Why The Handmaid’s Tale feels more vital than ever.

by | Aug 18, 2022 | All, Opinions

In the spring of 2017, I had the rare luxury of a night to myself. I was channel hopping when I came across what looked like the climax of an action sequence on Channel 4. An aerial shot of a car skidding through a snowy landscape, sirens blaring close behind, was enough to hold my attention. The car crashed, and instead of the dishevelled macho hero with guns blazing I’d assumed would emerge, a panicked young couple, their little girl in tow, hurriedly climbed out of the wreck. Desperately, the man told the woman to run with the girl, and as she set off sprinting into the forest gunshots rang out as the pursuers caught up with them. The woman hid, barely daring to make a sound, and I held my breath with her as armed men dressed in black scoured the surrounding area. Who were they? What had this couple done that would warrant such an attack? The woman screamed as her child was ripped away and she was knocked unconscious. I was hooked.

Quick cut to the same woman, alone in an old-fashioned bedroom, wearing a long red dress and a white bonnet. I had – completely by chance – stumbled upon the UK premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Set in an unspecified time period where fertility rates have reached rock bottom due to dangerous environmental pollution and sexually transmitted diseases, the Republic of Gilead was brought to life by a group of religious extremists known as the Sons of Jacob. Under the guise of concern for the well-being of humanity, the Sons of Jacob slowly spread their chilling plan for a new world order over what was formerly North America. Little by little, they gained control, freezing women’s bank accounts, forcing employers to fire them from their jobs, and eventually overthrowing Congress and trapping all fertile women within the country’s borders.

“Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.” – Season 1, Episode 5

Every woman in Gilead falls into a category:

  • Wife: The wives of high elite Commanders (the founders of the Sons of Jacob).
  • Aunt: The harsh and often cruel guards of the Handmaids, and the only women allowed to read and write.
  • Martha: Housekeepers to the Commanders and Wives.
  • Econopeople: Average citizens who have not yet broken a rule, but aren’t in a high enough social class to fall into a higher category.
  • Handmaid: Fallen women in the eyes of Gilead. Their ‘crimes’ from their pre-Gilead lives – such as divorce and same sex relationships – decided their role. They are assigned to
  • Commanders and Wives, and must participate in a monthly Ceremony, having sex with their Commanders in order to conceive a child.
  • Unwoman: There are two ways a woman can be branded an Unwoman. The first being failure to conform to the rules of Gilead, the second being a Handmaid failing to conceive after three postings. These women are sent to radiation-filled work camps known as the Colonies, where they quickly die due to the poor conditions.

It’s a complex world with a lot to take in, and at the time I have to admit I had no idea what I was watching. Before that night, I hadn’t even heard of the source material – an acclaimed novel by Margaret Atwood of the same name. Gilead, its many laws and roles, was a bizarre and horrifically fascinating mystery to me. As the first season unfolded, we learned more about this bleak place and the women living there – the majority of them against their will.

Only five short years ago, Handmaid’s had an air of the surreal. It was dystopian. Extreme. It was like watching The Hunger Games – surely nothing quite so bad could ever happen in real life. Sadly, year by year, as each new season premieres and fresh horrors are inflicted upon the women of Gilead, the happenings don’t seem so far from our own reality.

It would be remiss of me to talk about therpe show without mentioning the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the United States – taking away the right to safe and legal abortion. State governments now have the power to ‘regulate the procedure as they see fit’, with a number of them already issuing a complete ban. This is undoubtedly the biggest setback for reproductive rights in history. The overturning of this law will likely open the door to the consideration of other similar laws, and the policing of people’s bodies will lead to nothing but a dark and dangerous outcome.

“Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” Season 1, Episode 3

This is why, despite some critics branding the show as nothing more than ‘torture porn’ (violence for the sake of violence), I think Handmaid’s is important. It’s vital. It’s a stark warning of what happens when things go too far. And although it’s a hard watch, at times it’s also a beacon of hope. From small rebellions such as the Handmaids exchanging names at the grocery store, to the network of Mayday Marthas working together to smuggle people out of Gilead, the underlying message of women supporting and helping their fellow women is a poignant focus throughout.

