A friend who didn’t know much about The Handmaid’s Tale, either the terrifying series or the even darker Margaret Atwood novel it was adapted from, was surprised when I called it an alternate history. All he knew was glimpses of the ads, which highlighted the show’s visual signature: Lines of meek-looking women shrouded in blazing red robes and face-hiding white bonnets. He thought it was some show about 17th century America. That’s by design. This is science fiction set in the future that looks to the past and magnifies the present.
The leaders of Gilead, the new state created by extremist Christians in what’s left of America, are trying to recreate a mythic vision of a bygone country. Their ideal past America was pre-Revolutionary period New England, a time of Puritan fanatics who decreed ascetic Biblically-based lives centered around an iron-bound patriarchal family structure held together in part by denouncing as witches and executing women who stepped out of line.
Instead of fleeing to new territory to establish their ideal state, though, Gilead fomented an underground insurgency to take America by force and bend it to their highly selective Biblical will. In response to a “plague” of infertility (a briefly viewed chart shows birth rates plummeting by 2015), they rounded up fertile women and turned them into the red-robed Handmaids: terrorized breeding stock assigned to upper-class households unable to bear children on their own. Stripped of their names and given new patronymics taken from the husband they essentially belong to, they also suffer a ritual in which the wife kneels behind the Handmaid holding her hands while the husband quietly rapes her. Similar to how Bible quotes were trotted out in the antebellum South to excuse slavery or cherry-picked quotes are used today by megachurch pastors to explain why God is just fine with their owning a private jet, the women of Gilead are constantly reminded of the Genesis story in which Rachel, unable to give her husband Jacob a child, told him to sleep with her handmaid “that I may also have children by her.” This is cold comfort to the wives forced to watch and the Handmaids suffering through it.
Whatever they think of that story, women of Gilead exist only to breed and raise children. At a meeting of Gilead leaders, it’s suggested that the forced impregnation be called “The Ceremony” to make it sound more “godly” since “the wives’ll eat that shit up.” The maid’s names don’t matter. It takes a while before we even know that the Handmaid whose story we’re following, Ofglen (Elisabeth Moss), was once named June. She once had a job, plus a husband and child of her own. But in the first episode’s opening scene, he was killed during their attempted escape to Canada—the North to America’s South in this tweak on the Underground Railroad—June was captured, and her daughter taken from her.
By the time the show catches up to June, she’s already been just about broken by Gilead. Flashbacks to her time at a “Red Center”—a re-education center in an old gymnasium—show cattle prod shocks by the ever-disappointed Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), lectures on the evils of world that Gilead destroyed, and Biblical punishments like the literal tearing out of eyes. After being recaptured in a failed escape with her pre-Gilead friend Moira (sparkplug Samira Wiley, easily the best performer on the show), who appears to have gotten away, June has been assigned to a household.
It’s run by a high-ranking “Commander,” Fred (Joseph Fiennes, a study in half-frowning, half-leering perpetual discomfort), whose imperious wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) makes June’s place clear: “I want to see as little of you as possible … don’t get any ideas.” In between Ceremonies, June sits in her room, a bare wood chamber in a house straining for Colonial asceticism, and tries not to think about how the previous Handmaid hung herself there. Like any other Handmaid, it’s June’s duty to conceive—there are no sterile men according to Gilead propaganda, the fault always lies with the woman—and if she doesn’t, there’s exile to the Colonies where she can clean up toxic waste until her skin sloughs off “like sheets.”
The first episode lays out the contours of this small corner of Gilead that June—confined almost entirely to the house or the occasional walk to the market in the company of another Handmaid (women not being trusted to be alone)—has access to. Her neighborhood is the kind of classically New England upscale suburbia, brick homes with wrought-iron gates and the odd turret on tree-shaded streets, that would appeal to anybody trying to fashion a Puritan American simulacrum. Somewhat ruining the effect, black-uniformed “Guardians” with assault rifles are stationed every few feet and “Eyes” in black vans are always ready to snatch up suspects; both hints that the population still needs putting down from time to time. Every now and again, there’s a “Salvaging”, a kind of primal bloodletting at which the Handmaidens are used as ad-hoc execution squads; Gilead using the tried-and-true totalitarian tactic of making the oppressed complicit in the horror of oppression.
Unlike the more thriller-based The Man in the High Castle, the Nazis-won-the-war alternate history series that’s this show’s closest analogue, The Handmaid’s Tale takes time opening the aperture of this world. It initially follows the spirit of Atwood’s novel, which is related in June’s furtive journal entries, which leave whole segments of the story unexplored. June’s bleak prisoner’s narration mirrors the long-suffering horror that Moss powerfully puts across with her look of dazed and still-fresh trauma: she hasn’t been the property of Gilead long enough to have forgotten what it was like before. By the time June gets a hint of a rebel underground—no totalitarian science-fiction story is complete without one—there is just enough of her left to start taking a stand.
Like the novel, the show initially doesn’t say much about the ISIS-like revolution that toppled the secular state. We only get snippets of how it happened and what’s going on beyond the Handmaids’ peripheral vision-blocking white “wings”. A remnant American government, its flag only featuring two stars, hanging on in Anchorage. Fighting in “what’s left of Chicago”. Old graffiti in a battle-ruined town reading “Fags Die”. Lines of hung corpses frequently seen in the background of a shot, sometimes with symbols on their hoods like a Star of David, or the depiction of a fetus on a doctor who performed abortions.
Later episodes in the ten-part arc broaden the show’s world beyond June’s gritted-teeth fight for survival and sanity. Her relationship with the household’s driver Nick (Max Minghella) and potential love interest is submarined by a performance that’s so submerged it’s less romantic brooding than it is petulant. But the more we see of June’s previous family life and her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle), the greater and more painful contrast is drawn between then and now.
The later episodes also provide an imagining of broader Gilead beyond Atwood’s book and June’s line of sight. Flashbacks of Fred and Serena in earlier days show them as impassioned idealistic subversives, plotting the assaults on the Congress, White House, and Supreme Court that will start the wiping away of the secular world they hate. In an ironic twist, it becomes clear that Serena was a popular writer and activist whose idea created the infrastructure that would later be used by the men of Gilead to subjugate the likes of her along with the feminists and “gender traitors” she railed against.
While the show is explicit about what happened to gays after the establishment of Gilead—summary executions or forced conversion therapy—it goes mum on race. Atwood was specific about Gilead as a purposeful white ethnic construct in which all minorities had been banished elsewhere, possibly concentration camps. The show hints at this by having Gilead’s leadership be entirely white, but includes numerous non-white performers as Guardians and Handmaidens. This deprives an otherwise bitingly relevant story of a necessary link to current events.
Atwood was inspired by the rise of religious extremism in the ’70s, from radical Islamic clerics to resurgent Christian evangelicals, all calling for purifications of their faiths and a call for returning to premodern times. But she also understood that the American brand of that movement carries a specific ethnic component, the same racial backlash anger feeding the rise of nationalism across Western democracies. Pretending that a new Puritan theocracy would be somehow race-blind makes a crucial mistake.
Although The Handmaid’s Tale is bracing and stinging, its livewire reception during 2017 was almost certainly heightened by widespread anxiety over the turbulence and uncertainty of the early Trump months. Looked at all together, sprawling a little too ungainly over ten episodes that probably should have been clipped by two or three, the series has most of the high political horror of Atwood’s original while losing some of its bottled-up urgency. Ending on a cliffhanger with the whiff of revolt in the air, it looks ready to go further into broader Gilead than Atwood ever did. Whether that’s a worthy endeavor will depend in part on how much the show is willing to draw from today’s world to imagine but one possible tomorrow.