Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Hulu’s much anticipated 10-episode series, The Handmaid’s Tale, premiered on April 26th, 2017. The first three episodes of the adaptation are currently available for streaming, and the following seven will be released, one at a time, every Wednesday.
Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale was released in 1985 and tells the story of a dystopian society formed within the borders of the United States, in which a militarized group overthrows Congress and rips away women’s rights in response to seriously declining birth rates. The group, the Sons of Jacob, scarily uses Bible passages out of context as law. Women who are able to have children become ‘Handmaids,’ and they serve powerful families by birthing their children. Sales of the novel soared following the 2016 presidential election.
In the novel, pollution, birth control and the rapid spread of STDs were largely blamed for falling fertility. But in the show, the theme of blame is pushed further, and the assumption is that the woman is 100% at fault for a couple’s inability to have a child.
And for women in the modernized version of The Handmaid’s Tale, there seem to be endless sources of blame for declining birth rates. The new regime decries women’s egregious autonomy, demonstrated through their use of birth control and the morning after pill. Their engagement in parties, sexual positivity/exploration—even through the seemingly harmless use of Tinder—and non-heteronormative sexual identity qualifies them as a “gender traitor” in the administration’s eyes.
The violence in this adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has been seriously amped up, particularly against queer characters. In the first episode the main character, Offred (Elizabeth Moss), and her grocery shopping companion, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), walk past the hanging bodies of three people who have been executed: A priest, a doctor and a gay man. The horrifying message is abruptly made clear: Individuals are not to practice religion, medicine, science or sexuality without regulation from the government.
Shortly after, in a flashback scene, Offred’s friend Moira (Samira Wiley) says that their mutual friend disappeared in a ‘dyke purge.’ Even using the word ‘gay’ is strictly forbidden in this new society. The implication, of course, is that a woman who is attracted to other women holds no value in this new society because her sexual orientation implies that she won’t provide children.
However, fertility alone clearly doesn’t entail women with status or complete protection in this society, because Handmaids are controlled by the Wives of powerful men called Commanders. The fact that Wives remain a more powerful class of women, despite their infertility, mirrors an attitude lingering still today that women are incomplete if they’re unable to bear children (or choose not to). But in this world, marriage to a powerful man trumps the ability to bear children.
Personally, I find the interactions between the Wives and the Handmaids to be one of the most fascinating parts of the TV adaptation. The glances between Offred and the Wife she serves, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), are loaded with envy, hatred, desperation and sometimes, curiously, kindness—because ultimately, Serena Joy needs Offred to provide her with a baby. In this way, the Handmaids retain some power, no matter how regulated their bodies are.
Clearly, the Wives face a struggle of their own, despite their high social status, as they emotionally grapple with their infertility. Plus, the idea that fertility is a key part of womanhood once again comes into play when Wives are present and play a role in the Handmaids’ sexual relations with Commanders and the birth of their babies.
The show is visually powerful, playing with light to instantly set the tone of different scenes. I think the most powerful scene of the show so far is when Offred, Serena Joy, and the Commander perform the Ceremony, in which they attempt to get pregnant. Offred lays between Serena Joy and the Commander while no one makes eye contact. Depending on your perspective, the couple is either connected or separated by Offred, and the group is weirdly disjointed by their collective disassociation. The presence of both a Wife and a Handmaid during the Ceremony implies that neither one makes up a whole woman without the other.
The show’s largest deviation from the novel thus far comes from Ofglen’s backstory, told through the show’s excellent use of flashbacks and through her illicit conversations with Offred. Ofglen is a former chemistry lecturer, saved from the death most educators faced because she successfully gave birth to a son before the new regime took power. Ofglen’s wife and son escaped to Canada, but she was forced to become a Handmaid. Now, she works as a spy, secretly transferring information in a way viewers don’t quite understand yet. Ofglen’s rich backstory and brilliant work as a spy make her a dynamic, strong character. As a queer woman, she faces additional persecution, yet she also has more to fight for.
Viewers, please bear in mind that the violence in The Handmaid’s Tale is often difficult to watch, particularly the violence against queer characters. With the addition of Ofglen’s backstory and sexuality comes horrific physical and sexual violence, some of which is shown on screen.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a show all about control. Even the way people speak is controlled, from the phrases they use, to their eye contact, to their ability to speak at all in a situation. The cast performs a lot of their fantastic acting with their bodies, facial expressions and even just their eyes.
Even Offred’s well-meaning husband, Luke, exhibits some control in a flashback scene from ‘before.’ When the new government overthrew Congress, they created laws that forbade women from working, owning property, or having their own money. All money would be transferred to husbands or male next of kin. Luke immediately says that he’ll “take care of his wife.” This sentiment might seem caring, but Luke’s language immediately implies ownership over Offred, calling her “my wife” rather than using her name. Additionally, he is quick to say that he can take care of Offred, when it is clear she does not want to be taken care of—she wants her autonomy back.
In the remaining seven episodes, I’m curious as to how the show will deal with Ofglen’s divergent plot line as well as how it will address race. The novel handled race by reinstating slavery and telling the story from a solely white perspective. The TV show, however, has made two vital characters, Moira and Luke, black. This offers the potential to dive into topics of intersectionality for Moira, who is also a lesbian, and interracial relationships through Luke and Offred.
Overall, The Handmaid’s Tale does an excellent job of showing how it’s possible for such a strict dictatorship to take power. As Offred says, “In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” This story has maintained its popularity since 1985 because of its ability to make readers —and now viewers—ask “What if this happened to me? What if this happened here?”