If you’ve not yet heard anything about the The Handmaid’s Tale, let me give you a hand getting out from under that rock where you’ve been hiding. This is an MGM production being show on Hulu in America. They seem to be a good 7 episodes ahead of us. Sadly, even in 2017, sometimes America is ahead of us in tv land. It’s great to have synchronised start dates, but it’s still not the norm. Avoiding spoilers for this much talked-about show is going to be a killer.
A few weeks after starting in the USA this 10 part drama series has been picked up by Channel 4 in the UK, which, as the young, intelligent, and left-leaning political channel is a really good fit for their brand and a bit of a coup. The series is based on a novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood and despite its startlingly relevant content was actually written in 1985. So this dystopian future Atwood envisaged is 30 years closer than we’d have hoped for, and none of her themes are any less relevant or possibilities presented any less realistic. In interviews Atwood says that none of these war crimes in the fictional Republic of Gilead are entirely made up – all have happened somewhere on the globe. This really is extremely dark stuff. Do we as the audience have the stamina to get through it?
The series opening is distressing, as our heroine Offred is violently parted from her husband and daughter, but it’s not a tense escape. We know she’ll get caught. The rippling tension comes from her social position at her new posting with the Commander (Joseph Feinnes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).
The viewer is dumped straight into the story – exposition is very much required, especially as the timeline jumps about from Offred’s life before the USA went crazy, her time in the Red Center training facility and her life at her posting. The subjugated handmaids are all young fertile women who have been forced into slavery with their sole purpose to give birth to children for the elite. We’re told that the wives of the Commanders are barren.
But Offred (elegantly played with power and subtlety by Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss) is no push over. Sly sneaky looks are all we get to see outwardly, otherwise her face is a mask, staying quiet to stay alive. She has an intrusive inner monologue; what she says and what she thinks are quite separate and initially it’s difficult to work out what she’s saying and what she’s only thinking as the thoughts come rapid-fire in the first episode.
We’re in a world of perpetual war, where the whole population seem to wear uniforms. There’s a strict military hierarchy that pervades society, with well-armed security teams on every street corner. The public are under watchful protection, especially the high-value handmaids, increasingly precious as the birth rate falls, but who is the real threat? Is it terrorism, a rebel army massing, or is it just wise to keep an eye on everyone in a dictatorship?
So far we only have a limited view of what the USA has become. Colonies are mentioned and punishment work for renegades is apparently being worked to death clearing toxic waste. Do these conditions really exist or is it propaganda to keep the population in check? The modest attire of the handmaids is very Amish in style – would they be offended to see themselves linked visually to this dystopian world? But then again, how many Amish people actually watch tv? In their distinctive caps and gowns the handmaids also look like nuns. En masse it looks like convent life, behind closed doors it’s more Stepford Wives. We see them forced to change thanks to violent re-education. “Ordinary is just what you’re used to” intones a fearsome Mrs Truchbull figure who is not the type to spare the electrified cattle prod to spoil the child.
The handmaids are a little like cattle, in the fact they seem to have ID tags on their ears covered by the iconic demure cap. Modernity lurks under a false ancient facade. Technology is still very useful, but not fashionable any more, since progress and science seems to be blamed for the population dying off.
Offred’s uniformed life of dull repetition punctuated by violent aggression is contrasted with hyper-colourful memories of her family. She can only, and very quietly, share her fears and her hopes with her friend Moira (Samira Wiley already familiar with aggression and a feminist story as Poussey from Orange Is The New Black). As the sassy black resourceful friend Moira disappears quickly, suspected dead. Hopefully this isn’t an example of that old-fashioned trope. Moira’s fate is gleefully gossiped about by Janine the one-eyed girl who seems deranged. Her eye was taken as a punishment. Can you blame her for a bit of Schadenfreude?
Only one episode in and we’ve already seen the unholy trinity of sad and angry bodies at the heart of this hideous new part-religious part-sexual regime. Offred lies in the lap of the Commander’s wife while the Commander rapes her, desperate to get her pregnant. Sadly we know exactly why Offred is there, but why on earth make the wife a part of it? She’s duty-bound to gaze into her husband’s eyes as he fucks someone else. It’s not just the handmaids who are subjugated and abused. This shit is warped. We see that the people who the regime brand as useless are hanged – a priest, a gay man and a doctor (guilty of abortions perhaps?). So why on earth keep the wives? Technically, by the standards of this horrific future, they’re pretty useless too.
So far, so clearly victims, but the handmaids are shockingly the violent perpetrators in beating to death a man they’re told is a rapist. This strange ceremony is an institutionalised expression of rage, which is useful to the system. Working together they’re all complicit. I’d expected them to solely be the victims, but it’s more complex than that.
Ofglen is Offred’s shopping buddy – assigned really to spy on each other. For months they each think the other is “so frickin’ pious” but at the end of episode one they finally open up and talk. Is Ofglen an ally? Or a risk too far? Thankfully there’s a tiny chink of bright hope in a bleak world – Offred knows her name from before and the names of her family. She may not be with them but she will not let them go. There’s power in names like in the iconic American series Roots about the African slave trade. Her daughter is Hannah, her husband is Luke, and she is Jane. She intends to survive.
Like Offred, we too will survive this bleak and desperate first episode and see what the next will bring. One word of warning for Channel 4 viewers – the advert breaks are very intrusive. It would work much better and be much more immersive on a subscription channel. So if you have the tech, avoid the ads if you can, and make your visit to Gilead as long as you can stomach.
Catch up on episode one at channel4.com now