“The provocative 10-episode series is riveting, beautifully unsettling TV.” Photo by: George Kraychyk / Hulu.
By Mark Rahner
May 18, 2017
Let’s say you finish an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale and then see an article about the Senate health care task force being made up of 13 men and no women.
Or with a particularly harrowing episode still on your mind, you read about the president expanding his global gag rule on abortions.
I’m not saying the new Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel is an actual dramatization of the Republican Party’s 2020 official platform. But it’s a cautionary tale with the good fortune of being uncomfortably timely, given the almost daily developments in Donald Trump’s America.
The only real water-cooler show of this spring, THT stars Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake) as Offred, an enslaved woman in a totalitarian theocracy. What’s left of the United States after terror attacks and martial law has been renamed Gilead.
“Offred” means she’s the property of Fred–a Gilead commander (Joseph Fiennes), whose icy, Aryan-looking wife (Yvonne Strahovski) treats her harshly and suspiciously. Another handmaid, Ofglen, belongs to a patriarch named Glen. In a paranoid world where they have GPS trackers on their ears and anyone could be an “Eye” (short for “Eye of God”) handmaids only reveal their real, pre-Gilead names to each other furtively, on walks to and from the market as they pass routine sights of the hanged and hooded corpses of homosexuals, abortionists, and priests who operated outside the official state religion.
Women in Gilead are forbidden to read, have money, or own property. And because of a fertility crisis, the few women still able to bear children are taken as handmaids–conditioned with the liberal use of cattle prods, Biblical verse, and an authoritarian “Aunt,” half drill instructor and half Sunday school teacher.
A handmaid wears a red cape and white bonnet and regularly endures the “ceremony,” the show’s signature disturbing image: she lies between the legs of a wife, who holds her wrists while the husband has joyless, procreative, clothed sex with her.
That is, they repeatedly rape her.
The provocative 10-episode series is riveting, beautifully unsettling TV. And with a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, THT is even outperforming the long-awaited Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. But why? And why now?
Atwood’s story was adapted for a 1990 theatrical film starring Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway, which didn’t generate a fraction of the buzz or critical accolades. The Hulu series plays to the strengths of the no-holds-barred limited pay-cable series format, but that’s not all.
In a jarring flashback to pre-Gilead times, Offred and a female friend walk into a café, where a male barista calls them sluts–a scene guaranteed to resonate in Trump’s grab ’em by the pussy America.
Hulu’s THT is striking a chord because of things we didn’t have when the 1985 book and the 1990 movie came out. For instance:
The most openly theocratic GOP and the most authoritarian president in modern history.
A general coarsening that includes rising racism and misogyny.
A surveillance state with the Fourth Amendment in shreds.
Legislative efforts around the country to crack down on protests, including one proposed in Washington state that would label it “economic terrorism.”
The Republican Party’s stepped-up perpetual war on women’s reproductive rights in general and Planned Parenthood in particular.
A 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in April saying it’s OK to pay women less for the same work as men.
The House GOP’s health care plan allowing insurance companies to deny coverage of pre-existing conditions, such as STDs and PTSD following assaults.
Trump’s promise to destroy the Johnson Amendment, which bars tax-exempt churches and charities from being political.
A radical Christian supremacist vice president who is virulently anti-LGBT and has demented views on women: calls his wife “Mother,” refuses to eat alone with another woman or go without his wife to events that have alcohol.
An attorney general who is not only a blatant racist but believes the separation of church and state is unconstitutional.
Political suppression of science with rather unsubtle parallels to Soviet Lysenkoism.
Hardly a complete list–there isn’t room for one here–but you get the picture: THT comes at a time when America is taking alarming steps backward.
Much of speculative fiction extrapolates from current events to exaggerated cautionary fantasies. Orwell’s 1984 is the gold standard, but Trump’s election also triggered plenty of references to Sinclair Lewis’ eerily prescient 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here. (The “It” was fascism, and you don’t have to dive deep in Google for lists of how Trump lines up against its characteristics.)
And now, recent events have made it easier to draw a straight line from something in today’s news to the horrifying world of the handmaids.
I lost interest in Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, an otherwise fine show depicting an alternate America that lost WWII and is half-controlled by Nazis. After enough media exposure to Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Richard Spencer, and their ilk– yeah, these people qualify for an ilk–the show wasn’t so much escapist entertainment as a parade of better-dressed Nazis.
But the story of Offred may have the opposite effect, outraging us and sensitizing us to how A could lead to B, which could land us in unthinkable C, so that we immediately resist at the first hint of A.
So let’s say you’ve finished an episode and you read about the 13 men writing the Senate’s health care bill. Now maybe you think: American Taliban. No way. And you pick up the phone. Or join your local Indivisible group.
Or after a harrowing episode, you read about the president expanding his global gag rule on abortions. Now maybe you think: Absolutely not. And you write a check to Planned Parenthood. Or you join the next protest. Maybe both.
And let’s say you finish the last episode of the season and see that a Trump-supporting state senator wants to silence dissent by labeling protesters terrorists. You know you won’t be stuck in a red cloak next month or next year, because that’s fantasy. But maybe you go out of your way to make the guy an ex-senator, because now you see that straight line and want to break it before it goes so much as an inch further.