Before diving into the story so far, I’d like to touch on the fact that not everyone with a uterus is a woman. The events in the United States affect trans and non-binary people, too. However, in terms of talking about the show, you’ll notice I refer a lot to ‘the women of Gilead’. That’s because, in Handmaid’s, everyone with a uterus is a cis female, meaning they were born female and continue to identify that way. In my opinion, it’s the only shortcoming of the show, and I’d be very interested in seeing some long-awaited trans representation going forward into season five.

The Story So Far

In season one, June (Elisabeth Moss) in her new role as Handmaid is given to Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski). Leading up to their first Ceremony, flashbacks from the Red Centre – a training camp for Handmaids – show June and her best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) in their early days under Gilead’s regimen. In the present, the day after the ceremony, fellow Handmaid Emily (Alexis Bledel) reveals to June that she is part of the resistance known as Mayday, and that there is an Eye – a Gilead spy – in June’s household. Commander Waterford’s driver Nick (Max Minghella) warns June that conversing with Emily is dangerous. June is panicked when she sees that Emily has quickly been replaced by another Handmaid. June then gets a visit from Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) – the cruel leader of the Handmaids – and is beaten for information about Emily. Meanwhile, it is revealed that Emily’s part in the resistance is still unknown to Gilead, and she is instead being punished for her affair with a Martha. The Martha is hanged in front of Emily, and she is further traumatised when she wakes up in hospital after undergoing Female Genital Mutilation. Aunt Lydia taunts her, saying that her punishment happened because she is a ‘Gender Traitor’ – a participant in a same-sex relationship.

At the Waterford household, Serena, believing the Commander to be infertile, forces June to have sex with Nick instead in order to conceive. When a Mexican trade delegate visits Gilead, June tells her that the Handmaids are prisoners, and convinces an ambassador to pass a message to her husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), who is alive and living as a refugee in Canada. When Serena goes on a trip, the Commander takes June to a brothel known as Jezebels, where women unable to conform to the strict rules of Gilead are made to be sex workers instead. One of these women is Moira, and she and June have an emotional reunion. Moira later sends June a package from Mayday – letters from thousands of Handmaids across Gilead. Before June can do anything with the letters, she finds out she is pregnant. Serena takes her to see her daughter Hannah, who was given to a Commander and Wife after June’s capture, and tells June that as long as the unborn child is safe, so is Hannah. Moira, who escaped Jezebels after she’d sent the package to June, makes it to Canada and is reunited with Luke. Meanwhile, in Gilead, the Handmaids are rounded up into vans like cattle after refusing to stone mentally fragile Handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer). As the van doors slam shut, their fates are left unknown.

Season two opens with one of the most sickening scenes in the series so far. The women are transported to an abandoned Fenway Park, where they are roughly lined up and forced into nooses. The energy is raw with panic and the Handmaids clutch each other in terror, believing they are about to meet their end when Aunt Lydia begins making a speech. The hanging is revealed to be a scare tactic, and the Handmaids are instead taken back to the Red Centre, where they undergo a number of tortuous punishments for their small rebellion. Whilst at the Red Centre, June’s pregnancy is discovered and she’s taken to the doctor for a check-up. At the doctor’s, June discovers a key planted in her boot and escapes. She’s taken to a safe house where she meets Nick. Meanwhile, Emily and Janine are sent to the Colonies. June almost escapes Gilead, but as the small plane is about to take off for Canada, it’s intercepted by Guards.

