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The Handmaid's Tale is so chilling, you risk hypothermia

The Handmaid’s Tale: nightmarish. Photo/Supplied

Season three of The Handmaid’s Tale packs a punch, despite some implausible scenes, writes Diana Wichtel.

The first season of The Handmaid’s Tale gave me nightmares. Even back in 2017, what with one thing and another, the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian theocracy that is rigidly patriarchal – aren’t they all? – seemed too close for comfort. Oh, well, at least you could wake up.

Since then, we’ve seen children ripped from their mother’s arms on the show and also at the US’s southern border. Legislation in some of the southern states has savagely restricted women’s access to abortion and increased the number of protesters dressing in the handmaids’ red robes and white bonnets, some with signs featuring the show’s cod Latin resistance motto: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” Don’t let the bastards grind you down. As producer Bruce Miller has observed, “Our job is to think of what would happen in one of the worst places on Earth. Then it’s our place.”

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Roll on season three. We’ve binged on three episodes. Maybe because of the increasing intersection between life and scalding dystopian art, the story seems in a bit of a holding pattern. Spoiler alert: at the end of season two, Offred/June outwitted the weaselly Commander Waterford and convinced his increasingly squirrelly wife, the misnamed Serena Joy, to hand back her baby girl. June had a chance to head for sanctuary in Canada. Instead she gave her baby into the care of escaping handmaid Emily: “I’m sorry, baby girl. Mom’s got work.”

Elisabeth Moss has perfected June’s now-default expression: a face drained of affect save for laser-focused mutinous menace. She refuses to leave without her first child, Hannah, now reparented with the ruling class in the approved Gilead manner. Her chances of rescuing Hannah seem minimal. Inevitably, she ends up shackled, punished and returned to the wretched Waterfords. They all look a bit over it. More bad news: psychotic handmaid-wrangler Aunt Lydia is back from what we had fondly hoped was the dead, with her cattle prod. Praise be.

Almost every scene in this show is so chilling you risk hypothermia just watching. So, when Emily, on the run, swims a surging river in handmaid’s robe with a tiny baby, credibility is strained. But this season still packs a powerful punch. Half-dead on the other side of the river, handmaid and babe hear a voice in the night: “If you return to your home country, would you be persecuted based on being a woman? … Do you wish to seek asylum in the country of Canada?” It’s a tribute to the dark, too-plausible place that this series takes you to that a formal expression of normal humanity hit like a punch in the chest. Also, I’m Canadian. Reader, I cried. More tissues required when Emily, traumatised, still clutching the baby, walks tentatively into a hospital to an ovation from the staff.

Marthas, the housekeeper class, are being hanged en masse for resistance. Still, the human spirit persists. “When we’re ready,” thinks June, “we’re coming for you.” Her new master, Commander Lawrence, helped Emily escape. He seems an ally. Or is he? “You’re not going to be any trouble, are you?” he asks her ominously.

Meanwhile, Serena Joy, formerly right-wing author of such books as A Woman’s Place and architect of the oppression of her sex in Gilead, is grappling with what she has wrought. Last season, under June’s influence, she had a change of heart, proposing that women in the republic should be allowed to read after all, without being mutilated for the crime. As punishment for her heresy, she had a finger chopped off. Order must be maintained. Under His eye.

The message Serena is confronting is simple and could scarcely be more timely. What you do unto others, in the name of God or ideology, will find you out. For the sake of your own soul, if nothing else, do better.


This article was first published in the June 22, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.