The Handmaid’s relevant dystopia

By Paula Hendrickson

Full disclosure: I read Margaret Atwood’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale way before I was old enough to really understand it. But after seeing the first few episodes of Hulu’s new, original, 10-part series based on the book, I want to read it again.

As gorgeous as Hulu’s production is to watch, the subject matter of The Handmaid’s Tale’s dystopian society – starring Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls), Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black), Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love), and Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck, The Astronaut Wives Club) – is equally disturbing.

Set in a not-too-distant future, our conventional society has been replaced by a male-centric totalitarian theocracy centered on a cult-like hierarchy where women are valued by their usefulness to men: Wives, Aunts, Marthas, Handmaids, Econowives, and Unwomen.

In the new world order, males are assigned wives. But because infertility is so prevalent, wealthy barren couples have handmaids (women who successfully bore children before the “revolution”) whose main job is to bear children for the couple.

Not to be trusted, handmaids can only leave their “posts” when accompanied by another handmaid. In Offred’s case, that is Ofglen (Bledel). Conversations are limited to religious tidings and which route they should walk to buy groceries. Suicide seems to be fairly common among handmaids.

Even the wealthiest of wives are subjugated and miserable, yet they still abide by the society’s complex social code. Compared to these women, Stepford Wives could seem liberated. They probably comply because they know their status is the highest any woman can achieve, but paranoia permeates this world, so they know the “Eyes” are always watching.

Any hints of resistance can be deadly.

Moss’ performance as the handmaid Offred is the core of the series. We hear Offred’s inner thoughts and see flashbacks of her prior life. We know what she’s lost, and we know why she doesn’t fight her newfound role. It’s not threats of violence or being exiled to The Colonies that makes her tow the line, and it’s not that she accepts the new hierarchy. She harbors the hope that one day she’ll be reunited with her daughter. While Offred knows her “place,” she still finds ways to resist – symbolized by how she sets part of a cookie where she knows it will be seen.

The juxtaposition of such a warped and antiquated idea of “family values” set in contemporary times makes The Handmaid’s Tale especially jarring. You find yourself wondering how you would react if your world were upended and you lost your home, family, autonomy, and power.

Perhaps the best thing about this production? Atwood is one of the writers, along with Bruce Miller (Eureka, The 100) and Ilene Chaikin (Empire, The L-Word).

Now that I’ve seen a few episodes, I can’t wait to see the rest, and then re-read Atwood’s novel.

Programming note

The Handmaid’s Tale premieres on Hulu today. If you don’t already have Hulu, you can sign up for a free trial offer.

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