An American Horror Story: Review of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

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— By Carly Twehous —

Best-selling author, Margaret Atwood, published her prolific dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, in 1985, a year after George Orwell’s famous Big Brother society was supposed to take place. Western culture, it seems, has an innate fascination with end-of-society epics and forlorn, tragic heroes. There an inherent cultural fear that began with Orwell and Aldus Huxley (author of Brave New World) in the 1940’s, continued through Atwood’s book at the end of the century, and lives on today in the form of countless YA novels and Hulu adaptations of the classics.

Clearly, we as a society are scared of something.

Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale opens with Elizabeth Moss, playing a terrified woman, running from Men in Black with her daughter in her arms. The tasers come out, the woman goes down, and the daughter starts screaming. Then, we open on Elizabeth Moss in a completely different world: sitting alone, proper and poised, in a bland, cinderblock room, wearing a conservative red dress and bonnet that blocks her face.

1984 and Brave New World exist as ever-present flies on the wall as life in the Republic of Gilead is explained. There was a plague that wiped out a vast majority of fertile women. Those left who are capable of bearing children are Handmaids to the rich and powerful: surrogate mothers who are little more than religious sex-slaves and breeders.

Elizabeth Moss’s Offred—read as “of Fred”, signifying complete subservience to her master, Fred Waterford—had another name once, when she was free and happy with her husband and her daughter, but that was another world. Offred exists only to be silent and serve a purpose: run errands during the day and spend “ceremony” nights with Commander Waterford and Waterford’s infertile wife, in the hopes of conceiving a child in the same manner Bilhah did for Rachel in that long-forgotten Bible story.

This world is terrifying. Women are not allowed to read or write or speak out of turn. They respond to everything with some derivative of a religious greeting. Every Handmaid is to wear the same red habit, day in and day out, and answer only to the name indicative of their masters. Obedience is demanded and rebellion is met with death.

Except Offred: our narrator, our hero, our Katniss Everdeen. It’s easy to fall for her because she’s the one with the stone cold face in Handmaid training, who’s inner monologue is filled with every curse and nasty thought imaginable. She may be silent, but she is by no means docile.

She is waiting for her moment of rebellion, her moment to take down the state and get her daughter back. Of course we are 100% on her side from the get-go.

Offred is living America’s greatest fear: the complete and utter loss of individuality. Whether that loss is to Big Brother, the Capitol, rigid and anti-feminist interpretations of religion, or to a bunch of nuns in Wisconsin completely depends on your particular flavor of dystopian society. The end result is the same.

Individuality, of course, only goes so far when pitted against sacrificial love and sense of the common good, but the complete and utter loss of it serves as an extreme unto itself. It’s terrifying and certainly doesn’t sit well with our grass-fed American upbringing.

If you’re anything like me, by the end of the first episode, you’ll be ready to follow Offred into battle, waving a flag, and belting the finale of Les Miserables. (Hey, it may be French, but that doesn’t mean it ain’t relevant.)

As with any dystopian story, The Handmaid’s Tale serves more as a warning than a looking-glass future of what’s to come from whatever political ripples happen today. This is no crystal ball, nor were Brave New World, 1984, or The Hunger Games. It is an exploration of applied philosophy, told in a completely fictional universe, so that we can better understand the human person. As such, it may ask a lot more questions than it answers, but that’s okay.

It’s enough to get us hooked.

Don’t know about you, but I’m here for the revolution.

 

About the Author
Carly Twehous is a screenwriting student at JPCatholic who possesses a slightly inordinate love of both chocolate and comic books. In what little free time she has, she makes use of it by time traveling, ghost busting, and furiously scouring the globe for potential alien activity.

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