Rare is it to watch television so searing as to elicit a visceral and almost continuous feeling of tension and slow-creeping fear. But try, as a woman, to watch The Handmaid’s Tale and not feel that parts of you have been bruised, others ripped open.
The vivid brutality of the world evoked by this series is breathtaking, its power the result of economy. Not all violence comes in technicolour. Disenfranchised women, offered an outlet for their rage, savage a man to death with their bare hands. A newborn baby is wrenched from its mother, as she cries out in soundless agony. A man lasciviously licks the stump of a woman kept alive only to pleasure him and others like him - because in this society, all female body parts except the reproductive organs are dispensable.
The basic premise might once have been termed the stuff of Orwellian nightmares. Now it feels more like eerie prescience. In an America beset by environmental and social problems, with catastrophically declining fertility levels, social restructuring has been orchestrated by an elite that wields its power mercilessly. Still-fertile women are subjected to ritualistic rape for the purpose of procreation, its baseness in no way disguised by a veneer of religious ceremony.
As with all good totalitarian regimes, the new state is peopled by an extensive spy network and designed to subjugate any attempts at free thought. Academics have been sent to a toxic wasteland or brutally murdered; books have been burned, museums and churches destroyed, games outlawed. The sterility of sanctioned interactions is embodied by the accepted phrases and greetings used: joyless praise bes and blessed days pepper this social wasteland, where, we are told, carbon emissions have reduced dramatically, crops grow and children are born. Only the ominous under his eye carries with it a deeper meaning – a reminder to watch others as you are watched, that privacy has been abolished, that your eye can be plucked out.
But this series made me recall recent – unrelated – conversations with two female friends who, by coincidence, each said the same thing: still so much about conception is a mystery.
So too parenthood, so too sexuality, so too human connection. Life finds a way. A defiant sentence etched into a wall can penetrate a person’s psyche. Trying to reduce a group of women to bland uniformity, to erase individual identity, may instead create a solidarity so powerful as to give birth to resistance. As two people find each other after long separation, they are reminded that familial bonds are not always of blood, but they cannot be artificially created. Women who have been robbed of their agency in every possible respect wield what weapons they have to fight back: they speak their own names, they tell their stories, they insist on being remembered. One steals a car and deliberately, with exhilaration, runs over one of the faceless men who has served as a warden in her open-air prison. The viewer shares in mixed fear and triumph at the bloody mess she leaves, knowing a worse fate awaits her, encased in walls of clinical white.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a glorious celebration of humanity’s enduring ability to give the finger to forces that would have us cower, even as it is a warning against the growth of the totalitarian regime in sheep’s clothing. Its female characters are not only real and vivid; they, in particular, resist easy characterisation and are accorded a depth and complexity equalled by no male character. Two of the women who in some ways govern, were part of creating or at least perpetuate the system are shown, as the series progresses, to be compassionate as well as bitter and petty, to wish to protect and nurture even while they continue to bully and torment. You see flashes of their anguish and remorse, and you see how these feelings fuel their fury.
In close-up shots exposing both wrinkles and inner thoughts – each one perhaps equally dangerous for women in this society – steely resolve can crumple to vulnerability, smug complacency can turn to confusion and revulsion can be painfully pushed to one side to make room for mock-flirtatiousness.
The ultimate success of this series, for me, is that you are never invited to judge the protagonist. She is sympathetic but refuses to be saintly. She swears and rails against the unfairness of her situation but she seizes her chance to seek pleasure for its own sake and she won’t apologise for it. You feel every violation of her body, whether it is the crack of a whip on her feet or the slithering of an unwanted finger running down her arm. You feel the potency of her barely-contained rage and you find yourself waiting, breathless, until the moment when it will finally explode into life.