Based on the best-selling novel by Margaret Attwood, The Handmaid’s Tale takes us to a not-to-distant dystopian future, where the United States is no more. Instead, following a catastrophic civil war, the state of Gilead stands. Governed by hyper-conservative Christian fundamentalists (Think Westboro Baptists meet The Hunger Games), Gilead is plagued by mass infertility, a result of pollution from before the war. To build the next generation of little Bible-bashers, the ruling elite use the service of Handmaids to act as surrogates – because of course, the ruling government is one big sausage fest.
The Handmaids are the few remaining fertile women who are enslaved, broken and then assigned to households as breeding stock. In twisted monthly ‘ceremonies’, the handmaids are essentially raped by the man of the house, while his barren wife holds her down. To top it off, they are also treated like slaves, stripped of their identities and dressed up like dolls in red uniforms.
The first season debuted on Hulu earlier this year and was shown on Channel 4 in the UK this month (available on All 4). It cleverly explores complex themes such as gender roles, motherhood, faith, and personhood. The main plot follows Offred (a patronymic replacing her real name, June), played by Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, as she is assigned to the house of a top Commander in Gilead, Fred Waterford (hence Of-Fred). We see her clash with the Commander’s wife – played by the delightful resting bitch face that is Yvonne Strahovski – who is desperate to fulfil her duty as a mother, but struggles to accept this new woman in her home. Joseph Fiennes’ character, the Commander, plays a role quite similar to the Monsignor in Season 2 of American Horror Story. He is perfectly composed, yet quietly terrifying.
Poussey is back! This time actress Samira Wiley plays Moira, the fertile lesbian (granted, poor description) and lifelong friend of Offred. She’s as fantastic as ever. Her performance as Moira is comfortingly familiar with flashes of that Poussey attitude.
Representations of gender roles are shaken up by the role of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). She is an ‘Aunt’, or older woman with a higher ranking than the other women. Guards even fear them, they are the ruthless matriarchs, both mothers and warrior women, tirelessly upholding Gilead’s values. When we first met her, total bitch. But towards the end her genuine concern for the girls – particularly towards the childlike Janine – and her obedience to the faith mean you find yourself warming to her, quite unexpectedly. I’m hoping the next season will reveal her backstory. Perhaps she had a daughter of her own who was led astray by sin and died.
There are disturbing parallels to our society right now. Some of the things happening in Gilead are going on out there in the world. Women are used and abused by men, forced to cover up and stripped of their rights. We see pro-life, discrimination, dangerous religious ideologies, FGM, all woven into a fantasy world, that, when you look closely, is actually painfully close to what we’re seeing on the news every day.
There is a really powerful scene where one of the handmaids (Alexis Bledel from Gilmore Girls) is found to be a ‘gender traitor’ – a homosexual – which is usually punishable by death (again parallels to the terrible world we live in). However, because she is viable breeding stock, she is spared. Instead, her clitoris is surgically removed. “You can’t want what you can’t have,” as Aunt Lydia puts it.
Don’t expect any sort of resolution come the finale. I get that it is only the first season, but still, literally nothing was answered or resolved.
- Poussey is back!
- Nick, the mysterious driver. I would bear his fruit any day.
- The contrapuntal closing scores, in fact the masterful use of music throughout.
- When Offred lingers a little too long after being asked to leave.
- The times when you just wish she would plunge those shears right into that bitch’s neck.
- Women putting other women down. What happened to the sisterhood?
- The lack of resolution at the end is so frustrating.
- Finding yourself saying things like “praised be” and “blessed be the fruit”.