Blessed be us: The Handmaid’s Tale is back!

Blessed be us: The Handmaid’s Tale is back!

season 2

Last year, Hulu premiered the first season of the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The series, following closely Atwood’s novel, depicts a dystopian near future in which the United States government collapses as the result of environmental problems and a dramatic decline in fertility rates. A radical conservative Christian group assassinates the president and most of Congress, and creates the Theocratic Republic of Gilead. This new autocratic government suspends the Constitution and swiftly enforces a new society based on Old Testament ideals in the belief that this will solve the problems America is facing. New social classes are created, women and gay rights are taken away (women are not even allowed to read!), abortion is prohibited, and most disturbingly, fertile women are forced to become “handmaids,” a new enslaved class of women who are given to the male members of a new social class, the commanders, as mistresses to ensure procreation. Hulu’s TV adaptation is led by Elisabeth Moss in the role of June/Offred, a handmaid offered (therefore her name!) to a Commander who had an important role in the foundation of the Republic of Gilead.

The Handmaid’s Tale in the Era of President Trump, the #MeToo and Time’s Up Movements

It has been widely discussed how the show, which had been in production before the results of the 2016 American election, had become more poignant and even prescient after Donald Trump had become president of the United States, with Mike Pence as his Vice-President (see this NYTimes piece or this one by the New Yorker). Part of the critical success of The Handmaid’s Tale had to do with its unexpected relevance in our new post-truth/Trump era. The dystopian world presented in Atwood’s novel has suddenly become an uncomfortable possibility (maybe not in content, but certainly in tone). Trump’s treatment of women (as revealed in the infamous Hollywood Access tape), his authoritarian tendencies (including bullying or encouraging violence towards those who criticize him), his disregard for the free press or the truth in general, his flirtations with White Supremacy and radical evangelical groups, or his love of conspiracy theories, all of a sudden gave a new context in which to watch the show.

To me, though, what made the show even more disturbing was to see it not through the lens of Donald Trump, but through the prism of our vice-president Mike Pence. To me, Trump is a man without an ideology (I don’t think of “winning” as an ideology), but Mike Pence has a strong evangelical worldview that, in many ways, reflects the Christian/Biblical world criticized in Margaret Atwood’s novel (see the piece by The Atlantic “God’s Plan for Mike Pence”). The Handmaid’s Tale presents a dystopian American that blames all its current problems on the abandonment of its supposed Christian roots. America’s embrace of liberal views such as gender and race equality, gay rights, abortion, civil rights, etc. has set America in the path of its own destruction, and only by embracing (and imposing) a strong evangelical view America will survive. The story shows how a critical and tragic event in America can tip the scales, and offer an opening to Christian radical ideologies to take over. Now, you may think this is an exaggeration, but the rhetoric by the Christian/Evangelical Right is there, you only have to watch the short video below to see how evangelical leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell discussed the events of September 11 by blaming it on those groups I just have mentioned! Trump may be just pretending to embrace evangelical values as those spouse by Falwell and Robertson, but his Vice-President, Mike Pence is a strong believer in them, and that is what makes The Handmaid’s Tale all the more relevant and disturbing today.

The Darkness and the Light: A New Beginning for Offred in Season 2

Warning: Spoilers ahead for the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale

The end of the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale ends the same way the novel did. After the Handmaids refuse to stone Janine/Ofdaniel for threatening to kill her daughter (in the episode The Bridge), they are loaded into vans to an uncertain future.

The last words of Offred in the finale are also the last words of the novel, and bring the story to an uncertain end (there is the epilogue of the novel, which takes place decades later but, in the novel, we are never certain as to what happened to Offred or how the Republic of Gilead ended):

“The van waits in the driveway, its double doors stand open. The two of them, one on either side now, take me by the elbows to help me in. Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped.And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”

The first episode of the second season begins with a somber and scary moment in which Aunt Lydia and some guards take the Handmaids to Fenway Park to be executed by hanging. As the Handmaids are lined up to be hang, Aunt Lydia is yelling like a zealot a version of Deuteronomy 13:4: “You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear Him, and keep His commandments and obey His voice; you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him.” What makes the scene poignant is that, on the one hand, you have the dangerous self-righteousness of Aunt Lydia justifying this execution on religious grounds, since the Handmaids have not defied her orders, but those of God. On the other hand, the cruelty of it all makes Offred utter what might be her last words: “Our Father Who are in Heaven… seriously…what the actual fuck.” The Handmaids are ultimately ‘forgiven,’ but Aunt Lydia wants to make sure they understand that their defiance will have consequences.

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One of the reasons that makes the scene so terrifying is the use of religious justifications for such a public execution. This semester, I am teaching a class about the history of the concept of God, and we are reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, in which he warns of the dangers of religious fundamentalism for modern secular societies (particularly America). