'The Handmaid's Tale' Is Important, Which Means It Has to Do Better

Alexis Bledel in a shattering, silent performance.

Everything in The Handmaid's Tale narrative is grounded in gendered oppression that exists, or has existed, somewhere in the world, always.

The Handmaid's Tale

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski
Subtitle: Season 1
Network: Hulu

The Handmaid’s Tale wasn't an easy show to watch. What in the original novel had been told (effectively) became shown so brutally and viscerally, creating a downright haunting feeling that lingered long after I closed the laptop screen and continued the rest of my day. Needless to say, The Handmaid's Tale isn't a show for the faint of heart to chance watching at night, and I imagine the effect would have been magnified if the show had aired evenings on a network or cable show, like the once-standard but now increasingly obsolete mode of watching television. In a way, watching it on a laptop actually mimicked reading the book in typical codex form because the idea is that you close the book -- or the laptop -- and then are able to return to the real world and do whatever it is you have to do next, allowing a clear physical "switching-off" action to delineate the bounds of reality and fiction.

The important thing to remember with The Handmaid’s Tale, which that I didn't really address properly in my first review, is that while the events and story themselves are fictional, Margaret Atwood has famously stated that she didn't make anything up for the book. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in April 2017, she said: "I didn't put anything into the book that has not happened sometime, somewhere. Or wasn't happening then and isn’t happening now […] I started from what I was collecting and seeing."

While it might, to some eyes, look different enough from anything based in reality -- the Handmaids' blood-red uniforms (and the clothed class system in general) or the lack of children out and about on the streets -- the horrifying society of Gilead is pieced together from systems that are real. When I wrote that The Handmaid’s Tale was "unfathomable", that really said more about me than about the show. Writers of color, among them the incredible Angelica Jade Bastién of Vulture, have opined that The Handmaid's Tale lifts, wholesale, what actually happened to African-American women in the United States under slavery, and reframes it as a shocking, unimaginable dystopia by centering the story on the white women for whom the ingrained historical systems of ownership, subjugation, and rape were never a lived reality.

Additionally, she calls out the so-called “post-racial” ethos of the show overall as unrealistic: the show's "view of America rings false because, in times of strife, divisions don't dissolve -- if anything, they become more ingrained (which proves true for gender on the show)." This aspect rings absolutely true, and it's something dystopia seems to neglect a lot of the time: the Hunger Games novels only obliquely mention racialized differences among those living in District 13 that aren't even present in the films, choosing to center its dystopia wholly on class divides while, as we see, The Handmaid's Tale does the same with gender.

As Soraya Nadia McDonald notes for The Undefeated, "So Gilead is postracial because the human race is facing extinction, and that prompted Americans to get over several hundred years' worth of racist education and social conditioning that depicted black people as inferior and less than human?" I'm not sure how a more thoughtful approach to race in a dystopia could've been addressed in The Handmaid’s Tale, as the source novel excises all Black Americans entirely from Gilead. Yet these arguments are something to consider when evaluating how "shocking" the show is, or championing its feminist bona fides.

The early marketing for the series also got off to a little bit of a rocky start where the f-word is concerned; infamously, Elisabeth Moss, who plays Offred, claimed that The Handmaid's Tale wasn't a feminist story, but a "human" story. She later walked back those comments, but the show itself actually proves her initial description correct: there's been an added focus on the male characters of the story -- namely, Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and Nick (Max Minghella) -- which dilutes the original power of the novel as specifically the experience of (white) women in this kind of society.

Luke and Nick are each given basically an entire episode to expand their backstories and attempts to deepen their characterization, but these episodes have the effect of being the least interesting ones of the series. We already know that Offred and Luke were separated while trying to escape (although it's great that Luke does survive), and we know that despite some personal misgivings, Nick is an active cog in the Gilead machine. We know that when push came to shove, they either didn't worry all that much about what was coming (Luke promises, rather patronizingly, to take care of June when her money is confiscated) or, like Nick, they stood by while everything was changing and did nothing. And they’re the apparently "good men" of the story.

Thus, the moments where the women are interacting with one another in complicated and treacherous ways, and the scenes where they're developed further, are the most effective in The Handmaid's Tale. Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) is treated a little too sympathetically at times, but the contradictions of a once-powerful woman gleefully designing and signing off on her own oppression do make for interesting story arcs. The same goes for the trade representative from Mexico (Zabryna Guevara), a woman who's happy to accept the clear suffering of the Handmaids, and is all too willing to accept them as chattel slavery to help repopulate Mexico.

Here The Handmaid's Tale, within the context of the show, clearly gives lie to the idea that all women are bound together by some vague idea of sisterhood, but the extra-diegetic aspects of the show’s non-approach to racial issues don't reflect this keener approach to solidarity. The show knows that #YesAllWomen and #Solidarity are lies, but, seemingly, not the people making it, or many of the fans, like myself, who didn't properly appreciate the points that Bastién and McDonald were making.

The show's hard-to-watch-ness culminates in the mostly-devastating finale, "Night", which is one scene after another of agony and emotion. Offred learns she’s pregnant -- although whether Commander Waterford or Nick is the father isn't exactly clear -- and the sequence in which Serena Joy reveals her depthless malice and cruelty, when she goes to visit Hannah (Jordana Blake), Offred’s stolen daughter, while the literally caged Offred screams and cries in agony in the back of the car, reveals both the power and lingering danger of pregnancy in Gilead. No one will harm Offred in her pregnant state on pain of death, as we saw in the first episode, but Serena Joy can use Hannah as leverage to make sure Offred toes every line.

Yet Offred spends most of "Night" in a dazed but determined mood, culminating her leading her fellow Handmaids in an act of rebellion as she refuses to begin the process of stoning Janine (Madeline Brewer) to death for threatening to kill the baby she previously bore. Let she who's without sin cast the first stone, goes the (appropriately modified) Biblical saying, but the Handmaids refuse to be the one to cast their stones at Janine in what has to be a deliberate bit of irony: none of the Handmaids are without sin in the world of Gilead, because in their hearts they all want to escape, and they literally drop their stones to the grassy field in defiance of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd).

Unfortunately, "Night" makes the worst of its notably odd musical choices in the last moments of season one, which felt almost like both a cop-out and a slap in the face to the viewers who were taking the show seriously. Offred is led to a black van by armed guards, not knowing whether she’s going to be punished or somehow saved from the horrors of her life. This tension is completely undermined by the downright comparatively bubbly opening licks of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” which has the effect of feeling as corny as any pop song ever used to lead in movie credits. Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me", while also jarring, has enough moodiness and melancholy to make its use in The Handmaid's Tale seem clever, but "American Girl" flat-out doesn't work: ha ha, America is Gilead, Offred (or June, rather) is still an American girl because she rejects Gilead, but I just ended up rolling my eyes so hard that I still feel the strain, days after finishing the show.

The Handmaid's Tale, then, has its work cut out for it in season two. The best we can hope for, given the global political and social reality, is that it will feel remarkably dated or passé when it next drops onto Hulu. In lieu of the world utterly shifting on its axis in favor of universal gender equality within the next few years, The Handmaid's Tale would be wise to take some of the well-wrought criticisms touched on earlier in this piece and by others, and finally approach becoming the feminist television series we all deserve.


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