The Handmaid’s Tale: a superlative dystopian crime drama for our time

I’ve been catching up on Series 2 of the astonishing, riveting Handmaid’s Tale

Yes, I know it’s a dystopian TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s literary vision of a totalitarian, theocratic future American state. But, given my own leanings towards crime, it won’t surprise you to hear that I’ve been looking at it through a particularly criminal lens. And once you start looking, it turns out the series has an awful lot to say about criminality, and in particular, crimes committed by the state and their terrible effects.

The Republic of Gilead is a criminal state masquerading as a godly utopia. Here’s a flavour of the ‘everyday’ crimes committed in Gilead’s name: state-sanctioned murder and mutilation; rape; forced pregnancy; separating children from their mothers and families; slavery; exposing individuals to toxic chemicals; denial of basic individual agency, autonomy and free movement.

As Atwood has famously noted, nothing in her 1985 novel is invented: “when I wrote it I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that human beings had not already done somewhere at some time.” In particular, she draws on the repressive society of seventeenth-century Puritan America, and twentieth-century regimes such as Nazi Germany and Ceaușescu’s Romania.

What she, and now the TV series pull off so brilliantly is a feat of defamiliarization. We’re used to hearing about ‘stuff like this’ happening in countries far, far away, but seeing it enacted in a familiar universe – one where people get takeaway macchiatos and watch Friends just like us – is a jolt for the viewer. The series makes highly effective use of flashbacks from ‘before’ to keep reminding us how close pre-Gilead society is to our average western society today.

Those flashbacks, and their depictions of June’s once happy life, with all of its messy liberal freedoms, also call to mind a famous photo taken of some young female students hanging out in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Have a guess which country it’s from.

Answer: Iran, before the establishment of a repressive theocratic regime in 1979.

As is the case in all totalitarian states, women’s lives in Gilead are particularly controlled. Offred (meaning Of/Fred; belonging to Fred) is a ‘Handmaid’, a fertile woman assigned to Commander Fred Waterford and his wife Serena Joy for the purpose of bearing them a child in an increasingly underpopulated world. But Offred is also June Osborne, who once had a career in publishing, the mother of Hannah and the wife of Luke, neither of whom she has seen since the family’s attempt to cross the border went catastrophically wrong. She and the other Handmaids (often highly educated career women, like university professor Emily), have been pushed from the public into the private sphere, and have had their identity and all of their rights stolen from them.

Offred/June and the other Handmaids are our crime victims; the state and its representatives are our perpetrators. It’s what the series does with that basic configuration that makes it so outstanding.

The visuals in The Handmaid’s Tale are stunning. Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Here are a few of the things The Handmaid’s Tale does so well. It:

  • provides an in-depth examination of what it’s like to live in a state where your political and social outlook, or your sexuality are deemed to be criminal and could easily get you killed.
  • is brutally honest about the realities of resistance in a repressive state. On the upside, no state control is ever completely monolithic, and there are opportunities to resist and oppose the regime. The downside is the risk of heavy punishment, either to you or to others close to you (which is sometimes a thousand times worse). And resistance might involve doing things that are extremely unpleasant and/or morally compromising.
  • gives a daringly nuanced depiction of victims and perpetrators. The series does not shy away from showing how Gilead sometimes forces its victims to become part of the oppressive state machine (for example, by being made to mete out punishments to other citizens who are ‘criminal’). It also shows a spectrum of perpetrator motives and attitudes, from hardliners who sanction and commit crimes in the name of the state’s ideology and religion, to those who aren’t necessarily true believers, but serve the state for some other kind of gain – security, status, power – and who *may* sometimes help women to resist. Such figures (like Nick) exhibit behaviour that is ‘grey on grey’ (as the historian Detlev Peukert once wrote of the complex moral actions of citizens living under National Socialism).
  • shows the leading role that women (like Serena and Aunt Lydia) play in aggressively policing other women. Serena is particularly fascinating; one of the chief architects of Gilead now sidelined because of her gender. The penny is slowly dropping that the glorious society she has helped create is one in which she is almost completely disenfranchised herself (could get interesting).

Serena (Yvonne Strahovski, right), with the other commanders’ wives

  • It also shows the sheer grind of surviving in a highly restrictive and hostile criminal state. And this is where the second series really comes into its own. Unlike a film that lasts two hours, or a single series with a neat conclusion, the second series shows us characters who are in it for the long haul. We see yet more struggles, more resistance, more heartbreaking reversals and terrible fates. And it’s exhausting. As viewers, we are given the tiniest of glimpses into an oppressive reality that could quite easily last for years if not decades, leaving individuals hugely damaged and traumatized – if indeed they ever manage to escape.

It feels particularly fitting, for obvious reasons, that The Handmaid’s Tale is an American series (made by Hulu), and features a number of top American actors, such as the outstanding Elisabeth Moss. It’s impossible to watch it at the moment without reflecting on the preciousness of democracy, personal freedoms and civil rights. It also feels very much like watching a warning. A recent episode showed June looking at newspaper reports from before Gilead’s rise and saying wonderingly ‘it turns out it was there all along’.

