‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is profound, disturbing game-changer

Hulu/Courtesy
Hulu/Courtesy
Hulu/Courtesy

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“The Handmaid’s Tale” begins with a chase scene featuring surveillance-esque overhead shots and evocative close-ups. By the end of the sequence, June (Elisabeth Moss), our main character, is separated from her husband and child — a moment which sets the emotional and stylistic tone for the rest of the series. It’s gripping, heart-wrenching and disorienting in the most crucial way.

Nothing on television right now can compete with “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

When was the last time someone used ‘disorienting’ as a term of praise? If a show or film shakes you to your very core, it’s disorienting, because it makes you see the world differently. You might even say it awakens the mind. That’s exactly what “The Handmaid’s Tale” accomplishes.

Set in the near future, the dystopian series follows June, now called “Offred.” She is a handmaid, a fertile woman taken hostage by the government and forced to bear children for the infertile ruling class. The government portrays the handmaid role as honorable, but in reality, these women are subjected to immense violence: tortured for insubordination, stripped of any individuality and raped until pregnant. Then, immediately after birth, the child is taken away and given to the family who “owns” the handmaid. The handmaid is then removed from that home and placed with another couple who cannot conceive on their own; she becomes the property of a new family.

Why is June now “Offred?” Because the Waterford family owns her, and the man of the house is Fred (Joseph Fiennes). Her name is Of-Fred, just like her friends’ and allies’ names are now Ofwarren and Ofglen.

This show’s premise is incredibly disturbing, especially because the religiously extreme ideologies of the dystopian government are familiar. Representative Justin Humphrey, an Oklahoma lawmaker, told The Intercept in February this year, “I understand that they feel like that is their body.” By “they,” he meant women. “I feel like it is a separate — what I call them is, is you’re a ‘host.’ “

Some of the show’s characters are equally as sinister as their ideologies.

Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), for example, runs the institution that prepares everyday women to become handmaids. She electrocutes them into submission with cattle prods. Under her command, women have their limbs amputated, eyes plucked out and ears stapled with identification tags like animals. She orders Ofglen’s (Alexis Bledel) genital mutilation as punishment for being a “gender traitor” — in other words, a lesbian.

As the series goes on, Aunt Lydia is consistently brutal. There’s no point in which she suddenly realizes she is a violent perpetrator in the oppressive government regime. Instead, her complexity emerges in the loving way she looks upon the handmaids. This not only confirms her deep belief in this system, but also reveals how the enforcers reconcile their immorality.

Each episode simultaneously shows how June’s fate unfolds in the present while giving context through flashbacks. It’s an extremely effective way of demonstrating how things can go from normal to bad to a worst nightmare.

In one flashback, we see the moment that June loses her job — actually, not just June, but every woman across the country. Women are no longer allowed to work or have credit cards. All finances are earned and controlled by men.

When June comes home to inform her husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) of the injustice, he attempts to console her by saying that he’ll just take care of her. It’s a simple gesture, one that shows how systems of oppression can seep in, drowning those directly impacted, while those afforded more power merely see droplets.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” cultivates glimmers of hope without downplaying trauma. Despite moments of defeat, June is angry. That anger breeds resistance and gives her a sense of agency when the government would have her believe she has none at all.

This Hulu original series would be nothing without its source material, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name. In an article published for the New York Times, Atwood explains that the book was influenced by her upbringing during World War II and the Reagan era in which the novel was written.

“Anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances,” Atwood writes. Both the novel and the series serve as a chilling wake-up call.

Sophie-Marie Prime covers television. Contact her at [email protected].