April 7, 2020
I rarely keep up with the release of new series and movies, but the quarantine has taught me that there is no shame in watching popular shows months after the hype has died down. Another thing that should be known is that I swear off watching an adaptation before I have read the book. Last week, I broke my rules and finally got around to watching the three available seasons of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
The Hulu original series first aired in 2017, and it explores themes such as religious fundamentalism, political censorship and oppression, sexism and gender roles. Warning, it should be noted that the show is for mature audiences; much of its content is hard to work due to its depiction of rape and other difficult subjects.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is based off the dystopian novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood, which was first published in 1985. The show primarily follows the story of June Osbourne (Elisabeth Moss), a woman whose sole purpose in life is to bear children for infertile couples after a totalitarian and patriarchal government known as the Republic of Gilead take over what was once the United States.
Handmaids were forced into their roles because of their fertility and sexual sins in the time known as the “before.” They endure psychological, physical and sexual exploitation and abuse at the hands of Commanders and Wives, who are deemed prominent and upright members of society.
Everyone in Gilead is defined and limited by their roles. The society is oppressive to women, and they eerily justify this with Bible verses like Ephesians 5:22-24 (wives should submit to their husbands etc.) All women, including Wives and children, are not allowed to read, write or participate in government.
The whole concept of Handmaids comes from the Biblical story of Rachel and her husband Jacob. In the Old Testament story, Rachel was unable to conceive children, so she encourages that Jacob impregnate Rachel’s handmaid, Bilhah, and thus get children that way. I grew up religious, so I am both shocked and amazed by Atwood’s ability to create a world based on such a literal interpretation of this story.
Like in most dystopian series, the main protagonist becomes involved in efforts to overtake the corrupt society. Many Americans sought refuge in Canada, and June coordinates with a secret network called “Mayday” to deliver Gilead’s citizens across the border, but not without great sacrifice.
June is smart and strong willed against her oppressors, and her driving force is her desire to be reunited with her husband and daughter. June must be careful, or else she will end up on the Wall (hanged) or sent away to work and inevitably die in The Colonies, a place contaminated by pollution and radioactive waste.
Through June’s perspective, viewers see the devastating effects of power, and how love can still exist in the unlikeliest of places.
Elisabeth Moss deserves all the accolades. She is able to deliver a character with heart and soul, grit and trauma. Her performance is one that leaves viewers breathless and in tears.
However, unlike other popular dystopias, “The Handmaid’s Tale” heavily draws from religion and real-life politics, and that is what makes it such a compelling watch.
A speculative fiction, Atwood imagined a dystopia based on social and political events of the 1980s when the United States was embracing conservatism. Of course, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is an exaggeration of all extremes of what could happen if we collectively rejected liberalism and progress, but that is where viewers
and readers see the limitless extent of Atwood’s imagination and genius. The result is something to revolt and marvel at.
From start to finish, the aesthetic of the show is dark and bizarrely pleasing. Gilead appears well-structured from the gleaming streets and historic architecture to the complementary clothing. Wives strictly wear teal, Marthas (domestic servants) wear pale green and Handmaids wear red dresses. Their style of dress and head piece (a white, wide-brimmed bonnet called a “wing”) is a brilliant nod to the Puritan culture and Nathaniel Hawthorn’s novel, “The Scarlet Letter.”
Major kudos go to Hulu, the series’ directors and producers for being able to recreate Atwood’s vision on screen.
The show has been renewed for a fourth season, but the release date has yet to be announced. Until then, make a mental note to binge watch “The Handmaid’s Tale” if you have not already. In the meantime, I will attempt to make good of my promises and begin reading Atwood’s book.