But we know that it is not. Offred, no longer allowed to speak her mind, is reduced to uttering nothing more than pseudo-religious inanities. Only her interior monologue allows us to understand what is really happening, both inside her head and in the world around her. Her interior rage and fear are in sharp contrast to the society she lives in, which offers a superficial serenity with an aesthetic reminiscent of a 19th-century community of Shakers—plus machine guns. Everyone has their place, whether it is making bread or babies, and they’ve got the uniform to prove it. (As in Maoist China, their clothing indicates their status and work, except that in The Handmaid’s Tale, the dress code is meant to reinforce inequality, not erase it.)
The serenity of these true believers with their well-ordered lives is in tension with their reality, which is chaos and mayhem. The veneer is held in place only by a religious class system enforced by brute strength, represented in the series by Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), a teutonic enforcer-of-all-trades. Aunt Lydia is ever present, which becomes one of the most surreal elements in a narrative chock full of them. Whether leading indoctrination classes, a rape–revenge execution, wielding a Taser during interrogation, or assisting in a baby’s birth, Aunt Lydia is there, having apparently broken the glass ceiling of oppression. Oddly, in this narrative of female enslavement, the women manage to do the work of the men even when it comes to their own abuse.
But how did it come to this? In a fictional dystopia, it usually isn’t necessary to ask this question. The power of The Hunger Games, for instance, isn’t lessened by the fact that there are not clear-cut, real-world parallels to its fictional elements. The Handmaid’s Tale, however, demands that we ask how such things came to pass, since it is clear that the primary message of the story is that this nightmare could be our reality. And if the show insists on offering a glimpse into a possible future, then it also owes us a blueprint for how to keep this future from happening.
Margaret Atwood has said in interviews that she built the more horrific elements of her story on real episodes in human history (the Salem witch trials and the treatment of women in Afghanistan are just a few examples she cites). According to Atwood, she wrote the story this way to give credibility to the other-worldliness of the horror, to help readers (and now viewers) take it seriously.
The fact that the Republic of Gilead is actually situated in Cambridge, Massachusetts, along with its use of ideas found in fundamentalist Christianity as a catalyst for remaking society, means that things have to make sense: This fiction needs to be seen in relation to reality. Not only does the narrative’s internal logic need to prevail, but its external one does as well. We are necessarily being asked to see the horrors of The Handmaid’s Tale in light of the ideology of actual fundamentalist Christians and in light of how our society actually treats women.
This, in short, is where The Handmaid’s Tale stumbles. Its lack of external logic grows into a narrative flaw too large to ignore, no matter how beautiful and visually arresting the storytelling itself may be. If viewers are supposed to be learning their lesson about how the Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale came about so that we can avoid it, then we need to know just how these people got to where they are. The occasional flashback to Offred’s life “before,” when her name was “June” and she had a typical middle class life, has, at least in the first several episodes, not illuminated what brought about the absolute destruction of centuries-old American pluralism. These flashbacks offer glimpses of June’s life “back in the day,” when she partied with her pals, wrote academic papers on sexual assault, and worked as a designer in a fancy firm; however, nothing cataclysmic seems to have happened to remake the Western world into a place where women can’t hold jobs or have bank accounts—no energy crisis, no massive epidemic, nothing. Americans were not living in caves and urinating into old Coke bottles when the religionists took their rights away.