Choice and Consequence
These days of more time spent at home as a result of the COVID-19 public health crisis and virulent public debates about personal liberties may provide the perfect time and backdrop to watch Hulu’s buzzworthy The Handmaid’s Tale. While season one of Bruce Miller’s reimagining of Margaret Atwood’s eerily prescient 1985 book of the same name follows the novel’s familiar storyline most closely, there are plot changes and twists that make the series compelling for 21st-century viewers.
Viewers follow a handmaid, Offred (Elizabeth Moss), through experiences both terrifying in their violence and in their mundaneness. Set in the Republic of Gilead, in what has long been speculated to be the first part of the century in which we are living, the Sons of Jacob have seized control of part of the United States and fractured the rest of the country. With the democratic government deposed, they set about implementing a brutal, fundamentalist plan of imposed servitude of one kind or another upon all women in the new country. Women can be wives, econowives, marthas (domestic servants), aunts (akin to a religious order), slave laborers, or handmaids—women forced to bear children of the “commanders” for their wives who cannot. Wives of the powerful have more privilege, but only men have any voice at all. Gilead’s theocracy places all women into a caste system, identifiable by the clothing they wear (with costuming designed by Ane Crabtree). The most iconic of these is the handmaid’s billowing, red clothing—reminiscent of scarlet letters—and the white wings that keep their eyes forward and down.
While choice is a central theme of the show, the stark choice women have is whether to accept the role assigned or death. Listening to Offred acknowledge that she chose her fate as a “two-legged womb” is disturbing from a current perspective. At a time when it can feel like there is overwhelming choice in superficial things, the choice in reproductive rights that women fight to protect today is something the audience can imagine June (Offred’s given name from “the time before” Gilead) fighting for, when she had the agency to make choices about life, career, childbirth and relationships. Through flashbacks, we see her life before Gilead, the early days of the coup and her “reeducation” at the hands of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). It is her own slow realization of the nation’s descent into totalitarianism that is most frightening, because it seems so possible in our society today.
Through the snippets of the past one can understand why June tells herself she made a choice in her role as handmaid, although she reviles it. By contrast, Aunt Lydia explains during the reeducation process that “there are two kinds of freedom: freedom of choice and freedom from choice,” further exhorting that the new handmaids should be grateful for the change in their circumstances, as life will be easier for them. From the outset, Miller’s Offred is more defiant and clearly focused on her daughter, who was taken from her and adopted by another commander’s childless family. Belief in her ability to choose is just one of her daily survival tactics (and small acts of rebellion) in the household of Commander Fred Waterford ( Joseph Fiennes), for whom she has been named (Of-Fred), and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski)
While some character details have changed, fans of the novel will recognize Serena Joy and her iron fist, which she does not have the freedom to wield. One cannot help but be both repelled by and empathetic for the commander’s wife— sometimes all at once. This is perhaps most true during the monthly “ceremony,” when the commander tries to impregnate the handmaid while she lies in the lap of his wife, who holds the handmaid’s wrists. During the aunts’ reeducation of new handmaids, they teach that this makes the two women one, but during the act, the wife is both complicit in rape and victimized herself. It’s a reminder that all of the women of Gilead have one stark choice. It also ignites a desperate rage in Serena Joy, presumably at her own loss of agency, and Offred is the easiest outlet for that rage.
It is implied throughout the series that without the wives’ collusion with the patriarchy, the making of Gilead would not have been possible. Mrs. Waterford—the educated and accomplished female architect of the new state—seems to find herself most dissatisfied now that she is relegated to knitting at home. Atwood has long acknowledged that Phyllis Schafly inspired the character, a person both accomplished and working outside the home, even as she sought to impose an antifeminist state of domestic bliss (and service) for other women.
When Commander Waterford starts an illicit relationship with Offred, it is she who takes all the risk, she who will be punished and banished if found out, though she has no choice but to accept his late-night invitations to play Scrabble. Viewers learn that while books and written words are forbidden to women in Gilead, rules are more malleable for commanders, as he feigns obliviousness to the power imbalance between them. When she questions him about who benefits from his goal for a better world he responds, “Better never means better for everyone. And it always means worse for some.” This statement of self-serving pretention offers a glimpse into how he justifies the terrifying state he helped create.
Perhaps nowhere is the hypocrisy of the theocratic state of Gilead more pervasive and perverse than at Jezebels, a former hotel-turned-brothel, where women who could not assimilate are forced to work as sex slaves for commanders and trade delegates from other countries. The women of Gilead are a mere resource for service, childbearing or sexual outlet. Commander Waterford orchestrates a meeting between Offred and Moira (Samira Wiley)—her best friend from before Gilead—as a “treat.” He then calls Moira a degenerate, stripping her of her true identity—a woman who tried to escape Gilead, was brutally captured and put to work at Jezebels. She is the one diminished by the patriarchal fear-machine, not the hypocritical men she services, who are supposed to only engage in sex for procreation.
While choice is a central theme of the show, the stark choice women have is whether to accept the role assigned or death.
While Hulu alters the timeline of some events or details about what specific characters experience or do, the major plot points remain intact. For instance, episode one features a salvaging in which the handmaids perform a “particicution” (participatory execution) against either a rapist, as claimed by the new regime, or a political enemy, as claimed by Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), Offred’s shopping partner. In the book, this occurs later as part of the rising story arc. In the show, it jolts immediate recognition of just how bad things are in this place.
By the last episode of season one of the Hulu series, Offred has become an outright revolutionary in plain sight, rather than the more passive woman about whom Atwood wrote. While the season ends much the way the book does, it is a wholly different Offred stepping into the black van to escape, though she is not any clearer about who is driving. It is a last reminder of her will to survive for herself and the future of her daughter.