Just finished the Hulu series A HANDMAID’S TALE, and wow, what a harrowing portrayal of Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel.
If you’re not familiar with the story, it focuses on Offred, a handmaid in the totalitarian Republic of Gilead. Gilead was constituted as a fundamentalist theocracy to replace the United States after a period of national decline that involved pollution and resulting plummeting fertility. Fertile women are trained as handmaidens in this rigidly structured society, forced to copulate with the ruling elite to produce children. Women have no rights in Gilead, sex is regulated and for procreation only, and armed men enforce a very strict sense of law and order. Abortion doctors, gays (“gender traitors”), heretics (Catholics, Jews, etc.) and others are regularly sentenced to death in kangaroo courts, executed, and mounted on a wall as a stern reminder of Gilead justice. Lesser offenses can result in a hand being cut off, eye being put out, or genital mutilation. While Gilead appears to be a Christian republic, its government and language focuses mostly on God (not Jesus) and appears to be shaped along Old Testament rather than New Testament principles.
Offred has a bleak existence. While she eats well and her main household duties are shopping and monthly ceremonial copulation, she is a slave, property. Even her name has been erased, Offred meaning, “Of Fred,” the commander’s name. The commander’s wives are similarly unhappy, the irony being they wholeheartedly supported the creation of a regime that deprived them of power and rights, even the right to read. They are true believers, however, and accept their fate, their sole motivation apparently being to have children in their lives.
The acting is terrific in the show. Joseph Fiennes brings a quiet menace to the character of Commander Waterford, and Yvonne Strahovski manages to make Mrs. Waterford both sympathetic and evil. The most stunning performance is by Elisabeth Moss, who brings an incredible level of simmering terror, resentment and rage to Offred that was missing in the weak 1990 film adaptation and frankly from the book as well.
The show is remarkably faithful to the book while respectfully adding a whole other dimension. We learn the backstories and motivations of Commander and Mrs. Waterford, who are portrayed as regular people motivated by strong beliefs and capable of cruelty but are otherwise not evil stock caricatures. We get a lot more of Offred’s backstory. From there, the show developed aspects of the story to modernize and innovate on the themes. Those familiar with the book will get an excellent adaptation plus new material that flows seamlessly from the central storyline, such as purges in the government and forced genital mutilation of handmaids caught having affairs with other women. There was one aspect of the book that was missing from the show, however, which is the prevalence of Blacks (but oddly, not a single Asian-American). In the novel, Blacks are considered “Sons of Ham” and put in labor camps. In the show, we see Black handmaids in White families and Black paramilitaries (though appropriately no Black commanders). Given racism prevalent in America’s right wing, I found that one aspect unbelievable.
Overall, A HANDMAID’S TALE was brilliant, particularly the powerful and satisfying last episode, which brings viewers to the end of the novel. It’s a satisfying conclusion and doesn’t need a second season, but the show was signed for a second season that will come out in 2018. I’m curious what will happen next as the writers leave the novel behind but carry on its themes.
The novel was always considered socially important but now the show is considered even more so given America’s shift to the Right in the last election. Various states and cities continue to enact laws such as allowing employers to fire women who have had abortions, discrimination is being supported based on religious views, and the thin wall between Church and State is under new assault. A HANDMAID’S TALE is a reminder that there’s a good reason why America is best managed as a secular society, particularly for those who fear Sharia Law, as religious law does not have to be Muslim to be threatening to a free society.