A skillfully relevant adaption of Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale offers an unsettling look at what our world could become.
“Ordinary is just what you’re used to” Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) tells a crowd of handmaids in the Red Centre, as she prepares them for the newly formed Republic of Gilead. “This will become ordinary”.
Listening to her words is our protagonist, Offred (Elizabeth Moss), and this Channel 4 series is her story, adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Although it’s been over thirty years since the book was first published, the story only needs a few updates (such as references to Tinder and Uber) to be as unnervingly relevant as it first was. It draws on many of our modern fears – terrorism, air pollution, and sexist politicians – to create a dystopian idea of a future we could be heading towards. This is a warning, and it’s chilling.
In this future, our careless abuse of the environment has reduced the chance of a successful birth to one in five, if you can even get pregnant. The fertile few are now handmaids, forced to act as the womb for commander’s wives in a monthly “ceremony”. Even their names describe them as being owned by the commander – Of Fred, Of Warren, Of Glen. The other women are classified as either Marthas (‘a return to traditional values’) or Aunts. This is obviously a vast exaggeration of modern-day Western misogyny, and it would hardly seem plausible if it wasn’t for the flashbacks to Offred’s life before Gilead was formed. This was when the American flag had fifty stars instead of two, before martial law was introduced as a counter-terrorist measure, and when her name was June.
These flashbacks feature June, her husband Luke (O. T. Fagbenle), their daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake), and their friend Moira, brought vibrantly to life by Orange is the New Black‘s Samira Wiley. Together, they show how ‘nothing changes instantaneously’ – how the government took control using terrorists as scapegoats, how they were able to introduce a law stopping women from working or owning property, how a march in protest attended by June and Moira became a shooting ground for the police against those who dared to resist. All these events are reminiscent of things that the world has seen, except they go mostly unnoticed in places outside of the West. Even Luke’s casual and ‘harmless’ misogyny and homophobia is identified by Moira as “where it all started”, the show telling us that it doesn’t need to reach dystopian levels for us to “wake up” and fight back.
Sexuality is certainly the focal point of the series, Episode 5 containing three sex scenes in its 60 minute runtime. As we reach the half-way point of the 10 episode run, this episode is where we begin building to the series’ climax. Offred is attempting to join a rebel network called ‘Mayday’, while also desperately trying to get pregnant by Nick (Max Minghella). If she does not prove her fertility soon, she will be sent to the colonies to slowly die of radiation poisoning.
The plot so far is well formed and compelling. The flashbacks are integrated smoothly throughout the main storyline, teasing enough information to draw us in but leave us just less than satisfied each time. However, the use of Offred’s voice-over is beginning to become a monotonous. While it began as a way of hearing her rebellious and witty inner monologue, it is being used as repetitive method of explaining what could more effectively be shown. Nevertheless, the things they do show are gorgeously composed. It’s costumes are bound to become iconic, especially since they are already being used in protects in America. The music can let down the emotional impact of a scene, although it is obviously chosen through careful listening to the lyrics, it can be so in your face that it undermines the scene playing out.
The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely un-bingeable, every episode requiring a full week to settle in the stomach. All through that week it will stay with you like a ringing in the ears, and when you sit down to watch the next instalment, your heart will be racing with both anticipation and dread. This disturbingly pertinent adaptation of Atwood’s novel is just like the phrase Offred finds carved into her closet. A giver of strength, a reminder to fight, a warning against sleeping through injustice and letting it become ordinary. “Notile te bastardes carborundorum” – don’t let the bastards grind you down.
The Handmaid’s Tale continues Sunday 2nd July at 9pm on Channel 4. Watch the series trailer below: