The Handmaid’s Taleis a bleak, depressing, and disturbing show. So why do I love it so much?
by Eric Peterson
When started our little podcast, the 2016 elections had just happened, and the idea was specifically not to discuss politics. We’d focus instead on pop culture; it’s something we love, and we thought it was important (for us, and for any eventual listeners) to occasionally focus on things that bring us joy, or at least irk us in ways that don’t feel monumental.
So I found myself in a quandary when planning out our fall schedule. Because it’s tough to avoid politics when your current pop culture obsession is a television show based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
For those out of the loop (and without Hulu, the streaming service that produces the show), The Handmaid’s Talefirst appeared as Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel. It was a first-person account told from the point of view of a woman known only as Offred. You see, a group of Christian radicals has overthrown the United States, and replaced it with the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy wherein women are not permitted to work, read, or even speak out of turn. Because of unnamed environmental disasters, most woman are unable to conceive children; those that are still fertile are forced into chattel slavery, where they are ritually raped each month by their masters, in an attempt to create a next generation. People walk around greeting each other with creepy, state-mandated catchphrases like “Blessed be the fruit” and “May the Lord open.” Yeah, it’s cheery stuff.
The book was made into a film in 1990, starring the late Natasha Richardson as Offred and Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway as Fred and Serena Waterford, the powerful couple who keep her. In 2017, the novel became a mini-series in 10 episodes on Hulu, starring Elisabeth Moss as Offred, Joseph Fiennes as Commander Waterford, Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy, Ann Dowd as the terrifying Aunt Lydia, Samira Wiley as Offred’s best friend Moira, Alexis Bledel as a rebellious handmaid, and Max Minghella as the Waterford’s chauffeur. The mini-series turned out to be such a hit that it was brought back in 2018 for a second season, taking the story beyond the plot originally outlined by Margaret Atwood (though presumably with her blessing, as she is a producer of both seasons). A third season is expected.
People seem to be divided into three camps when it comes to this show: 1) Those who don’t want to pay Hulu or Amazon for the ability to view it, 2) those who might very well appreciate what the show is doing, but can’t bring themselves to watch something so disturbing, and 3) those who are obsessed with it. Stacey is in that second group; I’m firmly ensconced in the third.
And yet, I understand where the first and second groups are coming from. There’s too much good television around anyway, and if dystopian nightmares aren’t your thing, I get it. Also, in today’s political climate, The Handmaid’s Taledoesn’t strike some as a form of escapism, but just the opposite. As citizens wrestle with the notion of a President with a fondness for authoritarianism and a Congress who has little desire to curtail that desire, Gilead is an unlikely place to choose to be.
Interestingly, when the series was being created, the showrunners, like most everyone else, expected the show to premiere while Hillary Clinton lived in the White House. Surely, in the age of our first female President, a show like this would feel something like science fiction. Instead, it feels more real all the time.
In fact, the show can be downright eerie in its prescience. When our national conversation turned to increased tensions between the US and Canada (seriously? Canada?), the ninth episode of Season 2 aired – in which the Waterfords went to Canada on a diplomatic trip, were rebuffed by the Canadian government for basically being awful humans. The following week, when every news program (except for Fox News, I’m sure) was obsessed with family separations at the US border, the tenth episode of the season aired, during which armed guards ripped Hannah, Offred’s child, from her mother’s arms. It was wrenching, doubly so because it was so … present-tense.
Even without the uncanny reminders of our lived reality, the show would still be disturbing. Women (and some men, particularly the gay ones) in this society are abused in ways both large and small, and most of it difficult to watch. And yet, I find the whole thing oddly inspiring. Because despite the horrors of Gilead, these characters still find a way to resist. Sometimes, resistance is simply holding onto their sanity by refusing to be the victim of gaslighting. Sometimes, it’s taking someone’s hand or forcing a smile out of them when they’re about to lose hope. And sometimes, resistance is banding together, sharing information, helping others escape, and overtly fighting the patriarchy. Sometimes, it kicks ass. And in these troubled times, it feels good to witness a little ass-kicking here and there.