The first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale contains some of the worst things you are ever likely to see on television. It is also the best hour of TV you’ll watch all year. The adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, in which America has been transformed into a totalitarian, patriarchal theocracy, is simply, stupendously brilliant. It is extraordinary—conveying its oppressive atmosphere so successfully that watching it is a continuous, visceral shock.
And I don’t even like dystopian fiction. I rarely have the stomach for suspension of disbelief, when the payoff is entering into a grey landscape of zealous bureaucracy, grim servitude, and unremitting misery, in which everyone seems to have forgotten their sense of humour. Honestly, what is the point of anything when all the trees and flowers have gone, there’s no hope of redemptive love, a rat’s eating your face and your children have turned on you?
Perhaps a deeper problem with dystopian fiction is one of genre: it is, often, too clinically clever. There can be a numbing emotional disconnect between all those cerebral ‘what ifs’, and the sheer awfulness of the fictional lives depicted. Like horror films, there’s a certain point where empathy with a character’s suffering becomes unsustainable, and leaves you cold. How can anyone possibly stand it?
Really, I suspect that I dislike dystopian fiction because, in the coming dictatorship, I’d be first against the wall. I, a constitutionally unsporty figure, intolerant of physical hardship, would be a ridiculously ineffective resistance fighter. If forced to make a show of complicity, I’d probably overegg it. On the basis of the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, I suspect that I would be Janine, who, ten minutes in, has an eye gouged away after one protesting, sarcastic fuck you. The act of resistance becomes, ultimately, as meaningless and arbitrary as her punishment.
But my real problem with dystopias is that I can never wholly believe that they could actually happen—they always seem to have taken the repellent aspects of the human condition and run with them, leaving not just human goodness by the wayside, but all the quirks and oddities and gloriously silly bits of human nature, too. You see how these things are suppressed, in vile dictatorships, but you can never quite see how everyone got there in the first place.
This is exactly why The Handmaid’s Tale is a masterpiece. “Ordinary,” says Aunt Lydia, the sinister matron who indoctrinates handmaids in the Christian fundamentalist belief system of the Republic of Gilead, “is just what you’re used to.” As she explains the handmaids’ new roles as surrogate breeders—“two-legged wombs,” inseminated by rich men to provide children for their infertile wives—women who protest are tasered and silently dragged away. Aunt Lydia rearranges her expression from cold brutality to a sympathetic smile. “Girls, I know this must seem very strange to you. […] This might not seem ordinary right now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary.”
The Handmaid’s Tale flits between four timelines in the story of our protagonist, Offred—the name she has been reassigned in the Republic (played superbly by Elisabeth Moss). After an opening scene in which she is chased through the woods by gunmen with her husband and child, we see her alone in the home of The Commander and his wife—the slyly named Serena Joy—to whom she has been assigned to produce a child. Immediately, we cut back to her indoctrination as a handmaid, in which brutalising classroom scenes with the fearsome Aunt Lydia are interspersed with whispered dormitory conversations among frightened new recruits, like scenes in an all-female Full Metal Jacket. The camera cuts back again to sunlight-saturated scenes in a time before Gilead, as Offred (then June) and her friend laugh over beers and discuss their college essays.
This narrative arrangement shouldn’t work. Flashbacks are, with few exceptions, poorly executed plot devices in television. But they are handled with chilling brilliance in The Handmaid’s Tale. What might, in the hands of a different director, have been jumbled and confusing, instead becomes a masterclass in disorientation, playing on the borderlines between dream, nightmare, and waking reality. Daylight scenes seem more threatening than the soft-focus night, because “the moon is still the same” even if everything else is an absolute shitshow. The ‘now’ of Gilead seems visually more unreal than the vanished past. But we see that this is how waking nightmares happen: totalitarian regimes come to power in periods of panic and disorder, while people are still too confused to find their bearings. By the time they have apprehended the new reality, they are inescapably trapped.
“I don’t know what I did to deserve this,” states Offred’s voiceover. She kneels in the home of The Commander, in preparation for the perversely Christianised ceremony in which she is dispassionately, mechanically raped, while lying with her head in the lap of Serena Joy. It is the most nauseating thing I have ever watched on television. It is made worse still by the fact that Offred’s statement is no moral appeal, but is delivered in sheer, appalled surprise: not how did this happen to me? But how did this happen?
This is what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so awfully believable. By the time you’re running through the woods for the border, it’s already too late. But who prepares for the worst before then, while there’s still a semblance of normality and something to lose at stake, and probably things will get better, in time, anyway? How many Americans who said they’d move to Canada if Trump got in actually quit their jobs and went to Canada?
