“The Handmaid’s Tale”, Hulu’s TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel from 1985, is without question the bleakest, most pitiless television drama for years. Narrated by a woman called Offred (“of Fred”, after the man to whom she now belongs), it imagines a world in which, after a mass fertility crisis, a fundamentalist Christian movement has taken part of America by force, named it Gilead and made the Bible the rule of law. Offred, whose husband has been shot and whose child has been taken from her, is one of the Handmaids: fertile women forcibly impregnated by the junta’s top brass. Each episode has been extraordinarily frightening, with every few minutes throwing up another peep-through-yer-fingers twist: women blinded for talking back, women circumcised for having same-sex affairs, women everywhere disenfranchised of their minds and bodies.
Atwood’s story feels especially relevant now. The anachronistic sexism of some of Donald Trump’s campaign performances raised the possibility of a regression to earlier mores; and the power of this series lies in its depiction of the slipperiness of the slope from bad to worse.
The TV show makes one striking change from the source material. In the novel, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) tells the story in flashback, switching between the present where she is enslaved as a Handmaid and a past which was a hyper-sexualised dystopia, where men and women visit “Pornomarts”, “Pornycorners” and “Feels on Wheels vans” (the playful branding is a consistent tic of Atwood’s science fiction). In this adaptation the past is closer to our world, but is an era of creeping transition. When Moss’s character and her friend are out for a jog in vests that reveal a flash of cleavage, they get a horrified look from a woman in a high-necked top; later, in their local coffee shop, the male barman calls them “fucking sluts” with the air of one seizing a newly granted privilege. They laugh with disbelief, which is also their reaction when they get home to find that their bank accounts have been suspended. “Nothing changes instantaneously,” Offred observes. “In a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”
This series is particularly good at portraying the incredulity – the sense that it can’t happen here – that ensues as the bathwater heats up. The revolution-era Georgiana of its sets and costumes (troupes of handmaidens in scarlet and white, the winding riverscapes dotted with hanging corpses) are a triumph of production design, and flesh out the cod-historical roots of the Christian nationalism it portrays. But dystopias like this, however compelling, have a distancing effect of their own. While Gilead’s stylised world is horrifying, it’s also comfortingly removed from reality. Its nightmares may harrow us, but we may also think that even if we have not yet achieved the final goals of feminism, at least we’re not dressing women up in pilgrim bonnets and making them rape-toys for Abe Lincoln impersonators.
By contrast, the series’ contemporary sequences concentrate on the tipping points, when we realise that something uninspected has suddenly gone much too far. The moment a policeman opens fire on a protest march. The moment armed men enter a publisher’s office and order all the women to leave. The moment you find you’re not allowed to own property any more. And reactions – particularly from the male cast – are similarly well caught. The fourth episode portrays the day of the coup, when Moss’s character is escorted from her workplace and returns home to find that all her property has been transferred by law to her husband. “You know I’ll take care of you,” he says. But men “taking care” of women is the very thought-pattern on which the new regime will be built.
These little moments and others – the handwringing male boss who complains that he “doesn’t have a choice”, the colleagues who won’t meet Moss’s eye as she is escorted from the building – help to bridge the gap between the complacency of the present and the wild, imagined future. “This may not seem ordinary to you right now,” says Aunt Lydia, the cattle-prod-wielding guardian and trainer to the Handmaids. “But after a time it will. This will become ordinary.” This series shows how that nasty little bit of mind-magic can – and, heaven forbid, could – still work.