So: aside from being superlative TV drama, The Handmaid’s Tale is a crime story for our time – the story of the rise of a criminal state and the multiple crimes it perpetrates against its citizens – and the story of a battered, grim, imperfect resistance. An absolute must-see.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum…

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19 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale: a superlative dystopian crime drama for our time

  1. That’s what makes the story so powerful, Mrs. P. It really is happening. And it starts in insidious, seemingly innocuous ways, too. I’m glad you’re enjoying the television drama; I think it’s extremely well-acted, and the camera work is outstanding.

    • I think the series would have been powerful in any circumstances, but it does now feels like it’s been made specifically for us at this particular historical moment (I’m thinking here not only of America, but also of countries like Hungary, which have taken a worrying turn for the right). And yes to the insidious, seemingly small things (as history repeatedly attests). A key question is whether people are willing to really ‘see’ those things or not.

      I totally agree with you about the acting and camera work. Elisabeth Moss stands out for her amazing performance, but it feels more like an ensemble piece in the second series, as we follow Emily, Janine and Moira’s stories too. Apparently we get to hear more about Aunt Lydia’s backstory at some point (perhaps this has already been shown in the US?); I’m looking forward to finding out more about her and her motivations.

  2. Reading the book and creating the images in my mind was a shocking experience, I am not sure I am up for a movie that moves at a “can’ catch your breath” pace.

    • Hi, Quimper Hitty. I remember first reading the novel and knowing, pretty much from the opening page, that it was going to be one of my most important reads. I’ve dipped back into it since watching the series, and it’s still just as powerful as can be. At some point I’ll sit down and reread it properly. My sense is that the two are going to complement one another perfectly (it doesn’t feel like the book will be swamped by the TV adaptation).

    • It is a very hard watch, isn’t it? I’m finding that I can only watch one episode at a time, and not too late in the evening! But the sheer quality of the drama is keeping me hooked, along with the women’s stories.

  3. Have you been watching the last series of The Bridge? Which BBC 2 have nicked from poor old 4, seems the only decent imported crime drama 4 has is Spiral from France, which was originally on 2, wonder if they’ll claim thar back!
    Also is Wales the new Scandinavia, Hinterland & now the excellent Hidden.
    4 did manage to get the excellent French Si Fi series Missions, the first series has just finished, well worth watching.

    • Morning, Brian! I haven’t been watching The Bridge, which is remiss of me (I somehow fell out of the habit during the last series, and now don’t feel like I can catch up). Lots of my friends are watching and enjoying it though. I hope they give Saga the best of send offs!

      I love the idea of Wales being the new Scandinavia. Thanks for the reminder to watch Hidden. Definitely on my list and rising… And I’ll check out Missions. Thanks as ever for the recommendations x

  4. I must admit I haven’t started watching the second series yet, because in some respects I’m not sure I want to, though I am sure i must. The book had the same effect on me, having read it shortly after its publication. I couldn’t bear to read it again until just recently.

    • Hi Stella – I put off watching series two for a while because I was nervous about where things would go once they’d departed from Atwood’s original storyline. But if anything, season 2 is shaping up to be stronger than the first, and they’re pulling off that difficult trick of widening Atwood’s world while staying faithful to it beautifully.

  5. Incredibly well written piece, Mrs P. And so timely. I, however, am unable to watch the second season. Maybe I could handle it in the future.

    • Thanks, Ewa. I held off watching the second series for a while too, and did have to take a metaphorical deep breath before going back in. But – and this is going to sound odd – in spite of the very dark subject matter, there have been really affirmative moments, not least because June and many of the other women are not passive victims. And there was one bit that made me laugh out loud. So there is some light in amidst the shade.

  6. The Handmaid’s Tale is among the scariest TV dramas ever, for all of the reasons you outline in your post, Mrs P. I’ve been in two minds, though, about how well Season 2 works as drama because it is slow and so almost unrelentingly bleak. That said, I’ll be interested to see how the season ends and where it goes next.

    • Hi Angela – that’s so interesting. I’ve felt almost exactly the opposite; that it’s been pretty action packed (I’m up to episode 5 so far), and that there have been moments of real affirmation and hope amidst all the bleakness. The big, big question – how will it all end? Huge dilemma there for the writers (perhaps they’ll go the way of the book?) Don’t want to say too much in case of spoilers…

  7. I’ve always shied away from books about the severe oppression of women. Didn’t read this book when it came out when so many women writers were publishing. I didn’t want to read about this topic. And I haven’t watched the TV show either. Not unless there is a rebellion and women and others oppressed win. Then I’ll grit my teeth and get through the book.

    • Fair enough, Kathy. I don’t think watching or reading something you’d rather not is ever a good idea. I can’t do horror, for example, no matter how much my son tries to persuade me that it’s a ground-breaking genre with lots of insightful social commentary. I’m sure he’s right (at least in relation to certain films), but I just can’t bear to watch it.

  8. I’m with you on the horror, also dystopian fiction and science fiction. I like my fiction realistic.
    Only problem: These days Handmaid’s Tale may not be too far off depending on what happens with
    the misogynist in chief in the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court. I think a womehn’s
    movement will pop up before things all fall apart. But right now it’s pins and needles.

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