Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, made a splash when it came out, winning awards and regarded by some as a modern classic. Now Hulu has turned it into a compelling and disturbing television series. The tenth and final episode of the first season will air on June 14, but all aired episodes are currently available on Hulu.
I have to come clean here, at the risk of losing my book club street cred. I’ve never read the novel. I’ve always meant to get to it, but it’s still sitting, untouched, on the shelf in the basement. So I can’t give you the book-vs.-TV version comparison. I can tell you, however, that I am much more likely to get to reading it now that I’ve seen the show.
The story takes place in the near future. After birth rates plummet, and there seems to have been some kind of war, a radical religious group has taken over the remnants of the U.S., forming the Republic of Gilead. Women are no longer allowed to read. The regime has implemented a sort of “Christian” martial law, cloaking their totalitarian laws in Bible passages. And they have created a new kind of slavery.
While the drivers, cooks, and even the wives of the important men do not have much choice in how they live their lives, it’s crystal clear early on that the handmaids have drawn the shortest straw. The fertile women have been rounded up and put through a brutal training to learn the role for which they are intended. They exist for one purpose only—to produce children for the wealthy and the powerful. They are forced into a monthly “ceremony” that is essentially ritualized rape intended to produce children.
The main character, the handmaid Offred, is masterfully played by Elisabeth Moss, perhaps best known for her role as Peggy Olson on Mad Men. Her mix of grief, frustration, anger, and flickering hope is palpable, and in flashbacks to her old life she seems so, well, alive. The flashbacks offer their own perspective, showing a society that was freer. Along with that came the freedom to make poor life choices. So there were shadows in the “good old days” too, but they are the downsides of free will.
The show is starkly and beautifully composed in spite of its dark nature. Offred’s very Spartan life is somehow still visually stunning, which makes the darker aspects of the story even more creepy and convincing. The use of the color red is dramatic, symbolizing both life and violence.
Make no mistake, this is a hard show to watch. Many scenes are quietly, or not so quietly, horrifying. There is good reason for the mature audience rating. Margaret Atwood herself finds it disturbing at times, partly because it is so straightforward in the telling of hard things. It speaks to the way that women, among others, have historically been belittled and marginalized, and it shows the effect that fear mongering has on a society.
As disturbing as the violence is, the religious atmosphere is even more chilling. I have a visceral reaction to the cultish “Christian-ness” of the regime, to seeing the Bible twisted in this way. But it also pushes me to consider the way I represent my faith in the public arena. A later episode introduces a renegade nun who offers a welcome alternative face of Christianity.
The most important theme, for me, has been the way the show demonstrates how we are able to ignore the humanity in others when it is beneficial, or even just more convenient, for us. In the sixth episode, Offred has a brief opportunity to speak to someone from another country. The visitor offers her chocolate; Offred asks if that’s what she’s going to be traded for. “We’re human beings,” she implores.
Given the fact that North Americans can make the choice at the grocery store to buy cheap chocolate that might be tainted by child slave labor, this scene is quite apropos. It is a huge temptation for us to ignore the humanity, and therefore the image of Christ, in others—we can turn off the news about refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, avoid the people who are homeless on our streets, and choose to engage only with others like ourselves.
The Handmaid’s Tale is, from a cinematic perspective, a work of art. A troubling work of art that sometimes hits very close to home.