In recent months, The Handmaid’s Tale — Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel about a patriarchal future where fertile women are a tightly controlled commodity — has become more of a symbol than a piece of fiction. From a “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again” sign at a protest to women protesting a restrictive abortion law in costume, it offers a form of protest that cuts straight to the misogynist thread in American populism. Hulu, which will premiere an adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale on April 26th, couldn’t have asked for better publicity.
But The Handmaid’s Tale is more than a political jab. In the first three episodes provided to reviewers, it’s a dystopia that manages to stand out in a television landscape already full of apocalypses and oppressive imaginary societies. It’s a colorful TV series about a woman negotiating domestic drama, and judging from its initial installments — all three of which will be released simultaneously on April 26th — it might be one of the darkest shows on television this year.
In both book and series, The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in the near future — in the book, the 1980s, and on the show, in the late 2010s. A fertility crisis has paved the way for Christian fundamentalists to seize power in the United States, founding a rigidly patriarchal theocracy called Gilead. Under Gilead’s police state, households are composed of high-status Wives; domestic Marthas; and the titular Handmaids, fertile women who are forced to bear children through ritualized sexual encounters with the household’s male “Commander.” One of those women is Offred (Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss), an ordinary 21st century working woman who’s now living in a surreal nightmare.
The TV series’s Gilead is a saccharine combination of various eras that inspire nostalgia in misogynists, from imagined Bible Times to 1950s suburbia. Handmaids wear long dresses and nun-like habits while shopping in spacious supermarkets; wives snipe at their husbands’ biblically justified concubines while picking at pastel macaron towers. Meanwhile, armed guards patrol the borders, gay “gender traitors” are publicly hanged and left to rot on the edge of town, and Handmaids kick alleged rapists — or at least, non-state-sanctioned ones — to death in violent ecstasy.
This setting has some parallels with the Nazi-occupied America in The Man in the High Castle, another recent TV series based on a dystopian novel. But Gilead isn’t a deceptively normal society with a dark underbelly. Almost nobody, female or male, seems happy to be there. (Because the patriarchy hurts men, too, folks.) Every facet of it is openly hideous, just in different gradations. The show’s first three episodes contrast Offred’s tense but safe existence with a grim procession of rapes, executions, and some surgical body horror that isn’t present in the novel.
The Handmaid’s Tale may well be the gold standard for sexual violence, the positive example critics can point to the next time some TV series throws in a bad rape scene. It’s not because the rape is “necessary,” a strange word to use when justifying any invented universe. It’s because here, rape isn’t a sideshow, and it isn’t taken for granted. Rape is an integral part of a world like Game of Thrones’ Westeros, but mostly as background world-building for the show’s largely male protagonists. Nearly every important character in The Handmaid’s Tale is female, and misogyny is a defining feature of their lives, not a single issue in a larger story.
And unlike Game of Thrones or post-apocalyptic media like The Walking Dead, The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t portray rape as the inevitable consequence of society breaking down. It’s a structural feature of Gilead’s government. The series sands off Atwood’s ‘80s-specific political analysis, as well as her suggestion that life for women was a bit dystopian even before the revolution. But it retains ideas drawn straight from that era’s second-wave feminism. (A movement which, to be clear, the novel regards with a fairly critical eye.) Gilead is the epitome of Susan Brownmiller’s view of rape as a “conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” Its society simultaneously rotates around sexual violence and promises to protect women from it.
Moss plays Offred as detached, fatalistic, but quietly resilient in the face of these threats. Her submissiveness is frustrating to watch, but also savvy — she’s equipped with an extreme version of the “feminine intuition” that’s more properly described as “subordinates’ intuition.” And it’s entirely understandable, as quickly revealed in an original storyline built around a rebellious fellow handmaid named Ofglen (Gilmore Girls’ Alexis Bledel). Caught in a relationship with another woman, Ofglen goes through the even more terrifying back channels of Gilead’s theocratic judicial system. It’s difficult to watch, and yet it’s almost cathartic to see someone fight back, no matter how futile that process seems.
Offred’s story examines the relationships that develop between women who have been forced into antagonistic relationships with each other, including Offred and the Wife, named Serena Joy (Dexter’s Yvonne Strahovski), that she’s supposed to be conceiving a child for. Serena Joy is resentful of Offred’s role in the household, but the moment Offred seems like she might be pregnant, it becomes clear how much desperation that resentment conceals — although even her kindness is condescending. Meanwhile, Ofglen gives us a chance to explore places that Atwood — who is also working on the TV series — only references in the book. This is a risky move for the show, though, because it’s a major departure from the book’s understated tone and limited perspective. There’s a lot of potential, but it will take more than three of the first season’s 10 episodes to figure out whether it’s building toward something meaningful.
The show’s ultimate strength will also depend on how seriously it takes the possibility of rebellion. The Man in the High Castle added an organized resistance movement to Philip K. Dick’s defeated American society, but it wasn’t fleshed out in a way that fit the story, and ultimately turned into a distraction. But The Handmaid’s Tale’s early episodes beat the protagonists down so completely that an entire series about crushed hopes — expanded from a similarly dark but relatively short novel — could become repetitive and exhausting.
The Handmaid’s Tale will almost certainly be taken as an indictment of Living In Trump’s America, a fair critique at a time when the government is working hard to roll back women’s rights. But drawing lines between the series and reality isn’t the most interesting or meaningful way to approach it. The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t chilling because it gives us a precise roadmap to real-world tyranny. It’s scary because it suggests that no matter how many decades of progress we make, Gilead will never be more than a few steps behind us. And if we ever stop watching for it, it’s ready to drag us down.