She’s returned to the Waterford’s household, where Fred and Serena are suspicious about Nick’s interest in her. To put a stop to this, they arrange for Nick to marry a young girl, Eden (Sydney Sweeney). At the opening of a new Red Centre, a Handmaid detonates a bomb, killing 26 Commanders and injuring many others – including Fred. Due to the bomb also killing a number of Handmaids, Emily and Janine are given a ‘second chance’ to serve. Whilst Fred is in the hospital recovering from his injuries, June and Serena illegally take over his paperwork, resulting in Serena being whipped when he returns to the house. The Waterfords and Nick take a trip to Canada, where the increasingly disillusioned Serena meets Mark Tuello (Sam Jaeger), who offers her the chance to escape from Gilead. Although she’s begun to see the worst in the country she helped to create, she refuses his offer. Nick finds Luke and gives him the letters from the Jezebel’s package. Luke and Moira quickly publish the letters, and the Canadian government shuns the Waterfords, sending them back to Gilead. June begins to have false labour contractions and is raped by Fred and Serena under the guise of speeding up the process. In penance for his actions, or perhaps in yet another mind game, Fred then arranges for Nick and June to visit Hannah. Initially, Hannah doesn’t connect with June as she was very young when Gilead was established and barely remembers her life before, but the two eventually share an emotional reunion before Hannah’s Martha takes her away. Shortly afterwards, Guards raid the meeting point and Nick is captured while June hides. During the night, June gives birth to a daughter, naming her Holly after her own mother. For the sake of Holly, June gives herself up, and she and Nick are returned to the Waterfords. Meanwhile, Emily panics when she is assigned to the mysterious and eccentric Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), creator of the Colonies. After Nick’s teenage wife Eden is sentenced to death for falling in love with a young Guard, Serena, worried for the future of ‘her’ new daughter – renamed Nichole – proposes to the Commanders that girls be allowed to read from the Bible. In punishment, they cut off her finger. When Serena returns home, traumatised, she finds June about to escape with Nichole. Realising what growing up in Gilead will mean for the girl, she lets them go. June gives Nichole to Emily and tells her to go to Canada, unable to leave Hannah behind in Gilead.

Season three picks up with Emily and Nichole making it to the Canadian border, where Nichole is taken in by Moira and Luke. In Gilead, Serena tells Fred that she’s the one who sent Nichole away, and burns down the house. This results in June being reassigned to Commander Lawrence, who to June’s surprise runs a much more relaxed household. Commander Lawrence’s Marthas are part of Mayday, and they grudgingly welcome June into the operation. Meanwhile, Emily is adjusting to her new life, and Moira convinces her to reach out to her pre-Gilead wife and son. They share an awkward yet emotional reunion. June meets a pious new Handmaid Natalie (Ashleigh LaThrop), and her true devotion to Gilead immediately gets under June’s skin. The Waterfords and June are sent a video of Luke at a protest in Canada with Nichole. Serena’s longing for ‘her’ child resurfaces after seeing the video and June – in exchange for a favour – agrees to orchestrate a meeting between Serena, Luke, and Nichole. In return, whilst at the meeting, Serena gives Luke a tape recording from June, in which June explains that Nick is Nichole’s father, that she was born out of love, and that her real name is Holly. Shortly after the meeting, June is forced to participate in a televised appeal pleading for the safe return of Nichole to the Waterfords. The Waterfords, their Martha Rita (Amanda Brugel), June, and Aunt Lydia travel to Washington for the appeal. Whilst there, it’s revealed that the Handmaids in the capitol face much worse fates than June has ever seen. They’re permanently silenced with metal rings holding their mouths closed. In a rare moment of vulnerability, Aunt Lydia and June bond, and Aunt Lydia is emotional about how the women in the capitol are treated, believing the Handmaids should not be silenced. After the trip to Washington, June takes Commander Lawrence’s mentally ill wife, Eleanor (Julie Dretzin), to visit Hannah’s school. June is furious when she learns that Natalie reported this indiscretion to Aunt Lydia, and she and the other Handmaids begin bullying Natalie.

Their treatment of the devoted young Handmaid reaches boiling point in the grocery store, where Natalie snaps, beating Janine and attempting to shoot Aunt Lydia. She’s intercepted by Guards, who shoot her and drag her away. She’s taken to hospital and declared brain dead due to her injuries. June, realising that her actions towards Natalie were wrong, apologises at her bedside. Increasingly affected by the fates of the Handmaids, Aunt Lydia makes a special effort with Janine. June tells Commander Lawrence that she plans to smuggle children out of Gilead into Canada, and he offers his help. However, Eleanor’s decreasing mental state almost gets them caught, and when she overdoses on medication June doesn’t alert anyone, letting Eleanor die for the sake of Mayday.

