I just want to preface this piece by saying that it is going to be riddled with spoilers, including one random one for OitNB’s last season. If you want to keep the pilot episode of Hulu’s new series The Handmaid’s Tale a mystery, turn back now. I just wrote a dumb piece about laundry that might help you pass the next ten minutes on the john. Also, if you’re spending ten minutes on the john, cut it out. That’s how you get hemorrhoids.
Alright, so for all of you who don’t know, the series The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the book of the same name by Margaret Atwood. “Duh, Grace,” you’re probably thinking to yourself, well-cultured and educated as you are. “Everyone knows that.”
Wrong! I did not know that. Somehow in the last three years since graduating college, I managed to disassociate Atwood’s incredibly important novel about a world where women have no reproductive rights from its title. So when I saw the poster ads for Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought to myself, “ha, dumb, that just looks like grown-up Little House on the Prairie. Go on with your bad self, Laura Ingalls. Elisabeth Moss, you look like a prairie dweller. And I mean that lovingly, because I love you.”
Imagine my surprise when, within the first five minutes of the show, Peggy from Mad Men is thwarted in an escape attempt, widowed, forcibly separated from her kid, and bashed over the back of the head.
This is not the Independence, Kansas I remember from days of yore.
From there, the show only gets bleaker. We’re introduced to Offred, who tells us as narrator that she had another name but it is now ‘forbidden.’ She’s dressed like the colonial woman Kristen Wiig saw on the wing in Bridesmaids, only with an added cool hat that looks sort of like the human version of a dog’s ‘cone of shame’ but that we later learn is referred to as ‘wings’.
We also learn pretty quickly that this show is set in futuristic, dystopian America, with Rory Gilmore making references to ‘fighting in Florida’ while they’re hanging out in the grocery store under the impassive eye of machine-gun armed guards. The society that they now live in is the result of an infertility epidemic, and fertile women have become less than human, a tradeable commodity.
To add to the fun, it’s also a society deeply entrenched in some warped version of Christianity, with citizens greeting and dismissing one another with ‘For Voldemort and Valor’ – no, wait, sorry, wrong story. It’s more along the lines of ‘Blessed is His Fruit’ and stuff like that, the Fruit likely being all the babies the handmaids are forced to conceive for ‘commanders’ and their infertile wives.
We learn how these babies are conceived through a graphic, deeply uncomfortable scene in which Peggy is physically restrained by her commander’s wife and then, quite literally, pumped full of semen straight from the source. There’s no further contact between Peggy and the Commander; it’s impersonal, it’s brutal, it’s cold, and it’s rape. It’s an impactful scene, but one I wasn’t prepared for, so fair warning to anyone who might watch this show: put on your big girl panties, because The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t pulling any punches.
There’s a lot more action packed into the first episode. We learn that the new society is religiously fanatical in more ways then one when Rory and Peggy come across three hanged bodies, those of a doctor, a priest, and a gay man (marked with a pink triangle, thanks Hitler). We also see how the impassive head nun (is she a nun? Is she lady Satan? Can she be both?) deals with “rapists” when she calls all of the handmaids together and has them brutally beat a man to death at the blast of a whistle. And we meet Samira Wiley’s character only to learn by the end of the episode that she might be dead. That, I cannot abide by. Samira Wiley cannot be the new Sean Bean; there has to be one major role that sees her living her best life.
I’m not sure yet if I’ll be watching the next few episodes since this show is seriously intense. That being said, I also recognize the importance of it, especially in this time of political unease. It’s a worst-case scenario of what could happen should society strip women of their reproductive rights and it resonates in visceral, effective ways. We don’t want to live in a society that echoes the ugly scene where a rape victim is told collectively by her peers that her rape was ‘her fault’ and happened to ‘teach her a lesson’. It’s easy to think that these things are impossibilities, that The Handmaid’s Tale is a study in hyperbole, and yet if women don’t stand up for our rights and one another, some of these nightmare scenarios could come to pass.
… Some, not all. I’d rather lose my damn eye than try to make bread from scratch. For Voldemort and Valor.