TV | The Handmaid’s Tale
Marketing material for SBS On Demand’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a young, disfigured woman sheathed in a demure scarlet cloak, her bonnet evoking 17th century Puritanism.
Paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 7:4, the poster starkly declares “your body is no longer your own”.
Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the Republic of Gilead, a near-future dystopia which we eventually surmise is the United States of America subsumed by a theocratic, patriarchal police state.
‘Gilead’ – a name drawn from the Old Testament – is connected to the story of Jacob and his infertile wife Rachel in Genesis 30: 1-3.
The founding dogmatic precept of the Republic – a totalitarian regime forged in the midst of a global fertility crisis – is rooted in the following biblical verse: “Jacob’s anger burned against Rachel, and he said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’ She said, ‘Here is my maid Bilhah, go in to her that she may bear on my knees, that through her I too may have children.’ So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went in to her.”
The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on handmaid Offred, played with cool resolve by Top of the Lake’s Elisabeth Moss.
Assigned to Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), Offred – ‘of Fred’ designating her identity has been erased by her status as the Waterfords’ slave – is a fertile woman tasked with bearing the barren couple’s first child.
This process, as suggested by Jacob and Rachel, is undertaken in a monthly ritual benignly known as ‘The Ceremony’. In truth, The Ceremony is a rape, committed in the presence of the Commander’s wife and household staff.
Founded by the Sons of Jacob – a cabal of wealthy white men for whom Catholicism is too wishy-washy (as evidenced by the demolition of a cathedral in an early episode) – Gilead and, more broadly, the world of The Handmaid’s Tale is shrouded in a harrowing, forever-grey pall of repression and misogynistic abuse.
Embracing the extremes of Old Testament morality, the Sons of Jacob (masterminded by Waterford) have imposed a regime in which women are tagged and prodded like cattle, eye-for-an-eye punishments are meted out and ‘gender traitors’ – homosexuals – are either genitally mutilated (fertile women) or executed (men).
Using omnipresent surveillance, paranoia, fear and violent intimidation to keep the populace supine, the Sons’ fundamentalist doctrine invites parallels with authoritarian governments in the East and West. Even the spectre of ‘fake news’ is conjured by the Sons’ deployment of propaganda and misinformation during their initial assassination of the US President and the overthrow of the government.
Contrasting Offred’s dire predicament with flashbacks to her thoroughly modern pre-Gilead life, The Handmaid’s Tale offers us an insight into the inexorable creep of oppression under a tyrannical administration.
As the Sons of Jacob draw down the veil of subjugation, we watch with heart-quickening dread as the female population’s independence is first denied, and then their personhood is erased and redefined by reproductive, domestic or bureaucratic obeisance to the patriarchy.
Chiding Offred’s rebellion, a genuinely bewildered Waterford admonishes her, as if a child: “(but) we’ve freed you to fulfill your biological destiny”.
The Sons of Jacob believe that, by enacting their medieval societal reforms, their tainted Republic will be saved from the infertility crisis and inevitable doom.
Written in the mid-’80s, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale exists in the vanguard of cautionary science fiction. In the tradition of Philip K Dick’s Man in the High Castle, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and George Orwell’s 1984, Atwood’s novel also imagines a dystopia in which society has surrendered to authoritarian rule.
This adaptation, which aired on US television in May, is a gruellingly effective episodic horror story. Paralleling contemporary socio-political concerns, this first series is a gripping revelation, a timely warning on the dangers of fundamentalism in all its forms.
At times unbearable to watch – its plot machinations traumatic and fraught with tension – The Handmaid’s Tale is, nonetheless, essential viewing. It serves as a prescient reminder to us – humanity – to remain ever vigilant. To value and fight for every hard won freedom, to be defiant in the face of creeping authoritarianism.