Tuello and Serena lure Fred over the Canadian border, fabricating a story about Nichole’s return. When he crosses the border, he’s arrested for war crimes dating back to the creation of Gilead. Whilst detained, he reveals that Serena had as big a part in creating the country as he did, and she’s also arrested. June’s first Mayday mission is a success, and a plane containing Gilead children makes it to Canada, met by refugee volunteers including Moira and Luke. Luke is heartbroken to realise Hannah isn’t on the plane. Whilst leaving the airfield, June is shot by a Guard, and the other Handmaid’s carry her away into the forest.

Season four opens with the Handmaids carrying June to a Mayday safehouse, run by 14-year-old Wife Esther Keyes (Mckenna Grace), who drugs her elderly Commander in order to keep him docile and unsuspecting of her role in the rebellion. Meanwhile, Aunt Lydia is pardoned and vows to destroy June before she can inflict any more damage. Gilead demands the return of the Waterfords, but the Canadian government reject this request, planning to keep Fred and Serena in custody until their trial. Whilst in custody, Serena is told by Tuello that she’s pregnant.

Nick tracks June to the safehouse and takes her prisoner, resulting in her being tortured by Gilead officials. Commander Lawrence warns her that if she doesn’t give up the location of the other Handmaids, Hannah will be hurt in retaliation. June gives up the location, and afterwards, Nick assures her that Hannah is safe and back home. June, Janine, Alma (Nina Kiri), and Brianna (Bahia Watson) are sentenced to the Colonies but manage to escape from Aunt Lydia during their transportation. Whilst fleeing, Alma and Brianna are hit by a train, leaving only June and Janine who make it to the war zone in Chicago. Rita visits a smug Serena in prison.

Serena tells Rita about her pregnancy, and as payback for the way she was treated in Gilead, Rita tells Fred against Serena’s will. Nick orchestrates a ceasefire in Chicago, but Gilead bombs the area at the last minute. June is found in the rubble by Moira, who’s in Chicago as part of her role as a relief worker. The two share a tearjerking reunion, but are unable to find Janine. Moira takes June back to Canada, where she is reunited with Luke. Shortly afterwards, Moss and Strahovski finally share the screen once more and do what they do best in an intense showdown at the prison, where June berates Serena for her role in Gilead. Afterwards, June warns Tuello – who sees Serena in a sympathetic light – that Serena is dangerous and cannot be trusted. At the Waterfords trial, June gives testimony against them, but walks out, furious, after cross-examination by their defence attorney. Fred tells the court that the actions of Gilead improved the global fertility crisis, and when he and Serena arrive at court the next day, they’re cheered on by a group of pro-Gilead supporters. Janine is found after the bombing and returned to Aunt Lydia’s care. She begs not to be a Handmaid again, and Aunt Lydia embraces her. Janine remains in Aunt Lydia’s good books when she convinces Esther – now a Handmaid due to her role in Mayday – to comply with the rules. Aunt Lydia praises the young women. June takes Nichole to meet with Nick in neutral territory, and in exchange, he gives her a file on Hannah, including the girl’s current location. Meanwhile, Fred strikes a plea deal with Tuello and prepared to leave Canada. However, at the airport Tuello arrests him and brings him to Commander Lawrence and Nick in exchange for a number of Gilead women. Nick delivers Fred to June in No Man’s Land, and she and other former Handmaids chase him through the forest and beat him to death before hanging him on a wall. In prison, Serena receives a package from June: Fred’s ring finger, wedding ring included.

It’s difficult to find the words to summarise Moss’ intense and raw portrayal of June. Whether it be fear, fury, hate, or a combination of all three, Moss merely has to quirk an eyebrow or smirk slightly, and we know exactly how June is feeling at any given moment. The wild, barely subdued panic in her eyes as she’s herded into the Red Centre during Gilead’s early days is so strikingly real it’s enough to set your own nerves on edge. The iconic, menacing stare down the camera when June delivers yet another ‘fuck you’ moment to Gilead has you sitting up a little straighter due to the sheer strength of her rebellious nature in these moments. Moss’s performance is intricate and subtle, and doesn’t have to rely on dialogue to convey the emotions of her character – it transcends the screen and settles in your bones.

