The first three episodes of the long-awaited adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale premiered on Hulu on Wednesday, and they paint a terrifying possibility for the future. Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, the show will seem frighteningly familiar in today’s world of sudden restrictive laws, women’s marches, and religious rhetoric.
The story takes place in the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States, a religious military theocracy where the new regime staged a coup after blowing up Congress and blaming terrorists. Since then, they have done away with most human rights and all women’s rights. In this society, women are considered possessions. They are not allowed to have jobs, vote, own property or bank accounts, or read. Doctors, homosexuals, and clergy are executed. Infertility is a major problem. Birth rates have declined sharply after an unspecified disaster.
Gilead is built on conformity and routine: all the handmaids wear red, the wives blue, the Marthas green. They follow the same routine every day, go to the same places, walk with the same people. But they never speak more than the basic niceties (“Blessed be the fruit”, “May the Lord open”). The women are forced to distrust each other, never knowing who will turn them in to the Eyes, Gilead’s KGB.
Offred (Elizabeth Moss) is a Handmaid, one of the few fertile women left who are forced into sexual slavery. They are raped once a month during The Ceremony, a pseudo-threesome where the men penetrate the women while the women lie in the laps of the wives. She’s assigned to Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).
She was fired when it became illegal to have women employees. Her daughter was taken and her husband killed as they tried to escape. Even her name, June, is now not allowed. Even Offred is not a name, just a title, literally “of fred”. She now spends her day walking to the market with her assigned partner, fellow Handmaid Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), who she describes as a “pious little shit with a broomstick up her ass”. The women can never get close, neither certain if the other is a true believer.
The show, like the book, doesn’t overload you with explanations. Information comes from you can see or what Offred experienced herself. Flashbacks allow us to follow Offred’s journey into this crazy new society, including brainwashing and a presentation that explains the reasoning behind their movement: infertility. Infertility brought about by pollution was made much, much worse, they claim, by “dirty women” and their birth control and abortions.
A likely scenario
The terrifying thing about this show is just how real it seems. In the third episode, Offred explains in a voiceover the extremely real way in which American society collapsed:
“When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists, and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then either. They said it would be temporary. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”
-Offred, episode 3
In the opening minutes of the first episode, we see Offred (then June) attempting to escape to Canada with her husband and daughter. Ofglen later reveals that her wife and son had Canadian passports and were able to escape. In today’s era where many have already crossed into Canada, it’s easy how that could escalate.
In a sequence straight out of the news, women in America decide to march to protest their sudden loss of rights. This women’s march, complete with signs and chanting, unfortunately, does not have the same peaceful ending as the recent worldwide march. The military police open fire, mowing down dozens of protesters in a few minutes.
As you compare the world of The Handmaid’s Tale to today’s world, it gets harder and harder to watch. In a world where we need a March for Science, the execution of all academics, doctors, and scientists seems less implausible than before. The execution of homosexuals is, like most other things that happen in the show, already happening around the world.
It’s a sobering glimpse at what our future could be — and in many ways, already is.
New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale will be available on Hulu on Wednesdays. In Canada, the show premieres on Sunday at 9 p.m. on Bravo.