It is indeed an impossible thing, on finishing Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, to shake off her unique vision of dystopia. While her predecessors in the genre, particularly Orwell and Huxley, dreamed of world orders that were arguably still quite distant from our own, Atwood anchors her political nightmare with harrowing details and timely specificity. Hulu’s web-series adaptation, which finished its second season this past summer, updates the settings while losing nothing of the novel’s horrific structure.
Atwood’s characters occupy a near future in which the United States of America has been overthrown in a violent coup and replaced by an oppressive, pseudo-Christian government called the Republic of Gilead. To cope with widespread infertility (itself one of the motives for revolution), officials have instituted the use of ‘handmaids’, fertile women used as surrogates by Gilead’s political elite. Justification for the practice is taken from the Genesis account of Rachel, who presented the handmaid Bilhah to her husband as a way to bypass her sterility and have children.
In what’s known in the book and show as ‘the ceremony’, Gilead’s handmaids are systematically raped on a monthly basis. Between pregnancies and births, they live lives stripped of everything from freedom of movement to their own names – the protagonist is known as Offred, literally “of Fred”, the name of her commander. They’re herded by a class of women known as the Aunts, with the ever-present Aunt Lydia guiding them through the proceedings with a mix of tenderness, taser prods and Deuteronomy. Offred and her companions’ attempts to assert whatever agency they have left is met with mixed results. The action, when it comes, is brief. And violent.
The novel may have been written in 1985, but the show’s release in 2017 wedges it irrevocably into our politically fraught moment: depictions of the time before Gilead’s creation look suspiciously like our own. Protests resemble the Women’s March, cultural pundits debate reproductive anxiety and proto-Gilead supporters use freedom of speech to lock in appearances on campus. It all hits a little too close to home, raising concerns that the series itself would be appropriated as another volley in our current culture war.
Which is exactly what happened: it became the show-of-the-moment and people on all sides of the cultural divide took to using it as gunpowder. Some outlets argued the series serves as a warning for conservative women everywhere, while others claimed Gilead to be a logical consequence of the sexual revolution. For a few weeks, it seemed like everyone from The New Yorker to The Guardian to Rolling Stone was drawing lines in the sand. What we weren’t prepared for, in those early days, was how The Handmaid’s Tale would prove to be so much more.
A well-documented tendency of an increasingly polarized culture is how, when people perceive themselves as under threat, group dynamics encourage the dumbing down of complex issues to one-dimensional talking points. It seemed, at least in the early episodes, that The Handmaid’s Tale was heading down this path: the heroes are resourceful, witty, empowered women (editors, professors, activists) lined up against naive, brutal, religious fundamentalists. Everything was set so the story could run like a well-oiled script, telling us more about our cultural assumptions than about our shared, messy humanity. But what makes the show so surprising, not to say refreshing, is how it resists this impulse well into the new season.
Part of what the series does so well is taking some of the most divisive topics of our moment – religion, say, or misogyny – and rarely settling for ideological cheap shots or soapbox characters. Take Offred, for example. Known before Gilead as June, she starts the second season running away from the regime and holes herself up in what used to be the offices of the Boston Globe. Despite Gilead having appropriated Old Testament language and symbols for their fundamentalist, totalitarian nightmare, she stands vigil for victims of the state with nothing less than prayer: “God, by whose mercy the faithful departed have found rest, please send your holy angel to watch over this place. Through Christ our Lord, amen.” Instead of rooting oppression in something as broad and diverse as religion, The Handmaid’s Tale outlines a complex story of revenge and humility, humanity and complicity, of how inescapable the spiritual impulse can be even among people who have been wounded in the name of God.
Or take Serena Joy, the mistress of the household Offred finds herself in. She represents so much of what the modern world rejects: the oppression of women, the domination of religion over the state, the totalitarian impulse itself. But in the past she was a public intellectual, one of the prominent figures in the creation of Gilead, now reduced to a voiceless domestic accessory. Her wavering between complicity and resistance has launched dozens of confused thinkpieces wondering if she should ultimately be an object of revulsion or sympathy. Or an object at all. What’s revolutionary in her treatment is that nothing she does is softened: she’s both monster and victim. Serena becomes a symbol of so much of what’s become anathema in our culture, and yet the show creates space in a way to dialogue with her person, her position and her worldview. And if we can imagine ourselves in Serena’s shoes, we can do the same for our co-workers, our relatives, anyone we can’t stand on the internet.
This is what’s crucial about The Handmaid’s Tale: in a culture increasingly satisfied with drawing battle lines across ideologies, political policies or identities, the show instead gives us the option to enter the experience of a problematic other. It complicates narratives and encourages viewers to challenge the black-and-white paradigms we receive from our echo chambers. It suggests an alternative to culture war, and reminds us that there are controversies and differences that may not just disappear. That we may need to learn how to approach the things we loathe. That learning to sit in that tension, to refuse tidy answers, is a way of honestly approaching things as we they are. That this all comes with a price. And that maybe, just maybe, we can start feeling our way out of these trenches.
Josh Nadeau is currently holed up in Kyrgyzstan and, when not writing or jotting notes, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.