Grappling With the Sincere Horrors of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (Column)

The Hulu original's very literality — rooted in history, genre, and myth — is part of its challenging, destabilizing appeal

The Handmaid's Tale -- "Nolite Te
Courtesy of Hulu

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” which aired its Season 1 finale June 14, is one of the best shows of the 2016-2017 season. It’s also one of the most challenging. The drama is beautifully lit and gorgeously directed, and the protagonist is performed with singular clarity by Elisabeth Moss. And yet there are times where the show is, for lack of a better word, basic — simplistic, in a way that seems out of pace with what the rest of the show is accomplishing.

The best example is in the fourth episode, “Nolite Te Bastardes Carbonundorum,” in which June, called Offred, discovers a pidgin Latin phrase used by her predecessor Handmaid. It prompts her to look back on her own identity as a Handmaid and reframe it. “We are Handmaids,” June muses to herself at the end of the episode, with a slight smile on her face. “Nolite te bastardes carbonundorum, bitches.”

For a show that had until then focused on the bleak and despairing — the third episode, “Late,” ended with Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), horrified, discovering that her captors had given her a clitoridectomy — the final lines of “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” are surprisingly defiant. But it feels like the season’s nadir (indeed, having watched the rest of the season, I am sure that is the case). In a show that is otherwise textured, nuanced, and lush, the moment is kinda basic — an easily branded, worryingly marketable soundbite of feminism that makes a superficial stamp out of June’s whole existence.

It’s not the Latin phrase itself, which is in Margaret Atwood’s original novel. It’s the “bitches”: A purposefully reductive term for other women, dusted off and reclaimed, perhaps, but only in the most superficial way. At the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum wrote that it was a “go-girl moment,” adding, “I could feel it being hashtagged.” With the mild cursing attached as a rider, the Latin phrase becomes the type of line that goes on a bumper sticker or a T-shirt. “Bitches,” a word packed with the kind of social implication that “The Handmaid’s Tale” spends the rest of its time unpacking, brings Atwood’s phrase down to affected, post-ironic, mean-girl discourse, where it’s possible for one to call one’s friends by the affectionate term “sluts.”

And on the other hand, what’s fascinating about “The Handmaid’s Tale” — fascinating, and at times a little maddening — is its recognition that people, and indeed, people in oppressive regimes in particular, are predictably and incredibly basic. The impulse to and justification for violence is often not exactly imaginative. There is a fundamental, brutal violence to a beheading; a visceral blunt cruelty in gouging out an eye. Survival, as a response to oppression, is similarly simplistic: It is not a subtle response to stay alive.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a television show based on a landmark science-fiction novel, written by an author who is steeped in the conceits of that genre. That’s one of the reasons it feels so different, and at times is rather hard to take. The show cannot escape a certain literality, because it is literally a dystopia — a world that takes subtle or implied violence from our own world and ruthlessly inflates it. “The Hunger Games” is about a world where rich people force poor children to fight and kill each other. “Children of Men” is about a world where the entire human race has mysteriously become infertile, prompting global instability. “The Road” assumes a world devastated by nuclear war. “The Man in the High Castle” is about a world where the Axis powers, not the Allied, won World War II. “The Handmaid’s Tale” depicts a world that is similarly extreme.

Fictional dystopia are a way to process real-world “dystopia” — those regimes of horror, states of oppression, that dot human history the world over. And if the history of the 20th century is any indication, extremism — the real-life kind — lacks subtlety. Every time a brutality in “The Handmaid’s Tale” seems like a stretch of the imagination, I have to remind myself of how brutal humanity has proven itself to be. And indeed, so far, every time one of Gilead’s oppressions seems like a bridge too far, history has contradicted me. Much has already been written about Atwood’s own influences when she wrote the original novel — a commentary on, among other things, anti-porn feminism and Christian fundamentalism. The series has added new and similarly chilling notes that are rooted in history. Ofglen’s clitoridectomy is a surgical form of female genital mutilation. The neat, color-coded costuming nods to various religious sects’ modesty dress. The nooses hanging from the wall evoke the Salem Witch Trials. Stoning — the caveman’s version of death by a thousand cuts — is lifted from the Old Testament.

Is it any wonder, then, that June’s response to such literal oppression would be with the most basic form of defiance? It’s kind of pathetic, hearing her say “… bitches.” But it’s also understandably limited, in its accessible, brief, branded empowerment. That’s the only empowerment that June has access to.

