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How to Settle Down with Dystopia

From the headlines to The Handmaid's Tale, it’s always on

I guess one day we’ll all tire of dystopian narratives, just as some of us have wearied of certain types of period films. Over the last half-decade, black critics have debated the politics of representation and the topical salience of Hollywood’s many award-winning epics revisiting slavery and the civil rights movement; meanwhile, a vastly different contingent of the country has derided the trespasses of runaway “political correctness” as it’s been alleged to distort the narration of our greatness-seeking national history. Over this past election cycle, these aggrieved white souls have dismissed the search for a usably woke American past with a lusty, Trumpian chorus of “Fuck your feelings.” 

But however we may resent the pressures imposed on our daily lives by an unsettled past, the full-scale lurch into an inescapably bleak future—of the kind you can experience in, say, Black Mirror—is also sort of exhausting. The specter of a dismal, gray autocratic time ahead feels, for all the obvious reasons, a bit close to the bone in Donald Trump’s America. At the same time, though—and for most of the same obvious reasons—visions of a fatally broken American future are seemingly inescapable, particularly on TV.

This makes for a curious moment in the jittery interface between pop culture and the political world. A few months ago, critics began wondering whether Americans outraged by the many daily excesses, lies, and closely orchestrated mass hatreds that mark the Trump era would soon experience “resistance fatigue.” Dana Fisher, a sociologist who studies protest, argued instead that “Despite concern about eventual ‘protest fatigue’ [ . . . ]  ‘the resistance’ seems to be building momentum rather than losing it.” Fisher questioned whether Americans who attended early protests were succumbing to the familiar undertow of business as usual—and then noted that “The data we have collected so far suggest they are not going back to watching TV.”

The signs of resistance fatigue are nowhere on the horizon—particularly after the House GOP’s shameful passage of the cruel and predatory American Health Care Act.

It’s a safe bet, at any rate, that those of us in the anti-Trump resistance who are watching TV are watching Hulu’s ten-part series The Handmaid’s Tale. For all the political reasons you’d guess, it’s one of the most anticipated series of the year—and yes, like all the other dystopian narratives assailing our eyes, ears, and minds, it’s pretty draining. Adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, the first three episodes of the ten-episode season went into Hulu’s streaming queue on April 26, and the rest will be released, one by one, on a weekly basis. (On May 3, Hulu announced that the series had been renewed for a second season. ) 

From the outset of the Trump era, The Handmaid’s Tale was an obvious reference point. By February, Atwood’s novel topped Amazon’s best-seller list—not long after George Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here each had topical star turns on the list. The signs of resistance fatigue, it seems, are nowhere on the horizon—particularly after the House GOP’s shameful passage of the cruel and predatory American Health Care Act. And it feels like the quest for the most compelling dystopian version of the American present is just beginning.

The Hulu-branded Handmaid’s Tale makes a fair bid to pin down the Trumpian Zeitgeist in its ugly, violent, and remorselessly tense future. The series is set at an unspecified time, in a territory called the Republic of Gilead that occupies the former United States: The moment the opening credits fade and our story begins, we’re told in no uncertain terms that it can happen here. A theocratic government reigns, and the legal system has reverted back to an Old Testament brand of justice—and patriarchal rule. Women are punished most, and are not legally allowed to have money, own property, or read. Because of an ambiguous combination of pollution and STDs, most citizens of Gilead are sterile. Fertile, “fallen” women like the series protagonist Offred (Elisabeth Moss), are classified as handmaids, and compelled to take part in a monthly rape “ceremony” conducted by the male masters of the homes they live in. The presumably sterile wives (in Gilead, only women can be deemed sterile) are made complicit in the abuse, holding the handmaids’ wrists and cradling their heads, creepily, in their own laps.

Offred, a former book editor, had tried to flee Gilead for Canada with her husband and young daughter—only to hear him killed, and to witness her captured. In a series of flashbacks, we see snatches of Offred’s former life, including encounters with close women friends like Moira (Samira Wiley), a black lesbian who faces horrid retribution for seeking to escape her own handmaid assignment in the new theocracy. These memories help Offred preserve her core sense of self, and sanity, as she endures not only the ritualized rape at the hands of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), but also the censure and verbal abuse of his wife (Yvonne Strahovski), who bears the gruesomely ironic name Serena Joy.

Offred mostly keeps her suffering close to the chest, making banal conversation with her fellow handmaid Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), mostly about shopping and the weather. As the work of a feminist novelist aimed squarely at the Reagan-era religious right, The Handmaid’s Tale, in book form, always had a certain ripped-from-the-headlines feel. But in the quiet and measured unfolding of the series plot, the evocation of a barely submerged mood of revolt burrowing into the domestic rites of the servant class recalls not just the Biblical reveries of the 1980s or the 1640s, but also the experience of slavery in the antebellum South. In that setting, too, failed flights to Canada and clandestine reading sessions were key hallmarks of brewing resistance. And the figures of the resentful wife and abused servant woman recall almost every slave narrative I’ve ever read.

The evocation of a mood of revolt burrowing into the domestic rites of the servant class recalls the experience of slavery in the antebellum South.

Unlike other action-packed tales of dystopia (we’re looking at you, Philip K. Dick) The Handmaid’s Tale is not overstuffed with creepy gadgets and alien life forms. Instead, much like the history it references, the series steeps the viewer in the slow-mo accretion of disaster. It’s a world in which death by a thousand blows is an all-too literal prospect. And here, too, the rhythms of ritualized acquiescence to horror feel just a bit too familiar to Americans coming to grips with the Trump age. At the outset of the third episode, “Late,” Offred narrates the slow creep of authoritarian calamity in a way that feels all too ripped from today’s headlines: “Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then, either. They said it would be temporary.”

The notion of sleepwalking is more than metaphoric. Handmaids bob placidly through the streets of the former-Massachusetts town where Offred is stationed, draped in ruby habits like Scarlet Letter cosplayers. “Nothing changes instantaneously,” Offred muses to herself during one such outing. “In a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”

In the first four episodes of Handmaid, you feel the heat. Sometimes the allegory is a bit heavy, the sense of foreboding so grim, the stringed-instrument score so suffused with dread, that I wondered why I wanted to keep watching. Knowing the sagas of slavery and Jim Crow in such detail already, do I really need to keep stockpiling kindred horrors in my queue? But one flashback featuring Moira, June (Offred’s real name), and her husband Luke in the married couple’s kitchen helps explain why I want to stay with the show. In the scene, June and Moira have just learned that they’ve been fired from their jobs and are fulminating against the country’s recent laws forbidding women to work and possess money. Luke tries to reassure June that he’ll look after her well-being in the new Gilead regime.

Moira, a feminist, is exasperated by his patronizing tone. “She isn’t your property and she doesn’t need you to take care of her,” she says. “You really got a fucking problem, you know that?” she tells him. Luke wants to know just what’s he’s supposed to do under the circumstances: “Should I just go in the kitchen and cut my dick off?” The fraught moment dissolves into comradely laughter—much as many other such charged encounters do in real life. Meanwhile, Moira has to make her way back home in the increasingly hostile misogynist world closing in on her. Luke, ever-protective, offers to walk her to the train station. “Fuck yeah, it’s crazy out there,” Moira answers.

That scene sums up my feelings about the show: you may have a legitimate beef about some random encounter or interpersonal dynamic or a fictional genre that’s steeped in political dread, both present and future. But fuck, it’s crazy out here. Watching this show is one way to navigate the slow build-up of history’s horrors—at least until the resistance picks up some fresh momentum.