Dystopian worlds, as imagined by storytellers and filmmakers, are curiously compelling. When Will Smith runs down the dusty, abandoned streets of New York in I Am Legend, Jennifer Lawrence is carted through the morally corrupt capital in The Hunger Games or Keanu Reeves navigates the disorienting underworld of The Matrix, it’s darkly satisfying. Watching the most ominous parts of society play out so perilously is like schadenfreude straight to the vein. It’s also just kind of cool.
No such pleasure was derived from The Handmaid’s Tale, not even close. The breakout Hulu series, whose first season wrapped yesterday, left a horrified audience in its wake. The show is based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, and it taps into a familiar dystopian ethos: America in the not-so-distance future, totalitarian rule, families torn apart. But this particular story is not entertaining. It’s infinitely harrowing and, quite simply, devastating.
The story follows protagonist June (Elizabeth Moss) as society, which looks very much like our own, crumbles under the pressure of a global fertility crisis and theocratic coup. When she tries to flee the country, husband and child in tow, she’s caught and taken to Gilead, a nightmare community operating under fundamentalist rule. She’s stripped of identity, enslaved as a handmaid and renamed Offred (a portmanteau of “Of Fred,” her master). Her sole value to the state is her ability to bear children and thus, her life becomes a dizzying loop of institutionalized rape, terrorism and abuse, all under the guise of a greater, puritanical good.
In other words, Gilead presents a horrifying world where democracy is dead, men police women’s bodies and the Bible, as a governing text, is bent to the will of the power-hungry. The timeliness of the show hasn’t been lost on viewers. Reactions have been markedly visceral, with online conversations reading as physical as they do emotional: jaws drop, eyes water, skin crawls, toes curl.
“Since the novel’s publication three decades ago, Gilead has existed as a paper nightmare that gains or loses dimension based on the state of our national politics,” wrote Sarah Jones in The New Republic. “America has never forced fertile women to bear children for infertile ones, but Trump’s pussy-grabbing presidency has given cover to the sort of blatant misogyny many thought consigned to the past.” It’s hard to shake this particular detail — that a book written in 1985 rings so true today. Truer, perhaps, than it did five or ten years ago.
The exact horror the show incites varies by viewpoint. Some people see a grim, all-too-possible future. “Texas is Gilead and Indiana is Gilead and now that Mike Pence is our vice president, the entire country will look more like Gilead, too,” wrote Jones. Handmaid’s Tale-themed protests on the topic of reproductive rights have broken out across the country. In those cases, the show’s narrative feels very literal.
“The timing could not be more fortuitous,” wrote Rebecca Mead for The New Yorker, “though many people may wish that it were less so. In a photograph taken the day after the Inauguration, at the Women’s March on Washington, a protester held a sign bearing the slogan that spoke to the moment: ‘MAKE MARGARET ATWOOD FICTION AGAIN.'”
Other critical commentary leans on the metaphorical implications. “You may not believe that anyone, in real life, is actually Making America Gilead Again,” wrote James Poniewozik in The New York Times, “But this urgent ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ is not about prophecy. It’s about process, the way people will themselves to believe the abnormal is normal, until one day they look around and realize that these are the bad old days.”
Shadi Hamid of The Atlantic agreed, urging viewers not to over-interpret the show. As he opines: “What makes Gilead, or for that matter any authoritarian theocracy, so terrifying isn’t just… religious absolutism. It’s that religious laws, once promulgated, cannot be undone through the political process, because there is no political process.”
No matter the interpretation, it’s clear that The Handmaid’s Tale feels deeply relevant, like a stomach-turning warning. Per an interview with the Times, Atwood explained that while writing the book, she based all her decisions about Gilead — the clothes color-coordinated by class, the mob justice, the forced childbearing and public hangings — on historical precedent. Actual things recorded in human history.
Maybe that’s what makes this particular dystopia especially haunting. It presents a world that looks grim beyond belief, but is not at all escapist. Instead, it’s rooted in the knotty but recognizable snarls of our flaws. There are kind-seeming men darkened by power, well-intentioned women pulled into complicity and an entire society indoctrinated. It’s too close to home. Worse, it’s human.