In general, like most snobs, I prefer subtlety in art. Subtlety is challenging: It invites interpretation and discussion, and highlights the complexity of human existence. In the modern era especially, we are suspicious of the blunt narrative; it’s usually being used to sell something, whether that is an ideology or a phone. There is currently so little consensus on what is good, bad, or desirable that even the most banal statement can inspire controversy; nuance and individuation go hand-in-hand.

But the show has also challenged me to examine my own instincts. Perhaps one of the reasons we privilege subtlety is because violent regimes evince so little imagination; oppression at its most ruthless is often a blunt instrument. Berlin was divided with a literal wall — a wall that enforced a media blackout and police state on one side, and a relatively free world on the other. Moira (Samira Wiley) has the same incredulous look on her face when she crosses over to Canada as a refugee might have had, fleeing East Germany; it is hard to believe that such a silly thing as a border, a line in the dirt, could be the difference between freedom and enslavement.

And within cinematic grammar, the show is rich with commentary. Especially compared to other major Hollywood narratives of heroism — narratives that are usually on film — “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a flipped script. It centers women, in a way blockbusters still struggle to do (Marvel’s shelved “Black Widow” movie says hello). It centers powerlessness, when our ubiquitous narratives of superheroes give them extra-human abilities. The series uses filmic tropes to subversive ends — most wrenchingly, the mirror-universe makeover scene from “Jezebels,” which took every teen movie’s prom montage and turned it on its head. And where campy exploitation has seen a resurgent wave of interest — see, for example, “Spring Breakers” — “The Handmaid’s Tale” is elegantly, insistently earnest.

And indeed, in some crucial ways, it is subtle. Gilead is pretty damn evil, and the people who uphold it are variously pretty evil, too. But “The Handmaid’s Tale” is nuanced, when it comes to observing how the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nick (Max Minghella), the young lower-class man who tries to bolster Gilead’s ideals, seems like every disposable young man sent to fight someone else’s war — from World War I to al-Qaeda. Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) is a portrait of complicit femininity, a woman who so hates other women that she has drawn a fence around herself. One of the most difficult observations of the back half of the season is that June is actually safer in a Gilead that follows its own brutal rules than in the “rule-breaking” underworld that the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) draws her into. Gilead’s bizarre, dehumanizing customs are seen in the light of unexpected good intentions.

The Season 1 finale, “Night,” allows “The Handmaid’s Tale” to indulge in a little more rah-rah empowerment. June, emboldened both by her nascent pregnancy and the actions of other Handmaids, refuses to stone her erstwhile friend and fellow Handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer). The defiance borders on unearned. We’ve only just gotten to this dystopia, and it already seems that June is leading the resistance to freedom: Indeed, she leads the Handmaids away from the Salvaging ground with her head held high, as Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” plays: a march of triumph. Gilead is one of the bleakest worlds we’ve seen on television, but “The Handmaid’s Tale” is not above taking a victory lap.

Historically, maybe the show has the right of it: The most brutal regimes can be the most unstable, because widespread oppression breeds widespread mutiny. But more importantly, this hint of coup points to another defining science-fiction quality of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Call it Chekhov’s dystopia: If a science-fiction narrative is to introduce an evil regime, we typically expect it to follow through — to fire the gun, sound the call, and start the revolution. So it is with “Star Wars” and “The Hunger Games”; to include sci-fi’s fairy twin, this is also the case with fantasy series, like “The Lord of the Rings” and the “Harry Potter” franchise.

But it’s a little blockbuster, a little middlebrow, even, to create an evil Empire that will eventually be overthrown because of the acts of one brave hero(ine). Even teenagers, who are the primary audience for the above franchises, have inched away from this model. Consider that “Star Wars,” a story with an ending, just restarted its saga; that “Game of Thrones,” which is supposed to end in a few years still, has been trying to draw its sprawling world to a conclusion since 1996. As superhero stories increasingly become installments in a multi-year franchise — and television shows are not cancelled as much as stretch on into eternity — a conclusive ending is hard to find.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is trying for it. The show is attempting to straddle modern-day irony and Empire-destroying myth to present a classic mold — the hero’s journey — with as much highbrow, prestige-TV, star-wattage elegance as possible. It’s a courageous attempt to bridge cynicism and optimism, one that both entices and tweaks the way that we have become accustomed to watching stories. In some ways, the most unexpected and brilliant thing “The Handmaid’s Tale” does is pursue its oddly basic instincts: It is remaking the heroic journey into one that is all the more successful for how unexpected it is. It’s something of a risk, for a contemporary TV show, to try to be inspiring. At least with this first season, though, I have come to enjoy being inspired.