Much has been made of the timeliness of The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation, which coincided, unforeseen, with the election of Trump to the presidency. It is not difficult to find parallels between the Republic of Gilead and the Republican Party’s erosion of female autonomy. On the one hand, we have rich and powerful men, driven by fundamentalist zeal to deny women the right to ownership of their own bodies: outlawing abortion, declaring contraception to be the murder of innocent lives whilst cheerily advocating the death penalty, and calling for men to uphold the purity of their daughters and sisters—even as they boast of assaulting women who ‘asked for it’. On the other, we have, well…
These parallels are, in a very real way, more than sophistry. Mike Pence sexualises women so compulsively that he won’t allow himself to eat food in the company of a second X chromosome unless chaperoned. His boss literally thinks he’s entitled to put his repulsive hands on a woman’s vagina, because he has convinced himself that being famous means “you can do anything” to a woman without her consent. Republican legislators refer to pregnant women as “hosts”, actively denying that they are “individual people.” “I understand that they feel like it is their body,” said Oklahoma representative Justin Humphrey of women seeking abortions, in the tone of a man who appeared genuinely convinced of his own magnanimity. “What I call them is, is you’re a ‘host.’ […] But after you’re irresponsible then don’t claim, well, I can just go and do this with another body, when you’re the host and you invited that in.”
This is what objectification looks like. “Objectification” is often used, in broad terms, to mean the act of degrading a person; in this sense, we use it for men who treat women, as subjects, vilely. When Trump sexually assaults a woman, for instance, we imagine he does it because it makes him feel powerful. He is thrilled to get away with treating a person like a piece of his real estate—because, on some level, he knows you’re not supposed to treat people like that. We might call this common or garden-variety vileness.
But objectification has a more specific, and more sinister meaning—as the act of degrading a person to the status of an object. It takes a different kind of evil to imagine that you can turn a person into less than a person: to think that you can turn a thinking, feeling person into a thing. To instruct women that the feeling of owning your own body is a kind of hallucination, like a phantom limb. You’re a host vessel. God works through you.
There is a terrible banality to this kind of evil. Evil rarely comes dramatically, in the guise of self-confessed villains relishing their own malevolence. It happens through stock phrases and pious homilies, repeated by people who are convinced they’re doing the right thing and following protocol to the letter. The Handmaid’s Tale is full of godly repetitions and puritanical sound bites: “blessed be the fruit”, “may the Lord open”, “under His eye”, “praise be”—automaton-like speech acts which indoctrinate compliance. We get the sense that Aunt Lydia genuinely believes that she’s doing right by her charges. “You are special girls,” she tells the handmaids, as she explains their role as breeding vessels. “You are so lucky! So privileged!” And then: “blessed are the meek,” she beams, as Janine is tasered into unconsciousness. “Eyes front.”
So awful is it to watch the handmaids’ autonomy disappear, bit by bit, as they are reprogrammed into blank subservience, that I let out a kind of strangled sob when Offred’s companion Ofglen (played by the wonderful Alexis Bledel) turns out not to be the “pious little shit” we first thought, but someone who missed salted caramel ice cream and “sex. Like, good sex.”
Margaret Atwood herself has written that she found a scene in the adaptation “horribly upsetting,” in which the handmaids are brainwashed into shaming Janine, who is being forced to recount how she was gang raped as a teenager. In the scene, the handmaids are arranged in a circle, with Janine in the centre. “And who led them on? Whose fault was it?” asks Aunt Lydia of the rape. The handmaids raise their arms, and slowly point their fingers towards Janine. “Her fault. Her fault. Her fault.” “And why,” asks the Aunt, “did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?” The girls intone, again and again, “Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.”
We see with appalling clarity how women become complicit in internalising misogyny, because the alternative—be it social isolation, or physical punishment—is too unbearable to contemplate. Complicity can mean taking advantage of the limited power that you have left. “Although it was ‘only a television show’ and these were actresses who would be giggling at coffee break,” Atwood writes, “I found this scene horribly upsetting. It was way too much like way too much history.” Atwood, famously, didn’t include anything in the novel that hadn’t happened somewhere, at some point in time.
This is why The Handmaid’s Tale is so terrifying, and so urgent. Its most shocking moments are not the most dystopian ones, at a fictional remove from reality. They are the ones that are closest to reality. You led him on. You asked for it. They are the moments when structural misogyny is dressed up as patriarchal concern: this is for your protection. You’re a special girl. You should be grateful.
Atwood has said that she wrote the novel in response to the complacency of American exceptionalism—the sense that religious fanaticism and female subjugation were things that happened in the past and in the developing world, but “couldn’t happen here,” or now. Well, things could certainly be worse, but it’s happening.