The Handmaid’s Tale: a superlative dystopian crime drama for our time

In the light of yesterday’s news — that the US Supreme Court has eliminated the 50-year-old constitutional right of American women to access abortion services — I’m re-posting my 2018 piece about landmark TV drama The Handmaid’s Tale.  

*****

I’ve been catching up on Series 2 of the astonishing, riveting Handmaid’s TaleYes, I know it’s a dystopian series based on Margaret Atwood’s literary vision of a totalitarian, theocratic future American state. But, given my own leanings towards crime, it won’t surprise you to hear that I’ve been looking at it through a particularly criminal lens. And once you start looking, it turns out the series has an awful lot to say about criminality, and in particular, crimes committed by the state.

The Republic of Gilead is a criminal state masquerading as a godly utopia. Here’s a flavour of the ‘everyday’ crimes committed in Gilead’s name: state-sanctioned murder and mutilation; rape; forced pregnancy; separating children from their mothers and families; slavery; exposing individuals to toxic chemicals; denial of basic individual agency, autonomy and free movement.

As Atwood has famously noted, nothing in her 1985 novel is invented: “when I wrote it I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that human beings had not already done somewhere at some time.” In particular, she draws on the repressive society of seventeenth-century Puritan America, and twentieth-century regimes such as Nazi Germany and Ceaușescu’s Romania.

What she, and now the TV series, pull off so brilliantly is a feat of defamiliarization. We’re used to hearing about ‘stuff like this’ happening in countries far, far away, but seeing it enacted in a familiar universe – one where people get takeaway macchiatos and watch Friends just like us – is a jolt for the viewer. The series makes highly effective use of flashbacks from ‘before’ to keep reminding us how close pre-Gilead society is to our average western society today.

Those flashbacks, and their depictions of June’s once happy life, with all of its messy liberal freedoms, also call to mind a famous photo taken of some young female students hanging out in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Have a guess which country it’s from.

Answer: Iran, before the establishment of a repressive theocratic regime in 1979.

As is the case in all totalitarian states, women’s lives in Gilead are particularly controlled. Offred (meaning Of/Fred; belonging to Fred) is a ‘Handmaid’, a fertile woman assigned to Commander Fred Waterford and his wife Serena Joy for the purpose of bearing them a child in an increasingly underpopulated world. But Offred is also June Osborne, who once had a career in publishing, the mother of Hannah and the wife of Luke, neither of whom she has seen since the family’s attempt to cross the border went catastrophically wrong. She and the other Handmaids (often highly educated career women, like university professor Emily), have been pushed from the public into the private sphere, and have had their identity and all of their rights stolen from them.

Offred/June and the other Handmaids are our crime victims; the state and its representatives are our perpetrators. It’s what the series does with that basic configuration that makes it so outstanding.

The visuals in The Handmaid’s Tale are stunning. Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Here are a few of the things The Handmaid’s Tale does so well. It:

  • provides an in-depth examination of what it’s like to live in a state where your political and social outlook, or your sexuality are deemed to be criminal and could easily get you killed.
  • is brutally honest about the realities of resistance in a repressive state. On the upside, no state control is ever completely monolithic, and there are opportunities to resist and oppose the regime. The downside is the risk of heavy punishment, either to you or to others close to you (which is sometimes a thousand times worse). And resistance might involve doing things that are extremely unpleasant and/or morally compromising.
  • gives a daringly nuanced depiction of victims and perpetrators. The series does not shy away from showing how Gilead sometimes forces its victims to become part of the oppressive state machine (for example, by being made to mete out punishments to other citizens who are ‘criminal’). It also shows a spectrum of perpetrator motives and attitudes, from hardliners who sanction and commit crimes in the name of the state’s ideology and religion, to those who aren’t necessarily true believers, but serve the state for some other kind of gain — security, status, power — and who *may* sometimes help women to resist. Such figures (like Nick) exhibit behaviour that is ‘grey on grey’ (as historian Detlev Peukert once wrote of the complex moral actions of citizens living under National Socialism).
  • shows the leading role that women (like Serena and Aunt Lydia) play in aggressively policing other women. Serena is particularly fascinating; one of the chief architects of Gilead has now been sidelined because of her gender. The penny is slowly dropping that the glorious society she has helped create is one in which she is almost completely disenfranchised herself (could get interesting).

