“I’m sorry there’s so much pain in this story. I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire, or pulled apart by force. But there’s nothing I can do to change it. I tried to put some of the good things in as well.”
— June/Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale
It was only a few months ago I was joking that I watched the flashbacks in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale for clues as to when, exactly, I should be leaving for Canada.
I don’t make that joke anymore, and not just because nothing screams privilege more than assuming the ability to pick up and move to a political climate more to one’s liking. One much-missed Canadian grandmother notwithstanding, I am as American as any of the people who may disagree with me about what that word means, and I’m not going anywhere.
Plus, there is no point in joking about a TV show that refuses to provide even an hour a week of distraction from what might be happening beyond the screen.
In this second relentless season, which has two more episodes to go, the story line of The Handmaid’s Tale has moved ahead of, but not past, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, which introduced a post-U.S. society called Gilead that’s ruled by religious extremists. Women there have been stripped of all rights, with some turned into breeding stock — biblically speaking, they’re called “handmaids” — and subjected to a religiously sanctioned, heavily ritualized rape in the service of infertile couples. The slightest dissent or resistance brings swift, harsh punishment.
So, yeah, it’s not exactly a laugh a minute.
This season has taken us deeper into the complicated relationship between June, whose handmaid name is Offred (Elisabeth Moss), and Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski). Married to Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), Serena Joy has tolerated — barely — Offred’s presence in her home because she is desperate for the child the handmaid is carrying.
In its most recent episode, it’s given us Oprah Winfrey as the defiant voice of Radio Free America, sending out Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” “a tune to remind everyone who’s listening, American patriot or Gilead traitor, we are still here. The Stars and Stripes forever, baby!”
Less happily, it’s shown us one of the concentration camps where those who’ve escaped immediate execution are sent to be worked until they drop. It’s taken us to Canada. The refuge of a lucky few, including June’s husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), and her best friend, Moira (Samira Wiley), it was ready to consider normalizing relations with its oppressive neighbor to the south until it had a kind of #MeToo moment and was forced to confront the truth about Gilead.
The Canadian episode seemed eerily timed, released only days after our president’s Twitter attack on their prime minister, and so was the episode that followed, in which we saw June’s daughter Hannah (Jordan Blake) taken from her mother not long after learning that similar scenes were occurring on our southern border.
That’s unfortunate, because what makes The Handmaid’s Tale frightening, and what has always made it frightening, is that it isn’t about President Trump, or any president or politician, past or present. It’s about all of us. Make this about partisan politics, or even about public servants quoting Scripture to justify unconscionable policies, and you’re succumbing to distraction.
The mechanics of how the men who rule Gilead came to power aren’t nearly as important to The Handmaid’s Tale as the people who, willingly or not, keep the regime running. Some of their leaders may truly have believed that a perfect society would be one founded on biblical principles, while others, more cynically, embraced the use of religion to put themselves on top. It would be charitable to assume the rest are being held hostage, with those like the security forces known as the Eyes and the fertility-focused Aunts exercising whatever power they have over others to stay alive.
But there is (sorry) no such balm in Gilead, and The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t here to make collaborators, at any level, feel better about themselves.
What it is here for is to say, and to show, that resistance is hard, and that pitting powerless people against one another is easy. (Though its great weakness, which others have noted, is that it basically ignores the role of racial and ethnic prejudice in helping to create those divisions. While born of a commendable desire for colorblind casting, the omission sets aside some 400 years of American history.)
In flashbacks to a familiar-looking present, it reminds us that the freedoms we take for granted are fragile, and that if we don’t all agree on what those freedoms should be, we can’t begin to protect them. (And here, too, I’m using familiar-looking to describe what are mostly the experiences of Moss’ character, a liberal, upper-middle-class white woman living in the Northeast with a black husband and a biracial child, someone who’s no more or less representative of the present-day U.S. than any other single American could be.)
From watching Strahovski’s Serena Joy, who was once a leading voice in the movement that took away her right to read a book or hold a pen, and that encouraged her once-adoring husband to beat her for her own good, we know that being the most privileged member of a group with no actual privileges isn’t worth squat.
What she and Fred are learning is that if you help to create an oppressive system, you will live in a certain amount of fear, knowing there is every chance the system could someday come for you.
“They’ll hang us on the wall!” she screamed in Wednesday’s episode as she considered the consequences of Offred’s second disappearance. It was not Offred, of course, who mattered to her, but the baby she was about to deliver.
Biology, which has given June the only small power she can claim in Gilead, is also what made her a slave. It’s given her a second hostage to fate, and another reason not to be careless with her own life.
And this is the calculation women (and men) have made for centuries, as theocracies and dictators have risen, as countries have been invaded, as fear has been used, over and over and over, to maintain social control.
We may want to believe that we are braver than those who have gone along to get along, or that attacks against groups to which we don’t belong can never touch us.
The Handmaid’s Tale is saying it’s time all of us checked our privilege.
The Handmaid's Tale. New streaming episodes post on Wednesdays, Hulu.