It’s no coincidence that The Handmaid’s Tale, the Hulu original series based on the Margaret Atwood book of the same name, is being released now, more than 30 years after the book’s publication. Capitalizing upon a the parallels between its fictional American dystopia and the distress that many people feel at the current state of American politics, The Handmaid’sTale has been celebrated as a timely entry into the conversation about where we are headed as a nation. In particular, the show makes an uncomfortable connection between the contemporary political language of a “war on women”, as heard in the last several presidential election cycles, and the actual war on women in The Handmaid’s Tale, where women are enslaved, mutilated, raped, beaten, and killed.
The villains of The Handmaid’s Tale are fundamentalist Christians who, after a violent revolution, run a totalitarian theocratic republic called Gilead in place of the secular state—an echo of the Islamic Republic established in Iran after the 1979 Revolution, around the time when Atwood penned her novel. The highest function of women in this fearful new world is to bear children. Infertility and infant mortality rates, however, are through the roof, so when a member of the pious ruling class cannot have a child, the state sends her a “handmaid” to conceive in her place.
The handmaid system provides sexual surrogacy, the depiction of which, once seen, will not soon be forgotten—especially as it is set against a track of “Onward Christian Soldiers” in the show’s most heavy-handed moment. The whole scenario is reminiscent of the story of Hagar in the Old Testament, in which Sarah arranges to have her husband sleep with her handmaid Hagar as an unauthorized workaround in fulfilling God’s promise that Sarah and Abraham would have a child.
Of course, for a theocratic state run by biblical literalists, emulating Sarah’s example is a mighty strange interpretation, since, as any kid in Sunday School knows, Sarah’s circumvention of God’s plan didn’t exactly turn out well for everyone involved. And unfortunately, that confusion is just one of the many narrative elements that make little sense in The Handmaid’s Tale. Much of this incoherence is the result of utilizing fundamentalist Christianity as the basic framework for this particular dystopia without demonstrating any understanding of what fundamentalist Christianity is actually about.
Admittedly, what the story lacks in coherence, it nearly makes up for in visual beauty. The muted tones and carefully considered aesthetic of this society provide a chilling (and effective) contrast to the horrors it contains. A few minutes into the first episode, we see Offred (Elisabeth Moss), handmaid of the title, wearing a simple red dress and white cap, sitting in a chair, her hands folded in her lap. She is in a sparsely furnished bedroom with light streaming through a window across the hardwood floor, a Whistler painting come to life. Offred is entirely still. If we didn’t see the previous scene—a flashback in which she was terrorized and abducted, her young daughter stolen from her as they tried to flee to the Canadian border—we might even be lulled into thinking that everything is alright in Offred’s world, even beautiful.