this widening of perspectives, but also any number of other additions, some more successful than others, that alter the course of The Handmaid Tale‘s thematic streams and render the series as a deeply related but ultimately unique artistic statement. Gilead is simultaneously more open and more repressive on screen than on the page; Offred’s resistance to the order of the regime comes to be more open and undeniable, providing stronger impetus for her supposed arrest at the narrative’s end than merely her trysts with Nick or nocturnal Scrabble sessions and illicit gentleman’s club visits with the Commander. Luke and Moira’s scenes in Canada and a diplomatic visit by Mexican officials present opportunities to provide an outside view of the workings of Gilead’s society, as well as hints about how other nations are coping with declining birth rates.

Furthermore, the Waterfords are not only named and given a backstory and related believable tensions in their marriage, they are aged down from the older couple of the novel. This not only adds sexual tension to Offred’s interactions with the Commander (Fiennes is memorably reptilian here), but it erects a whole new dynamic between Offred and Serena Joy. In the novel, Serena is a former televangelist singer, now aged and cynical and implacably bitter towards this younger, more fecund woman entering her household. Strahovski’s younger Serena is a generational contemporary of Offred, thus emphasizing not only their rivalry for the Commander’s interest but also establishing a curious solidarity, a weirdly deferred sisterhood (even if Serena, as an architect of the Gileadean order, is one of the masterminds of both of their objectifications). An expanded role for Handmaid enforcer Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd, who won the Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Emmy for her performance) gives Offred a firmer antagonist than the good cop-bad cop Waterfords or “the system” itself, and allows a more nuanced and detailed exposition of the Handmaids’ symbolic role in Gilead beyond their practical reproductive function.

The biggest shift from novel to screen for The Handmaid’s Tale must surely be its ramping-up, in tonal terms as well as tangible visible subject matter, of the oppressive violence of the totalitarian state in Gilead. Rebellious Handmaids are physically punished, dissenters, enemies of the state, and gender traitors are put to death, street protestors are brutally smashed by military force (although the racial divisions of Atwood’s Gilead are left aside; there is no suggestion of specific state discrimination of African-Americans, and Moira – Wiley is African-American – is set on the path to Handmaid status). These violent fascistic eruptions and open crackdowns on dissent were alluded to by Atwood, hinted at, but only rarely integrated with Offred’s own experiences as fixed-perspective narrator. The novel took form as a memoir of a single individual in the midst of a totalitarian theocracy, her resistances minor and perhaps ineffectual, her own awareness of Gilead’s horrors too slow to arrive at first and too narrow to act meaningfully on in her current situation. It would seem that onscreen, this violent oppression is the ultimate trump card in the effort to establish Gilead’s dictatorial bonafides, while on the page the disturbing details of women’s lives under this order are more the point and the thrust of Atwood’s political satire. Those details are very much drawn out effectively in the series, too, don’t get me wrong, but Miller and his team feel the need to bold and underline This is Fascism for their audience.

Although it might have been assumed that Atwood’s impetus to write The Handmaid’s Tale (the title gestures to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) in the 1980s lay in the emergence into American public life and political influence of conservative Christian Evangelicals during the Reagan years, the ideas grew from other sources with more authentic dictatorial bonafides. Atwood’s readings on American Puritans while at Harvard revealed a people alighting on fresh land seeking not freedom of worship but a theocratic dictatorship where only their own beliefs were tolerated (Atwood’s own ancestor, Mary Webster, survived a hanging sentence for witchcraft in Puritan New England, and the novel is pointedly dedicated to her). Atwood observed the utopian extremism of social-engineering totalitarian regimes in Romania and Cambodia, whose restrictive laws often fell hardest on vulnerable women. And her feminism informed the misogynistic rhetoric underlying Gilead’s unforgiving reproductively-ordered gender hierarchy, taking discriminatory attitudes about women’s appearance, temperment, and sexual status in free, secular, tolerant North American to their logical and oppressive extreme.

But in a fruitful accident of timing, The Handmaid’s Tale series has seen its themes amplified by contemporary political conditions in the country where it is actually set. The election of Donald Trump as U.S. President, with Mike Pence as his Vice President, has made a dystopian vision of a religiously-mandated gender hierarchy in American society that has dire consequences for women seem troublingly current. Of Trump’s many defining character faults, his bluff chauvinism and privilege-fed objectified treatment of women is among the ugliest, if not the very pinnacle of his towering mountain of moral deformity. A twice-divorced serial adulterer with a history of nasty statements about women, Trump infamously bragged on tape about sexual assaulting numerous women and getting away with it, behaviour which has destroyed the careers of other powerful men but which barely touched Teflon Don on his road to the White House. Pence, meanwhile, is a near-exact match for a Commander of the Faithful, with his fundamentalist faith, legislative history of curbing abortion laws and women’s health policies, and unnerving insistence on never being alone in a room with a woman who is not his wife. If they have not instituted a full Gileadean order as of yet, there’s little doubt (especially in the case of the quiet fanatic Pence) that they wouldn’t much mind doing so, if for almost diametrically opposed (but equally misogynistic) reasons.

As compelling as it was in its first season, The Handmaid’s Tale promises to proceed into true uncharted territory in its second season. Though it takes a different path to get there, its finale episode ends just where Atwood’s novel does, with Offred leaving her forced home and entering a van into the unknown of either deeper suffering or desperate freedom. Miller and his writers will have naught but their own inventiveness to guide them, as well as Atwood’s curious academic conference presentation coda for her short novel, which suggests that whatever else happened to Offred, she did at least briefly get out of Gilead, as well as that the regime is now studied as a curious historical phase in America. We might hope that the current American phase will also be studied as a historical curiosity by more enlightened and secure future thinkers, and that the troubling views and wider policy intentions of current leaders do not portend a real Gilead in the States. Whether on the page or on the screen, The Handmaid’s Tale is the sort of art that warns of the darkest potentialities of politics and culture so as to argue for course corrections that allow us to evade those possibilities.

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