Ann Dowd’s portrayal of power-mad Aunt Lydia is chilling. Her cruel, torturous outbursts are terrifying – but, in my opinion, it’s when the menace manifests as concern for her ‘girls’ that she’s at her worst. Dowd’s expressions, as well as her unique delivery of dialogue, conveys so much about what’s going on in her character’s mind. I truly believe Aunt Lydia wants the best for the Handmaids, despite how she goes about keeping them in line – which is a testament to Dowd’s performance. An uncharacteristically kind gesture, a smile that doesn’t quite reach the eyes, and you’re tensely waiting for her to strike. It leaves little room for sympathy. When misfortune finds Aunt Lydia, it’s met by a feeling of catharsis from the fan base. We’ve seen her beaten to the point of unconsciousness, and the overwhelming reaction from the fans was, ‘finally’. With most villains, there’s often talk of a redemption arc and what that would look like, but Dowd’s villainous performance is so strong it’s hard to imagine her being anything but evil – even if that evil is justified in Aunt Lydia’s mind.

Season 5

I want her to know it was me. The grieving wife: she knows the world is watching.”

– Season 5 Trailer

The Handmaid’s Tale is set to return to our screens September 14, and Hulu recently released a trailer for the upcoming season five.

The setup of the trailer suggests this season’s central storyline will focus on June and Serena in the fallout of Fred’s gruesome murder. Serena is, of course, playing up to the role of grieving widow while June is, as usual (and rightfully so), seemingly doing everything she can to get under Serena’s skin. Going off the trailer alone, it looks like we have a lot of Moss/Strahovski screen time to look forward to, meaning some unforgettable scenes which are always, in my opinion, one of the strongest parts of the show. It’ll be interesting to see if Serena survives the season (I personally hope so, I find her to be one of the most layered and complex characters on television right now), or whether June will be responsible for the murders of both Waterfords.

“I feel Gilead pulling me back.” 

Another character still in June’s orbit is Nick, and it’s no coincidence that the quote above was played over a scene of the two looking romantic. Hailed ‘Osblaine’ by the Handmaid’s fanbase, the couple are a firm favourite – and it seems their story isn’t over. Throughout the show, the two fell in love and share a daughter, but at times it’s difficult to see where Nick’s loyalties truly lie. While he’s helped June countless times, it’s important to remember he was one of the earliest recruits during the creation of Gilead, and he’s now a Commander. If his life was on the line, would he choose Gilead or the woman he loves? On June’s end, there’s also Luke to consider – her pre-Gilead husband and father to her first daughter. Unsurprisingly, June is a far cry from the person she was when she married Luke, but we’ve seen the two trying to make it work in Canada. If Nick defers from his duties in Gilead and goes to Canada as a refugee, June will have some very difficult choices to make.

The final thing I want to touch on is my Pearl Girls theory. In the trailer, Aunt Lydia is seen looking very pleased with herself, delightedly exclaiming, “Blessed be this day!” If Aunt Lydia is happy, it’s fair to say things probably aren’t looking good. We’ve seen Janine develop a Stockholm Syndrome type relationship with Aunt Lydia over the course of the show, which was only exacerbated when Janine took young new Handmaid Esther under her wing. At the end of season four, the two were under Aunt Lydia’s constant care, and it’s likely they’ve been doing everything they can to please her since – knowing from experience the consequences they’d face if they act out. In Margaret Atwood’s sequel to the Handmaid’s book, The Testaments, she introduces a new role for young women: Pearl Girls. If a young woman is well behaved enough, and earns enough trust, she can ask to serve as a Pearl Girl instead of a Wife or Handmaid. Pearl Girls are entrusted to travel to other countries (mainly Canada) and recruit young women to come back with them to Gilead. With Aunt Lydia looking favourably on Janine and Esther’s newfound devotion, could she trust them enough to send them over the border? And if so, will Janine and Esther return from their trip, or will they take the golden opportunity to escape Gilead’s clutches.

Are we, after five seasons, finally headed into Testaments territory?

Seasons 1-4 of The Handmaid’s Tale are available on Amazon Prime. Season 5 premieres Wednesday 14th  September on Hulu.

Amy Beth

Amy Beth

18/08/2022

An avid TV watcher, particularly fond of comedy and horror. Currently completing my BA in Film Studies & Screenwriting, while occasionally dreaming of having my own sitcom.

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