Why do I watch The Handmaid's Tale? Because everyone shouldby Diana Wichtel
The world of The Handmaid’s Tale feels chillingly close to our own in season two.
I may be watching it from behind a sofa cushion as, among many lethal shortcomings of our species, a tendency for moral righteousness to result in mutilated bodies is pitilessly delineated.
This series heads off-piste into territory beyond Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel about the newly minted theocracy, the Republic of Gilead, where a class of red-gowned sex slaves are forced to bear children for the infertile elite. “Blessed be the fruit,” they must chant dutifully. “Under His eye.”
Offred has lost her real name, June, to extreme fundamentalists, her daughter to some privileged, barren “mistress” and her husband to exile in Canada. She’s pregnant and on the run, determined to get out, if that’s even possible any more. “There probably is no out,” she says.
Aunt Lydia gives a sadistic new resonance to the concept of tough love. She likes to remind the handmaids – whom it’s her job to brainwash – that “Gilead is within you”. The way women have been conscripted to police women is one of the nuances of Atwood’s unforgiving vision.
Not to give too much away but, only two episodes in, we have been transported, like errant handmaids, “gender traitors” and other sinners, to a slaughterhouse, gallows set up for a mass hanging and the concentration camp-like landscape of the “colonies”, where inmates, now designated “Unwomen”, are worked to death clearing radioactive waste.
Deft flashbacks continue to reveal how quickly fear can paralyse and freedom can be lost. But so far the most bone-chilling among many arctic moments didn’t involve physical torture for the good of the eternal soul. It was this pronouncement from the cattle prod-wielding Aunt Lydia: “You shall obey His word and the word of His servants on Earth,” she tells her shivering charges, “or you will feel His judgment. For that is His love.”
The scene makes crystal clear in seconds why the belief in a deity who divides us into those who deserve to be saved and those who deserve to be thrown on the fire is a dangerous model to look to. There are always His servants on Earth who will decide in His name to do the job themselves.
As Offred/June, Elisabeth Moss can convey an entire history of human resistance by tightening the muscles of her face. Her eyes express the exhausting watchfulness of those who find themselves at the capricious mercy of fanatics. Her rebellious thoughts – “Our Father, who art in heaven. Seriously? What the actual f---?” – provide some desperately needed light relief.
Along the way, there’s even time to dig into the psyche of the true believer. Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia presides enthusiastically over the mutilation of her charges but when she discovers Offred is now pregnant – “Blessed be the fruit!” – she is suffused with genuine, beaming, bell-ringing joy. “God has created a new soul!” she tells the handmaids.
Offred is given a lesson in what happens to human incubators who fail to rejoice in their situation. It will be difficult to erase from memory the sight of a half-mad pregnant woman chained up in solitary for the duration. Aunt Lydia: she’s busy knocking Livia Soprano off the top of my list of terrifying television mother figures of our time.
The brilliance of The Handmaid’s Tale is that this world and its horrors feel like they are just a few degrees of separation from our own. See June sitting laughing while watching a DVD of Friends in a slaughterhouse. So far, incredibly, this season is even more nightmare-inducing than the last. Why do I watch? Because everyone should.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE, Lightbox.
This article was first published in the May 12, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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