Since its publication in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale has never been irrelevant, though it has, at certain times, felt more eerily prescient than others. In April 2016, when Hulu first announced its plans to adapt the book into a television show, a Hillary Clinton presidency seemed forthcoming, and the novel’s setting, in a near future misogynist theocracy, seemed to be at a nice, safe, strictly metaphorical distance. Then Donald Trump was elected president. That nice, safe distance closed up in a hurry.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States, now commandeered by religious fundamentalists who used terrorist attacks to suspend the Constitution, exert martial law, strip women of their rights, and create a throwback caste society ruled by men. Environmental devastation has rendered child-bearing rare. Fertile women are forced to become handmaids, a kind of fetishized class of livestock, servants whose job it is to bear children for their masters. It is a society so fearful of female power that it has been built primarily to control and suppress it.
As Rebecca Mead observed in her recent New Yorker profile of Atwood, Trump does not presage a religious dictatorship. “President Trump,” she writes, “is not an adherent of traditional family values; he is a serial divorcer. He is not known to be a man of religious faith; his Sundays are spent on the golf course.” But the ways in which The Handmaid’s Tale is not an exact facsimile of our current moment are part of its anxiety-inducing power. Like the terrible thing in the horror movie lurking in the shadows, all the scarier for never being seen, The Handmaid’s Tale’s imprecision allows the imagination to run paranoid. How will the gaping pit of contempt for women that the recent election revealed continue to play out? What would happen after a major terrorist attack? For all its specific overlaps with our current reality—the opening scene of the series shows a family making a desperate run for the Canadian border—it is The Handmaid’s Tale’s intimations about what could come to pass that will really freak you out.
The excellent series is narrated by the handmaid Offred (Elisabeth Moss), though this is not her given name. Offred literally means Of Fred, the first name of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), in whose house she lives, spending her days in an eerie quiet, punctuated by monthly instances of state-mandated rape. This is the way life is in Gilead: a superficially placid society built on terrifying institutional and sexual violence. Offred often goes to the grocery store and strolls past the river accompanied by another handmaid named Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), both wearing long red dresses and “wings,” the iconic white bonnets that work as blinders, making it hard for the handmaids to see or be seen. Hanging above the Charles—The Handmaid’s Tale is set in what was formerly Cambridge, Massachusetts—are corpses, a warning to dissenters. The streets are clean and quiet, until one hears the crackle of walkie-talkie static and the vroom of a speeding black van, coming to make a human being disappear. Gilead is deliberately anachronistic—but for all the men carrying machine guns.
As in the novel, it is Atwood’s sharp, acerbic, menacing first-person prose, effectively and efficiently trimmed for the series, that punctures the embalmed calm of this “traditional” society. Offred may be forced to cast her eyes down, wear chaste robes, and try to please her fickle mistress, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), but she is nonetheless rebellious and modern, brimming with all she cannot say aloud. “I kind of want to tell [a household servant that] Ofglen is a pious little shit with a stick up her ass,” Offred thinks, with welcome sass. Offred tries to make her mind wander during the ceremonial copulation—in which the handmaid, in a recreation of a line from scripture , literally rests on the wife’s knee, as the husband thrusts above her—but can’t distract herself for long: “I wish he’d hurry the fuck up.” This is profanity with a purpose: Do not mistake a woman’s mind for the religious robes she is forced to wear. It is not just Offred who has gone subterranean. Citizens behave themselves outwardly and inwardly do … who knows.
As we are immersed in Offred’s horrific present, we also learn about the past. There are flashbacks to Offred’s life “before,” to her husband and her daughter, to the day all the women at her publishing agency are fired and their bank accounts turned over to husbands or closest living male relatives, to marches that end in bloodshed. In many of these she is joined by her best friend Moira (Samira Wiley), who also appears in the re-education camp Offred finds herself in after her capture, where the sadistic Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), a true believer with a cattle prod, trains future handmaids in obedience and scripture.
The Handmaid’s Tale is full of brutalities, both stark and subtle. There is the gory particicution, in which the handmaids’ pent up powerlessness and rage is strategically turned on someone the state says is guilty. There is Ofglen’s journey through the rigged legal system, a storyline absent from the novel, that is so horrific it makes Kafka seem like a sitcom. And then there are the quieter, more insidious modes of abuse, in which women valued for their ability to have children are denied the right to mother those same children, bowls of ice cream offered up as solace for what amounts to kidnapping.
Yet for all the horror of the show, I did not find watching it to be an entirely hopeless experience. The miniseries does not come with the novel’s stress-relieving framing device—in which the Republic of Gilead is being studied as a historical relic, some hundreds of years still further into the future—but Offred, with her sardonic asides, her sense of humor, the disobedience in her soul, if not her manner, is bracing company: She’s in this to survive. Offred also tells us that when the extremists came to power, at every moment Americans “didn’t wake up”—not when the Constitution was suspended, when Congress was slaughtered, not when it was all blamed on terrorists. By the time people were in the streets, it was too late. It’s an observation that lets a little light in: It may not be enough to stave off catastrophe, but are we not, in the real world, wide awake? May The Handmaid’s Tale only make us more so.