If you watch TV, read the newspapers, or follow social media, you’ll know that everybody’s talking about the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale, adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. It’s brutal, frightening, intense, confronting – truly horrific, yet compulsive viewing.
Coincidentally, Helen and I started watching the series on the same night – and I quickly decided I couldn’t go on. It was just too harrowing – murders, torture, heartbreak. I found myself checking text messages and making cups of tea during the show, just for some relief. (I’ve since heard others admit to ironing and cleaning the bathroom for the same reason – far more productive!). Helen, on the other hand, binge-watched a few more episodes and was totally hooked.
You may have seen the Facebook feed on sub-urban’s page, where I confessed I couldn’t keep going. But, comments such as “best TV series ever” and “so worth watching on so many levels” made me feel I was missing out. Plus, I’ve loved Margaret Atwood’s novels for so long now, that it felt disloyal to give up. So, I’ve now finished episode 4, and I have to admit I’m hooked – although I still shut my eyes occasionally. And I can’t watch more than one episode at a time. I need time to process.
If, like me, you gave up early on, then I’d urge you to keep going. It gets easier, for two reasons. Firstly, you adjust to the horror: sadly, dead bodies hanging by the side of the river no longer make me gasp. Actually, that’s one of the key themes of the show – how quickly society adjusts to a new ‘norm’, despite how horrifying that new norm is (think terrorist attacks in current times). And secondly, future episodes include flash-backs to earlier times, so there’s some relief from the intensity of modern day Gilead.
Now, if The Handmaid’s Tale is completely new to you, I’ll recap. The story is set in Gilead, formerly known as the United States. Gilead is a near-future dystopia; a totalitarian regime based on twisted Christian fundamentalism, formed in the aftermath of a civil war. Women in Gilead have lost their rights, in a return to ‘traditional values’: they can no longer work, own property or have bank accounts. They’re not allowed to read. Women are prized only for their ability to bear children. However, nearby Canada is still ‘life as we know it’.
An environmental disaster has caused the global birth rate to plummet. To sustain the population, the remaining fertile women in Gilead – including Offred, the main character in the series – have been captured and assigned to childless married couples of the ruling elite. These women are known as ‘handmaids’ and their only purpose is to reproduce. They have no freedom or rights, and are the personal property of their assigned family.
Offred is handmaid to the Gilead Commander Fred Waterford and his wife Serena Joy, and Offred’s name signals the fact she is ‘of-Fred’. Before Gilead, her name was June. She lived with her husband Luke and her 8-year old daughter, Hannah, who was cruelly prised from her arms when June was captured by the Gilead army (the harrowing opening scene of the first episode).
Easily distinguishable in their bright red cloaks, handmaids must adhere to a very strict and horrific set of rules – including forced monthly sexual intercourse with the commander of their household, while the wife watches on (known as ‘the ceremony’).
But it gets worse, believe it or not. There’s a heavy military presence, with frequent mass shootings. People who identify as gay, transgender or Catholic are hung (unless they’re a fertile woman, in which case they’re tortured but allowed to live); and anyone who disobeys an order suffers mutilation. Offred is subjected to physical and emotional abuse, and teeters on the brink of losing her mind. She is determined to survive purely so she can find her daughter.
As I said, it’s brutal and disturbing. Your worst nightmare, on the screen in your own living room.
So, why is it the most talked-about TV series at present? Why is it resonating so deeply in 2017? For many, it’s frighteningly relevant given the international political climate. Trump is in power – and we all know his views on women, his extreme beliefs, his quick temper and his popular following. We’ve seen how an unlikely person can gain power when there’s an economic crisis and a desperate desire for change. And is it coincidental that TV production began in late 2016, around the time of Trump’s successful presidential campaign? I don’t think so. This book has been around for 30 years, so there’s been plenty of time before now.
Many of the show’s confronting episodes actually reflect atrocities that are happening this minute, somewhere in the world: female genital mutilation in Africa; female repression under the Taliban; complete disregard for human life in Syria. That’s why it’s such confronting viewing – this is not some crazy sci-fi movie that's completely beyond the realm of comprehension or possibility.
Also, there are similarities between Gilead and Hitler’s Germany. Last year, our book club read Two Brothers, by Ben Elton. I’ve read many desperate accounts of life during the Holocaust, but this one in particular emphasised the gradual removal of privileges for Jewish people. Out of the blue, they weren’t allowed to use the public pool anymore. Then they weren’t allowed to own telephones. Then they couldn’t hold a job.
Reading Two Brothers, and knowing the eventual fate of the Jews, it was hard to believe that most Germans let it happen. But, The Handmaid’s Tale is a reminder that when change occurs gradually – especially if it’s not happening directly to us – it’s easy to turn a blind eye. Think the current Syrian refugee crisis. As Offred says in episode 2, “Now my eyes are wide open; they didn’t used to be.”
So, not only will I watch the entire series, but I’m also keen to read the book. In part, because I love Margaret Atwood’s writing, but also because I’m intrigued to learn how much has been adapted for the current climate. Did Atwood mention terrorism when she wrote the book back in 1985? Possibly, because although it wasn’t a threat in America, it was happening somewhere in the world. Or did Bruce Millar take some liberties with his TV adaptation, updating the content for the current day? I’m intrigued.