Serena (Yvonne Strahovski, right), with the other commanders’ wives

  • It also shows the sheer grind of surviving in a highly restrictive and hostile criminal state. And this is where the second series really comes into its own. Unlike a film that lasts two hours, or a single series with a neat conclusion, the second series shows us characters who are in it for the long haul. We see yet more struggles, more resistance, more heartbreaking reversals and terrible fates. And it’s exhausting. As viewers, we are given the tiniest of glimpses into an oppressive reality that could quite easily last for years if not decades, leaving individuals hugely damaged and traumatized – if indeed they ever manage to escape.

It feels particularly fitting, for obvious reasons, that The Handmaid’s Tale is an American series (made by Hulu), and features a number of top American actors, such as the outstanding Elisabeth Moss. It’s impossible to watch it at the moment without reflecting on the preciousness of democracy, personal freedoms and civil rights. It also feels very much like watching a warning. A recent episode showed June looking at newspaper reports from before Gilead’s rise and saying wonderingly ‘it turns out it was there all along’.

So: aside from being superlative TV drama, The Handmaid’s Tale is a crime story for our time – the story of the rise of a criminal state and the multiple crimes it perpetrates against its citizens – and the story of a battered, grim, imperfect resistance. An absolute must-see.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum…

About time: Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility (Canada / the future / space)

Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility, Picador 2022

First line: Edwin St. John St. Andrew, eighteen years old, hauling the weight of his double-sainted name across the Atlantic by steamship, eyes narrowed against the wind on the upper deck: he holds the railing with gloved hands, impatient for a glimpse of the unknown, trying to discern something — anything! — beyond sea and sky, but all he sees are shades of endless grey.

I was going to wait for Sea of Tranquility to come out in paperback, but cracked just ahead of the ‘Platy Jubes’ weekend. By the time the Queen had given her final wave from the Buckingham Palace balcony, I’d read it twice: the first time romping through, the second time savouring the writing, story and sheer inventiveness of it all.

In 1912, disgraced minor aristocrat Edwin St. Andrew experiences what he thinks is a hallucination. For a split second, in a remote forest on Vancouver Island, he’s plunged into darkness, then senses a cavernous space and the sound of a violin. In 2203, a novel by Moon Colony Two dweller Olive Llewellyn includes a passage in which a man plays the violin in an airship terminal while trees rise around him. And in 2401, an era when time travel is a crime, Gaspery-Jacques Roberts is sent to investigate a space-time anomaly caught on film in 1994 — which features notes from a violin. It’s the start of his sleuthing at various moments in time…

This genre-bending fusion of crime and science fiction — cri-sci-fi? — is pulled off with tremendous style. The first scene-setting chapters build steadily, and around a third of the way through the novel really catches fire. The resolution to the mystery is like a finely crafted Chinese puzzle and well worth the wait.

And because this is Emily St. John Mandel, author of the highly acclaimed Station Eleven, there’s much more besides: very human, likeable characters; visions of a future world and what it means to survive a pandemic; questions about the nature of reality and what truly matters in life; and an exploration of institutional power and the price of taking it on. But there’s also plenty of wry humour, including a laugh-out-loud bit  featuring Marvin the cat.

If you too have a weakness for cri-sci-fi, then put Sea of Tranquility on your reading list right away. And if you’re looking for other science fiction novels with strong elements of crime, check out my past reviews below:

Welcome to the silo: Hugh Howey’s Wool

Dazzlingly original: Adam Roberts’ The Real-Town Murders

Smörgåsbord: Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon