“I didn’t create that world. I reflected that world,” author Margaret Atwood said about her famed novel The Handmaid’s Tale in an April 2017 New Yorker Radio Hour interview. “As far as I was concerned, I was reflecting the world that already existed. I didn’t do anything that people hadn’t already done, in other words, and therefore were quite capable of doing again . . .To that extent, I think it’s cathartic to write about those things that are real, and to put them out there.”
The Canadian author provides context for the bestseller many have found chilling in its vision. The 1985 book chronicles a speculative future in which women’s bodies are controlled by the state after birthrates have radically declined. The story is told from the perspective of a woman forced to serve as a handmaid in Gilead, a military-backed theocracy that has taken over the U.S. government. Those women deemed fertile are forced to live and have sex with men in power in the hopes that they will produce children, who will then be given to political leaders’ childless wives.
Other women are relegated to being household help (aka Marthas), Aunts to “train” the handmaids, Econowives, clandestine sex workers, or, if not deemed useful, candidates to be shipped off to the Colonies, where they often suffer a gradual death. The propaganda-driven Gilead bases its social order on puritanical modes of belief, with the covered-up handmaids made to walk at a clipped pace, wear winged caps to hide their faces and pair off with peers, thus always having a second person around who could be a potential spy.
The novel, which has previously sold millions of copies and is now a fixture on the New York Times bestsellers list, saw a huge surge in renewed popularity after the November 2016 U.S. elections, which marked the entrenchment of an administration in which religious conservatism is valued, women’s reproductive rights are deemed to be at risk and media freedoms, including the quest for truth and accuracy, have been attacked.
Hulu's The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t shy away from real-world politics and in fact leans in mightily. Elisabeth Moss stars as June, forced to take the name Offred and work as a New England-based handmaid to Commander Frederick Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) after her husband is shot by the state and her daughter is taken away. The commander and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), unable to conceive children, inhabit a passionless relationship marked by formality as Offred continually remembers personal moments from a time of freedom.
The award-winning adaptation successfully brings to life Atwood’s writing while branching off into new directions. Unlike other dystopian series that rely upon the fantastic and hyper-violence to make their point, Handmaid’s world captivates because of its take on the contemporary and, at times, mundane. Physical brutality is there, but the series’ excellence lies in its ability to showcase how terror can become commonplace, lingering in the everyday.
In one scene, directed by Reed Morano, women shop at a grocery manned by men with machine guns, the handmaids’ crimson cowls standing out among the hazy white of the store itself and the drab olive attire of the Marthas. While there, one handmaid becomes quietly undone after letting slip that she’s been checking out the news, a fraught act since women are prohibited from reading.
Fear is omnipresent and ritual used as an act of oppression. In indoctrination sessions overseen by the Aunts, the communal group circle, no longer a method of alleviating trauma, is twisted to become something vile and abusive. In a later moment, handmaids travel to a mansion to support Janine (Madeline Brewer), one of their own who’s about to give birth. Downstairs, separate from the midwifery, Janine’s mistress quietly emulates birthing pain among other elite wives. These ladies, always clad in royal blue and seen as not being able to bear children, cling tightly to their prescribed social status, bearing hostility to the handmaids amid the sort of refined domesticity celebrated in lifestyle magazines. Yet the fragility of this illusion is highlighted by Serena, whose cruelty bursts through as her desperation to have a child grows.
And this is how Handmaid’s Tale expertly holds up a mirror to the real world that will leave many viewers discomfited. The series departs from the book in significant ways, including racial depictions and the age of specific figures, and seems poised to explore myriad storylines with thoughtful characterization. Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), a friend of Offred with a revolutionary vision, is revealed to be in a relationship with a woman and then barbarically persecuted. And Offred’s best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) is plainly positioned to have a layered story of her own.
Handmaid’s Tale is a major stakes contender in TV programming, taking on issues like gender-based slavery, rape, class and political power in a manner unflinching and brave. Some aspects of the show, such as a discussion between Offred’s husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and Moira about women’s rights, seem oddly throwaway, and certain soundtrack choices have a flippancy that belies the larger message. Yet the big questions posed outweigh the minor missteps, playing up themes that are difficult to see on the screen or page. When considering Atwood’s assertion that the modes of subjugation in Handmaid’s Tale have been very real, such questions are worthy when dwelling on the lives we wish to lead and the societies we choose to support.
'The Handmaid’s Tale' is available on Hulu.
From the Bio Archives: This article has been updated and was originally published in April 2017.