I’ve been enjoying the version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” developed for Hulu. Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, the story is set in a future version of a large swath of the United States now known is “Gilead,” a military theocracy that, like any good fascist, totalitarian government, was formed over time through a combination of fear, misogyny, and a slow erosion of civil rights. Specifically, the history we’re introduced to (and is specifically set in the Boston area) tells us that most women have grown infertile due to environmental degradation. In a panic, and seen through flashbacks in each episode, religious activists seize power to supposedly just restore order and figure out how America can salvage reproduction. They then start passing laws first outlawing women’s ability to possess bank accounts, and later women’s rights to work. Eventually, the State (which they hint is still warring with what is left of the United States, now relegated to such a small country that it’s capitol city is Anchorage) is organized in a hierarchical fashion where women assume specific, involuntary roles (each with their own color coded uniforms right out of an episode of Star Trek). One of those roles is that of a Handmaid – fertile women enslaved to bear children for Gilead’s rich and powerful men.
The Handmaid Tale’s protagonist is “Offred,” a fertile woman in her early thirties played by Elisabeth Moss (formerly of West Wing and Mad Men fame). We see through flashbacks that Offred (named for her keeper, Fred, and thus she is Of Fred, or “Offred”) had a very normal American life years ago. She was married with one child, worked in publishing, and had an active social life. Unlike the 1990 movie which starred the late Natasha Richardson, Hulu is releasing roughly hour-long episodes each Wednesday in a short-season format (not sure if it will be 8, 10, 12?), and possibly spread across multiple seasons.
Before I even had to put out the call to others who may be watching the show (we’re through Episode 6 by the time of this piece was published on Todd Flora’s America) I discovered that my friend and frequent collaborator Nicole Phillis was equally enthralled. So I looked no further and am so pleased to have her join me again, this time to discuss The Handmaid’s Tale. Warning – SPOILERS GALORE:
TODD: Nicole! Thank you for joining me again. I think this time, I’m going to start with a few things I really like about the show, and invite you to comment on these topics or themes, as well as offer up new plot points or other aspects for me to respond.
The things I’m enjoying most:
- The Casting – Elisabeth Moss (and her big, expressive eyes) has really impressed me as Offred, especially when we see the woman she used to be – June – in the flashbacks. You can see the free-spirited woman with ideas and opinions has really been suppressed. Now that’s acting. I also think Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy, her keeper’s barren and jealous wife, has shown incredible range between her moments of being ice cold and then suddenly very vulnerable. I’m also very pleased at the diversity casting, including OITNB’s Samira Wiley, who is African-American, given references (and I know from the book) that African-Americans were “sent off to live in the colonies.”
- The Flashbacks – The flashbacks have been effective in painting a picture of how Gilead has come to be the place it is, so cold, so misogynistic and militaristic. They have also revealed things that we perhaps thought were quirky lies and propaganda but later prove to have been true. For example, “Aunt” Lydia claiming the Gilead had taken pity on Offred, who was just a sinful “adulterer.” Well, we see later that she did indeed sleep with her (now slain) husband Luke while he was married and stole him from that wife.
- The Tone – The show’s cinematography and clearly strong directors have done a masterful job of painting Gilead as an incredibly cold, fearful society. And of course, obvious symbols like the Handmaid’s gowns been red (might as well call them Scarlet, if you get my meaning) add to the tension, color, and detail of every shot
- The Hypocrisy – It’s quite something to watch the story of Offred and Nick unfold with Serena Joy’s help. Serena Joy breaks protocol by not only admitting to Offred that she thinks Fred (played almost in his sleep by the great Joseph Fiennes), a.k.a. “The Commander,” is sterile, but also then set up an AFFAIR for Offred to have with Nick, their chauffer, to increase the chances of Offred’s pregnancy? A close second on the double-standard scale are the Commander’s gifts of old magazines to Offred, despite the fact that: A) Women are barred from reading and B) That all such “filth” was supposed to have been burned or destroyed years ago?
Very curious about your initial takes and questions!
