The Handmaid’s Tale: Review
“Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.”
These are the words spoken by Commander Waterford, played by an ice-cold Joseph Fiennes whose rhetoric echoes that of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. The Commander leads international trade deals for the Republic of Gilead, a futuristic dystopia established by the newly-formed theonomist society, the Sons of Jacob. We are introduced to Gilead after the totalitarian group has successfully reconstructed the United States into a fascist society that strips women of their rights, forces them into “ceremonial” submission and continually subjects them to the hierarchical Christian Reconstructivist laws written by a few blatantly heterosexual extremists.
Fiennes depicts a quiet-spoken, well-mannered man whose downfall is his own regime’s inhumane regulations and forced normalities. He is sharp, ungiving and manipulative and is undoubtedly to blame for Gilead’s barbaric, systemic governing body.
So why is it these words are uttered reluctantly, as he sips whisky with unmistakable pain in his eyes?
Commander Waterford, alongside protagonist Offred (Elisabeth Moss), his on-screen wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), his driver Nick Blaine (Max Minghella) and handmaids Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) and Moira (Samira Wiley), collectively thrive on-screen. Each is strangled and shackled by this seemingly unstoppable regime which has infiltrated every facet of the United States.
The blatant, sparkling utilitarianism of The Handmaid’s Tale is displayed through outstanding cinematography: the barbaric tale is carried through an alternating haze of soft snow and gleaming sunlight, illuminating the hollow faces of the tortured handmaids like Offred. Moss’s piercing pale eyes and haunting face exudes a myriad of emotions as she is stripped of her rights, ripped from her family and forced into surrogacy yet biblically worshipped for her invaluable fertility.
The Handmaids Tale is a nod towards a possible future where environmental pollution has left the majority of women infertile, causing those that are fertile to become a “natural resource”, leaving audiences feeling simultaneously relieved that our world has not yet reached this point and fearing a possible future where half the population is commoditised for the apparent ‘greater good’.
The stellar female cast of The Handmaid’s Tale delivers a stunningly simple dialogue of a world that elevates and at the same time diminishes a fertile woman’s position in a country in the midst of an unexplained and often vague civil war. Secret conversations and greetings are awash with Christian rhetoric, reminding us and those of Gilead that “the eyes” (the Sons of Jacob spies) are ubiquitous. The handmaids are trained at the Red Centre to be as servile, submissive and unthinking as possible before they are allocated to wealthy government “commanders” to provide God’s gift – a child. They begin and end each conversation with phrases such as “blessed be the fruit”, “under His eye” and “May the Lord open”, forcibly reminding them of their commodified purpose.
The Handmaid’s Tale is demanding of our attention. It forces us to despise the authorities that foster Gilead and pushes us to ponder the idiocy of the women who do not question whether the men are just as infertile as the women. However, this question is answered by the methods used to suppress uncooperative women – handmaid Ofwarren is electrocuted with a cattle prod and has her right eye removed for her stubborn actions moments after her capture.
Women are given three options in this world, however those few that are fertile cannot choose. They can slave away at the “colonies” where toxic waste will hasten their death. They can become sex workers at government-run brothels like Jezebels which we are brought to in episode eight, or they can comply with authoritative commanders and their wives to fulfil their surrogacy purposes and elevate Gilead’s diminished population.
Many critics are admitting it is difficult to fault Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale – it aptly does justice to Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 speculative fiction (even featuring Atwood for a split second in one scene), allows each character to rise and fall (Ofglen’s triumphant exit from the show in episode five leaves us cheering for her rebelliousness and dreading her punishment) and concludes with some sense of (if anything, ambiguous) accomplishment at the season’s finale. With an overall absence of negative criticism, critics and audiences alike are left drawing parallels between the dark world of Gilead and the current Trump presidency which the US is embarrassingly suffering beneath. Many cannot help wondering how long before the US can slip into a Gilead-like state in which human-induced environmental disaster has significantly diminished the population.
However, a smidge of positivity lies within The Handmaid’s Tale. Commander Waterford’s reluctance to have ceremonial intercourse, his consistent breaching of law by taking Offred to Jezebels and his faltering relationship with his wife displays that his theonomic regime is failing. It proves there is reason to believe that Gilead may fall in Season 2, which is set to be released in 2018.
Although it is difficult to watch, The Handmaid’s Tale is an unmissable show of this year. The message it portrays is one of hope – hope our world will not fall victim to a regime as inconceivably cruel and tyrannical as the one painted by Atwood. Through all its vulgarity, explicitness and cruelty, The Handmaid’s Tale portrays an empowering beauty by giving rise to women who can collectively remain standing through the harshest of social and political conditions.