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Handmaid’s Tale – is there place for hope in dystopia?

Where do we go from Gilead?

** Warning: Some probability of spoilers here **

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is essential reading. Bruce Miller’s screen adaptation is necessary viewing, too. But please note that these aren’t easy, inspiring, heartwarming stories of courage.

The Handmaid’s Tale, written in 1985, is a work of speculative fiction set in the Republic of Gilead, created in place of what used to be the United States of America. A patriarchal theocratic regime has overthrown the democracy and has systematically stripped women of all their rights. It is now a crime for women to read, hold property, or think against the regime. The women of Gilead are defined by their relationship with a man and their position in his house. The wives of high-ranking officials who helped create Gilead wear blue, the housekeepers, Marthas are dressed in green, and the colour red belongs to the Handmaids – degenerates, gender-traitors (homosexuals), adulteresses and the like, who have been chosen to overturn the plague of infertility – the grounds set down by the totalitarian regime at the time of inception.

The Handmaids are walking wombs, allotted to the homes of high-ranking officials so they may bear children for them and their wives. Every month, the Handmaids are forced to take part in a searing ceremony where state-orchestrated and mandated rape is carried out. One of these handmaids is the narrator of our story – her name is Offred.

On screen, the inimitable Elisabeth Moss plays June Osborne, now Offred – literally Of Fred, belonging to Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), the commander into whose house she has been placed.

In the debut season, we see snippets of her previous life juxtaposed with her current reality. Atwood’s book has been masterfully turned into a dark, grim vision of Gilead, building on existing storylines, breathing life into minor characters, devising subplots that keep the viewer hooked, scared, and suffocated. It ends where the book does – June is pregnant and on the run. There is no more account of the handmaid in the pages, but the show goes on and takes June to unchartered and unread territories.

The latest season went all out with the morbidity, brutality and craziness. There are stories of child brides and executions, a nascent start of a rebellion, there are colonies where debauched women are sent to die in a radioactive wasteland. There are darkness and pain – season 2 was a torture fest with no scope for hope, no silver lining.

This season was about motherhood. Serena Waterford (played to believably loathsome brilliance by Yvonne Strahovski) believes the child in June’s belly is her’s with an unnerving conviction – she is a mother, a nationalist and a true citizen of Gilead. June continually thinks of her dead mother, is looking for ways to rescue her daughter Hannah, who is a prized ward of Gilead, and worried about the future of her new baby who is to be born in this twisted world. We see stories of surrogacy, of parents, separated from their kids in a gut-wrenching example of life imitating art.

 

 

With this as the dominant theme of the season, it is only believable that when given an opportunity to escape, June refuses to leave without Hannah.

Where do we go from Gilead?

While the debut season of the multiple-award-winning series was the story of June in Gilead, the second season was about the dark core and consequence of the ideology that created it. If the last season’s finale is any indication, the show is set on building a hero out of June. That is a world apart from Offred of the books. Season 3, could be about hope.

Is the dissolution of Gilead so simplistic and easy to achieve that we suspend all that we know about it so far? If the cautionary tale that creates an unsurmountable vision of the future ends the story at a point where Gilead can be overthrown and tackled – does the alarm it aims to raise get diffused?

It may take many seasons for The Handmaid’s Tale to successfully create a story arc that could hope to achieve even a semblance of a happy ending. But in the meantime, would endless torture make Gilead more alarming than it already is? On screen, if beauty, pain, loss and terror are not married to a purpose that can be justified, the story can run the risk of getting lost in theatrics for the sake of theatrics. June, determined to save her daughter, has a purpose in the story ahead, though one can’t say the same for the series. Is there a place for hope in dystopia?

Maybe if it triggers a conversation, and draws attention to the patterns of human behaviour and power around us. Television is often the perfect escape from the painful realities of life. But The Handmaid’s Tale has used the medium to make a glaring, cannot be ignored, loud statement about a dark possible future. And even if the future is bleak, wouldn’t you still want to take a look inside?

 

Handmaid’s Tale Seasons 1 and 2 aired on Hulu in April 2017 and 2018, respectively,  Season 3 is likely to air in April of 2019.

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