NICOLE: Todd! I am so thrilled to be back, especially with the opportunity to discuss my favorite dystopian feminist story of all time — both the novel and now the show. I must disclose at the outset that I am completely obsessed with Margaret Atwood. I have read many of her books – in addition to Handmaid’s Tale – The Oryx & Crake trilogy, Stone Mattress, and the Heart Goes Last, just to name a few of the more recent ones. Atwood is brilliant, prolific, biting and unapologetic. To respond to your “favorite things” I see you, and raise you, the following:
- The Sex – You cannot talk about the Handmaid’s Tale without talking about sex. And Atwood has an uncanny ability to tap into the dark, raw, primal aspects of human sexuality. Offred begins the Tale with the most clinical of sex scenes, her head literally cradled in Mrs. Waterford’s lap as she daydreams to escape the ennui of the ceremony. But as her narrative burgeons, we come to see a more complete picture of Offred as a complicated, emotional and fundamentally sexual being. Episode 5 was particularly brilliant in this regard. Interwoven among her always-charged trysts with both Nick and the Commander, we learn of the beginnings of Offred’s relationship with her husband, Luke. Her sexuality in those scenes is so potent you can practically feel it reverberating through the screen. My favorite scene of Episode 5 is the scene where Offred comes to life with her then-lover-come-husband, who later leaves his wife. In addition to being incredibly sexy and aesthetically stunning, the scene and narrative is at its core feminist. Offred’s deep affection for her Luke defies the traditional gendered teachings about the sanctity of marriage (e.g., that once you are a mistress, you will never be a wife) and also portends that female sexuality in particular is something to be revered and reckoned with, and often a source of deep, incredible affection. As Offred’s sexuality grows, so too does her power (vis-a-vis Luke, originally, and later with both Nick and the Commander), a correlation often inverted in Western literature (and film/television).
- The Starkness – The contrast of pre-Gilead to post-Gilead rule is aesthetically stunning. Pre-Gilead the women color their hair, wear makeup, interact freely with each other. Post-Gilead you can practically see the pores of the handmaids’ skin, their Puritanical wardrobe (right down to the underwear), and the weathered agedness of the women’s faces. Everything on the screen feels, reads, and displays barren, from the sterile interior of the grocery stores to to the cold artifice of Mrs. Waterford’s home. In the same way that I love the aesthetic of the Last Picture Show, I find Handmaid’s Tale to be artistically stunning, with each angle painfully negotiated to advance the feel of Gilead.
- The Nuanced Critique of Misogyny – Handmaid’s Tale also teaches us that there are many ways in which to subvert misogyny, and, correspondingly, no perfect clear or perfect path to resistance. For example, we do not judge Ofglen for accepting the Commander’s affections, or manipulating him to her benefit. Quite the contrary, we root for her. We want her to captivate his predation and use it to her own ends. But we also know that every moment she spends with him is a moment spent in imminent danger. One scene that I found particularly memorable was when Nick apologized to Offred for their first sexual encounter, commanded by Mrs. Waterford. Implicit in that apology is Nick’s acknowledgement that he participated in Mrs. Waterford’s deprivation of Offred’s agency, under the duress of a woman so desperate for a child that she is willing to put many other lives in jeopardy. Nick’s apology is complicated, because we can sense the ambivalence of Offred’s feelings toward Nick (she is afraid of him as an Eye, is attracted to him as a protector, desires him as a sexual partner, resents him as compelling feelings of guilt and infidelity over Luke). Rather than providing us with a clear answer, in the final scene of Episode 5 (of Nick and Offred in the carriage house) Handmaid’s Tale holds space for Offred to create her own narrative and reassert some control and agency (physically and figuratively).
So, yeah, basically, is it Wednesday yet?
TODD: The show definitely challenges all of us in one regard: Would we have succeeded in stopping this? If you were an American at this time of upheaval – when the group we know from the book as “the Sons of Jacob” take over the country – what do you think you would have done? Would you have protested more effectively? Taken up an ARMED a resistance? Would you have seen what was coming quickly enough to flee to another country? And can this question even be answered given how societies like this always happen incrementally?
One thing is for sure – I also look forward to Wednesday’s Episode 6 and to returning to the site soon to discuss subsequent episodes with you!
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