Becoming Gilead // How 'The Handmaid's Tale' Continues to Mirror Trump's America
By Eve Jones. CW: contains spoilers for Season 1 and 2 of The Handmaid's Tale on Hulu.
A patriarchal society which relies on women suffering and the elite turning a blind eye for power: sound familiar? This is the basis of the dystopian state, Gilead, in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The book, which was last year transformed into a thrilling, critically appraised television series, follows Offred (Elisabeth Moss) who is one of the few remaining fertile women in America. She is consequently conscripted as a ‘Handmaid’ to endure monthly rape to reproduce for the families most faithful to the state.
Season One of the adaptation paralleled the novel in its finale – Offred is bundled into a mysterious van, destination and fate unknown. Though providing a cliff-hanging crescendo to the series, the choice has forced the show to reach beyond the page for season two. Now, The Handmaid’s Tale’s screenwriters face a task even greater than adapting such a classic novel to the small screen: creating a worthy sequel.
Luckily for them, when writing the original novel, Atwood was wary of the fine line that separates the didactic Speculative Fiction genre with straight-up fantastical horror. To ensure the book’s events could be taken as a real threat (though an extreme extension of society’s pitfalls), Atwood made a rule for herself: “If I was to create an imaginary garden I wanted the toads in it to be real.” So she limited the book’s narrative to events and technologies already present in our history. Everything in the book has at some point been done by humans, to humans. As such, if they played by the same rules, the show’s screenwriters should also be drawing from the past, to highlight where our future could head – if we let it.
Last year, I examined how the additional plot lines in season one drew from history and how they called us to action. Here, season two goes under the microscope in its totally original glory.
In episode three, Offred is hiding out in the derelict headquarters of The Boston Globe. Overhead lights flickering in and out of life, Offred walks between the deserted office cubicles, blowing the dust off family photos and coffee mugs: detritus of the people and lives that used to power the paper. Her flashlight falls across printing presses with newspapers lying still, unread, in the machines. She takes in the looming gantries of the Globe, but the music changes and Moss’s face falls at some horror in the grey gloom beyond the lens. A row of nooses come into focus, Moss’s eyes glinting, head twitching, as if one lies around her own neck. It could have. She was an editor in the ‘time before’. Another wall is riddled with bullet holes and a wordless Offred sinks to the floor in despair, mirroring the dribbling blood stains on the concrete.
In the following episode, this scene is given renewed potency. Offred takes cuttings of archival newspapers and listens to interviews; she fills a pin-board with articles documenting the malignant creep of Gilead. “You were there, all the time,” she narrates, “but no one noticed you.” The audience is reminded of how seemingly insignificant things – from microaggressions to political apathy – can add up. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the sum is made blatant to viewers with those perfectly still nooses and walls of blood. In our world, the consequences are attacks on free speech like the Charlie Hebdo massacre; they are unfit leaders we never believed could come to power; they are racial violence in Charlottesville.
The family that Offred serves is amongst the highest in Gilead’s hierarchy. In episode nine, they are welcomed somewhat coldly into Canada on diplomatic business. For the tone-deaf Commander Waterford everything is going swimmingly, but his wife Serena is reminded of her subordinate place in Gilead. Her pictographic schedule (women in Gilead are banned from reading) seems infantile outside her state’s dystopia and the formulaic chit-chat with her chaperone is similarly banal.
Within 24 hours of their arrival in Montreal, a series of letters written by those oppressed under the Sons of Jacob regime are leaked to the press by Offred’s husband, Luke. The letters go viral, their horrendous content documenting torturous everyday life in Gilead, sparking new-found repulsion in Canada. People take to the streets to protest the Waterfords’ visit, parallelling the impending marches against Donald Trump entering the UK. In The Handmaid’s Tale, people hold signs proclaiming ‘I am Ava’, ‘My name is Bridget’, reclaiming power for the letters’ authors, many of whom have been stripped of their real names as well as their rights. Such slogans mirror the ‘Je suis Charlie’ placards held in solidarity after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. These people could be any one of us.
The Waterford’s visit is cut short and they return home to Gilead. Though this fictional Canada was incredibly swift in its condemnation of the Waterfords, it will be interesting to see if the letters lead to any further intervention in subsequent episodes. Too often in our reality, oppressed groups speak out about maltreatment, but their reliability is questioned or affirmative action never materialises. We may look to the Rotherham sexual abuse scandal as an example. Organised sexual abuse of approximately 1,400 girls took place in the English town for nearly three decades without child protection intervention, despite reports of the events as early as the 1990’s. The council’s failure to address the abuse was attributed to, amongst others, factors of class and gender, the victims being largely working class and female. It was reassuring, therefore, to hear the Canadian representative in The Handmaid’s Tale inform Commander Waterford “We believe the women.” But this response is not typical of our reality, let alone a dystopian narrative.
The Power of Parenthood
In Margaret Atwood’s novel, Offred’s daughter is much more enigmatic than her adaptation in the Hulu series. We not only meet Hannah (Jordana Blake) frequently in flashbacks, but we also get a stronger sense of Offred’s maternal instincts. In the book, Offred somewhat relinquishes motherhood, admitting that ‘it’s easier to think of her [daughter] as dead’. Likewise, considering her whole Gileadean existence relies on it, when she discovers she is pregnant in the text, she glazes over the subject in just five lines.
By contrast, much of the second season’s narrative relies on Offred’s desire to protect her unborn baby and find Hannah. This culminates in episode ten, where the pair is momentarily reunited, before being physically disentangled from Hannah by a guardian. A distraught Offred kneels in the snow, watching her daughter being driven away to her ‘parents’ in one of the show’s most emotional scenes. The next episode, we see an equally hollow Serena as she faces the potential loss of her baby with Offred missing, in an interesting comparison between the two female protagonists. She has given up more than she expected since she conceived Gilead, but the reward she was holding out for was a chance at motherhood.
The episodes documenting child-parent separation could not have been more timely, premiering as Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy was being enacted in full force. The executive order led to some 2,300 children being separated from their parents as they try to cross borders into the US. Here, our reality is worse than the dystopia. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred at least knows who will be looking after her daughter: a Martha reassuring her that she will love and protect Hannah. Such mercies were not reserved for Migrant parents being detained by ICE. Once separated, many of the children were flown to shelters across the country without any records being made of their family. It is one thing to watch fictional scenes of such tragedy in the beautifully choreographed, scripted, and set in Gilead, but another altogether to have world leaders allowing it to happen in our world. It seems the show is searching closer and closer to our present for inspiration – because that’s as far as it needs to go to find these atrocities.
You can read more of Eve's pop-culture commentary and criticism in Issue 03 of Boshemia Magazine.