The Handmaid's Tale: Season 1
There is a certain fascination involved in a well-crafted dystopia. Considering the realization of a real-world problem, taken to an often-exaggerated degree brings out the deep-seated fears lurking in the dark mental recesses of the audience’s mind. The issues may currently be understated, but through a work of fiction, the terrible potential can be explored. What can be quiet upsetting is when the extremes depicted within the context of the story begin to manifest in the daily news feeds. When George Orwell published his iconic novel, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ in 1949, it seemed impossible for a government to surveil the people to the extent portrayed in the novel. Within the lifetime of those original readers technology advanced to the point where private conversations can be pulled out of the air before they can reach the intended cell phone. What had been a dark manifestation of science fiction had become a frightening reality. It is impossible not to experience such considerations while watching the series, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ The show is an example of the growing trend I entertainment the original series produced by the network. Originally begun with the broadcast television networks eventually spreading to the premium cable channels, basic cable and most recently, the new streaming video services. Internet-driven sources of entertainment including Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu is not entered the original programming fray; they are crushing it. Free of the content restrictions the FCC has over broadcast media, like cable before them, the streaming services can explore mature content yielding stories of depth, quality, and substance. Among the content produced by Hulu, his series is a retelling of the 1985 novel of the same name by an award-winning American author, Margaret Atwood. The story was also made into a feature film in 1990.
The story is set several years in the future where the effects of sexually transmitted disease combined with disastrous environmental changes resulted in a precipitous decline in human fertility that ultimately culminated with a second Civil War. This lea to a drastic paradigm shift to a totalitarian, Christian reconstructionist government called Gilead. Structured as a strictly hierarchical society with the wealthy, powerful men are completely in charge and women reduced to little more than chattel, devoid of even an iota of human rights. Forced by the new constitution women are subjugated under the complete control of men, forbidden, not permitted to work, own property, handle money, or read. The few that have retained their ability to bear children classified as handmaids, women forced into being given as an award to the elite men in the local government/society. Stripped of their name and assigned one reflecting her new owner, the only function for a handmaid is to provide a child for him through what can be described only as ritualized rape. Besides the handmaids, other infertile women gave lesser purpose and associated designation. Older women become ‘Aunties,’ charged with training the handmaids, and ‘Marthas,’ that assume the menial functions encompassing routine positions as housekeepers and cooks. The lower class of women retaining a modicum of autonomy are the Econowives, identified by their grey outfits. Similarly, the Handmaids wear red, Aunties, brown and the Marthas clad in green. Besides the color-coded clothing while out in public the Handmaids must wear stiff bonnets with blinder like exaggerated edges that minimize peripheral vision and hinder communication further isolating the women.
The primary protagonist of the series is a woman named June Osborne, (Elisabeth Moss, is given to Gileadan Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), in recognition of his value to the theocracy. The most important, life-affirming and defining quality of a woman, reproduction, has been marginalized, reduced to an award for a man’s loyalty and service, on par with a plaque of gold watch. Archaic etiology of ‘Mrs.’ Is ‘Mr.’s,’ the possessive of Mr. in this society this is taken one step further as June is forcibly renamed, Offred, literally meaning ‘Of Fred,’ removing any semblance of self-identity, relegating her completely as the property of the man. This type of dehumanization is common throughout history, typically applied to enemy combatants, slaves and the racially discriminated. The objective is to insulate the oppressors from their victims. Demeaning treatment is not targeting another human being but directed towards the non-human pseudonym. The examination of these themes in the new age of feminine empowerment demonstrated by the rapid proliferation of such powerfully effective social movements as ‘#MeToo’ and ‘#YesAllWomen,’ constitutes a substantial portion of the growing use of social media as an avenue to effect significant social changes. Within the context of this narrative, it would be an interesting Gedankenexperiment to consider the effect such movements might have installed in the precipitating events of this story. Could a cohesive opposition have mitigated or abrogated the misogynistic elements of the theocracy? The physical and psychological was greatly enhanced by the memories that haunt these young women they lived before the great reformation, /back when she had a husband, a daughter and a driver’s license. The memory of being considered an individual endowed with the full gamut of civil and inherent human rights.
The series is meticulous in its crafting, particularly in the use of ancillary characters. Rather than unrealistically attempting to overcrowd the main character with a plethora of circumstances exposing the horrendous indignities perpetrated by the Gilead establishment. Instead, these factors were spread among several characters, both preventing a functional overload while simultaneously exploring how widespread the hatred has become and providing the vantage points of people from a range of characters. While June/ Offred dreams of a life with a loving spouse and child, her friend, Emily/Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), has been tossed into a personalized hell. Emily was a well-established scientist, a university lecturer in cellular biology with a wife and child. Under the new, twisted scriptural interpretation homosexuality was a capital offense. Not only did Emily lose everything she is under the spectra of the death penalty. By taking this road, the narrative can contrast women from different backgrounds, a housewife, and mother with a gay academic. Both a subjected to the same sweeping removal of rights and identity.
After establishing the dire consequences brought about by an environmental crisis, the next phase required the expression of resistance that always follows such a draconian government. The elite created Gilead for the elite built upon the crushed spirit of the general population. People can be oppressed for so long until they push back, initially covertly but escalating\in numbers and drive.
A critical plot element that is intrinsically induced in the dystopian genre makes it one of the more difficult storylines to pull off successfully. The themes are undeniably depressing. Contextually, this emotional state is counterbalanced with positive feelings to maintain an even prevalent mood. With a cautionary tale, the purpose includes leveraging that sullen atmosphere to initially establish then incorporate the depression to enhance the urgency of the premise and the real potential for fulfillment. Considering the unyielding, self-righteous fervor that drove the events here are observable in the current socio-political environment. The social backlash movements were in response to the growing influence of reactionary groups, Social Nationalists, commonly known as Neo-Nazis and the more mainstream groups inclusive of far-right religious groups covering the broad spectrum of evangelical Christians to strict advocates of Sharia law. There is an ongoing hatred between these extremist religious variants. Their lethal fighting extends back through millennia, literally back to Biblical times. As is often true with such perennial foes, they are more alike than either side is prepared to admit. Their common ground binds them together perverted by their narrow interpretation of their respective sacred canons to justify their foundation of prejudice, misogyny, and hatred.
For a relatively new online streaming service, Hulu began as a mostly free source current television. Although one of the last such services to enter the fray of original programming, they have achieved critical acclaim and fan recognition. Many will begin watching the series, perhaps out of curiosity ignited by the media campaign promoting it or as an extension of support for the flaws in our society that is currently dangerously to precipitation these events.