Over 10 extraordinary episodes – and set against traumatic real-world events – this adaptation has resonated as loudly as Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. The series is set in Gilead, a totalitarian society in what used to be part of the US. Gilead is ruled by a fundamentalist regime that treats women as property of the state. Faced with environmental disasters and a plummeting birth rate the regime forces the few remaining fertile women into sexual servitude. One of these women, Offred, is determined to survive the terrifying world she lives in, and find the daughter that was taken from her.
Dong, dong, dong. Three bells, that is a death knell in The Handmaid’s Tale. There is to be an execution today, or a ‘salvaging’, as they call it in Gilead. The handmaids gather in the snow, and kneel when instructed to by Aunt Lydia. The men in black bring rocks in barrows. “Oh man, I hate stonings,” whines a young handmaid casually, as if she was complaining about something on the menu for lunch at school.
There it is, that dangerous, creeping normalisation, the utterly unordinary becoming ordinary. I hate it when someone gets publicly stoned to death, I hate it when transgender people are banned from the military.
Who is it going to be, though? Commander Putnam, getting the harshest possible punishment, as Mrs Putnam wanted, for his lust and covetousness? But we’ve just seen him having his hand surgically removed; surely they wouldn’t have bothered with that if they were going to stone him to death afterwards?
No! It’s Ofwarren, or Ofdaniel as she became after giving birth, but now back to being just Janine, stripped of her handmaid’s outfit, and her auburn hair cascading free. Her suicide bridge-jump failed; they kept her alive in order to kill her, a lesson to the others. “I know how difficult this is girls, I do,” cries Aunt Lydia. “But God gives us blessings and he gives us challenges. The price of his love is sometimes high, but it must be paid.”
They won’t do it, though, first Ofglen, then Offred – or June, as she’s becoming once more. And then the rest of them. Because something else has been creeping in: defiance. Possibly even hope. “They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army,” June said earlier.
The non-stoning of Janine is an extraordinary scene. One of many extraordinary scenes. I can’t think of another television event that has hit quite such a nerve, and gone on resounding and resonating, worrying and creeping into your soul and into your dreams quite like The Handmaid’s Tale has.
In my house we’ve started speaking like them. “Under his eye,” we now greet each other in the morning. “Blessed be the fruit,” we say, especially at John the greengrocer’s (I don’t think John’s been watching, to be honest, judging by the odd look he gives us). It’s just a nervous reaction, avoidance strategy, an attempt to make light of something that is scary as hell.
It ends on a cliffhanger, as the novel does, with June – now pregnant – bundled into the back of a van and driven away … to escape, or for further punishment and torture? That’s where book and television part ways. The former gets Margaret Atwood’s metafictional epilogue, which hints at the collapse of Republic of Gilead and that it is replaced by something better. And the TV drama gets recommissioned, a whole new series.
There’ll be disapproval and dissent about that; how can an adaptation carry on beyond what it is being adapted from? I think it is fine. Not just because it is so damn good, but because of what is going on out there.
Just looking at the one week, and a few things that happened in real world between the transmission of the penultimate and the final episodes… four people die trying to cross the Rio Grande into the US; a further eight migrants are found dead in a truck in a Texas parking lot; in Europe the refugee crisis continues (I’m focusing on migration and refugees because it is a big theme in the final episode of Handmaid, with Moira’s escape and Canada’s generous welcome); the sperm count of western men has fallen by half, male fertility is plummeting; Saudi Arabia continues its execution spree, publicly beheading people for, among other things, protest; our own national broadcasting organisation values women less than men; Kim Kardashian’s surrogate is reportedly three months pregnant…
Maybe that last one’s not fair. But the rest of it is.
It’s as relevant today as it was when Atwood wrote it, in Berlin, in 1985. And while all this continues to be real, we need The Handmaid’s Tale – to keep reminding, and resonating, and ringing. Dong, dong, dong.