The Handmaid’s Tale Suffers Under the Weight of Its Vision
Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale was a deeply simple yet haunting novel about a near-future American taken over by a fascist, sexist theocracy called Republic of Gilead, in which women were classed according to fertility and status. The protagonist is called Offred and she links us to the world before and the one we know now. While the Hulu series named Offred properly and gave her a much deeper story, it did so at the expense of telling Atwood’s story or even a coherent one.
***Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale***
I ended up quitting the show after season two, but after hearing that the fourth season was a return to form in some ways, I decided to push through, and man—despite the incredible acting, the show is just so completely unstable in its construction. With every season it becomes stranger and stranger that Gilead exists, let alone is a substantial threat to places like Canada, where refugees from Gilead flee to. We are told that Gilead is the only place where the birthrate is going up, but it is unclear how that is even possible?
They are killing Handmaids for infractions and the amount of emotional and physical strength they are under does not seem conducive to having children. For every successful birth we see, there are stillborns and largely unsuccessful attempts at pregnancy. Plus, a majority of the children we see are the stolen children from five years ago. Then there is June, the show’s central character.
June Osborne as played by Elizabeth Moss is a deeply fulfilling role. Moss carries this show to the point that multiple episodes begin and end on close-up shots of her face. The mostly passive character of the books is transformed into an avenging angel full of rage, able to bring out a cathartic release in her fellow Handmaids. In the middle of season four, June finally escapes from Gilead to Canada. She has become a hero after helping to save over 80 children, Marthas and Handmaids from Gilead on an airplane.
Between those actions, June basically ran her district. She openly flouted the rules, disrespected Aunt Lydia and others, and bullied anyone who didn’t follow her agenda. On the one hand, June is a compelling character who is very much an antihero now. She does not care what blood or corpses she leaves behind. Friends, allies, and enemies. Later on, after she is rescued from Gilead she rapes her husband in a scene that is supposed to emphasize her trauma but just feels like she has crossed her own emotional rubicon. She cannot be the wife and mother she wants to be because Gilead has made her thirsty for blood.
In the final episode of this season, after her rapist and former commander, Fred Waterford, is given immunity, June decides for Gilead justice. She finds a way to get him sent back to Gilead and she, along with fellow escaped former Handmaids, rip him to pieces. It is a vengeful Bacchanalia, and certainly an earned revenge, but what does it mean?
So much of the show is about shock, awe, getting us, the audience, to view each chilling moment as another level of “omg Gilead is so terrible.” Yet very rarely does any of that amount to anything. June may be the lead, but her immunity to any long-term ramifications from her actions makes Gilead seem ridiculous.
I understand why, in the political hell we exist in, the reasons that this story has grown into something bigger than its origin. But doing so only for shock value weakens the story they want to tell about a woman driven to extremes by a violent world.
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