Resistance is futile
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a modern lesson in repression but ignores wider, more complex issues
In a climate of despair, as we try to grasp the changes to the world we thought we knew, a television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 cult novel The Handmaid’s Tale (now streaming on SBS on Demand) might seem like a gift from on high.
The US, devastated by pollution and disease, has been overthrown by a theocratic regime and renamed Gilead. In a stratified society whose aim is to ameliorate the nation’s mass infertility and declining birthrate, women are reduced to chattel and the fertile ones consigned to servitude as “handmaids” to breed for the elite. The state is moving perilously backwards, and it rules with fear, surveillance and punishment.
The parallels with today are obvious – a rapidly changing political climate, environmental degradation, evolving threats to women’s rights, widening class divisions, the fallacy of linear progress – yet Bruce Miller’s adaptation does not venture here, instead dipping into our current age for cultural cues while failing to offer any insight into our particular conditions. It evades the fundamental challenge of the genre, which is to help us see, as Orwell put it, what is in front of our nose.
Since its release, largely glowing reviews have feted the production as timely and cautionary, a way to begin thinking about what may become of the most powerful and culturally significant nation on earth when it is presided over by a narcissist and misogynist. The idea that everything was great in the US before that fateful November day appears to have coloured the show’s reception, a mutual affirmation of the belief that this new era of politics represents the beginning of American decline rather than being a symptom of it.
“It is not the distant future and it is not the distant past. It’s now,” Elisabeth Moss, who stars as handmaid Offred, recently told Variety. Samira Wiley, who plays fellow handmaid and friend Moira, confessed to Vanity Fair that, although production of the show was well underway, Trump’s victory brought a certain resonance. “Coming back to the show, it was … ‘Oh my gosh, we have an even bigger responsibility now.’”
As a production, much of its strength lies in the casting of Moss in the lead role. As we learnt in Mad Men, she has one of the most divinely expressive faces of her generation, and it is used to great effect in translating Atwood’s first-person prose to a visual narrative.
Highly stylised cinematography brings to life the world Atwood crafted so vividly; bleakness is contrasted with the saturated colour and uniformity of the subjects, the sinister air is captured by aerial shots of people in formation. In this splendid age of television, high-calibre acting and production values are expected – but The Handmaid’s Tale is weighed down by its theatrical tics, highlighting a series that is consistently at odds with itself.
The recurring thud of footsteps in hollow rooms is supposed to convey the slow, daunting, exacting rhythm of life in Gilead, where music and reading are banned. But it only serves to illustrate the drag that occurs when a book is unfairly fanned out to produce ten 53-minute episodes.
Our quiet contemplation – or relief – upon the closing of each episode is interrupted with a blaring pop song (‘You Don’t Own Me’, ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’), a wink of girl power that alters the tone of what we have just witnessed, for no apparent reason. At the end of episode three, a pared-down version of Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ over a slow-motion flashback of riots against the new regime is laugh-out-loud funny.
Flashbacks throughout the series are used to show the transition from life as we know it to life under a brutal dictatorship, but this soon becomes a source of diminishing returns, languishing slack when we already know the outcome of the struggle. By modernising the story with explicitly familiar references (iPhones! Tinder! Craigslist!), Miller signals that this is our world, now, but eschews the need to contemporise the novel’s broad themes. Flourishes of modernity only serve to prise open the plot fissures of Atwood’s novel.
The series’ central flaw is the presumption that totalitarianism is something that takes us back to the Dark Ages. Repression is, and has always been, about the powerful exploiting any tools at their disposal to surveil and control the masses. Atwood could be excused for not knowing the extent of the Stasi spy operations on its own citizens as she wrote the book in West Berlin in 1984, but in ignoring what we know about repressive regimes today, The Handmaid’s Tale sabotages its central premise.
Like most totalitarian societies, the people of Gilead sustain themselves with covert networks that hinge on illicit conversations taking place on street corners and inside homes. Introduced to this dystopia via our current world, we are supposed to suspend our disbelief and assume that – despite managing to take over the world’s most powerful nation with the most capable army ever known to man – a paranoid and suspicious theocratic council has elected not to use audio and video surveillance to track their enslaved citizens or to spy on each other.
Nor does it countenance the nature of modern power structures, where corporate interests are often as constraining as the state. Facebook and Google and their customers probably know far more about our lives – and our intimate lives – than any government, yet such a substantive matter is beyond the thinking of this adaptation. (Even Target manages to employ sophisticated systems that know when a teenage girl is pregnant before her parents do.)
Boarding the zeitgeist can be a rough ride, and doing so half-heartedly is exposing. As a cautionary tale for our time, this one falls between the cracks of dystopia and realism, and its only function is to say that this could happen, even to our modern iPhone-carrying selves. When a story of this magnitude doesn’t know what it’s trying to say, its potency is diluted both as a drama and as an allegory.
Even if we look past the plot’s ravines, the series occasionally undermines its own moral essence. Three other handmaids – Moira, Janine and Ofglen – are given substantial weight in this adaptation. Not only are their fortunes far more compelling than Offred’s, but their individual actions – Moira’s harrowing escapes, Janine’s tortured rebellion, and Ofglen’s sexual disobedience and role in the underground Mayday group – only serve to highlight Offred’s mild and passive resistance that lines Atwood’s pockets of fatalism. “I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped,” she says in the closing scene.
Resistance may end in death, or freedom, or punishment, but this is a not a parable of resistance at any cost. Fate is left to the stars and, in the end, our feminist heroine Offred is rewarded, not for her smarts, or her small part in the struggle against the regime, or for her bravery in helping lead a moment of passive rebellion – but for fucking the right guy.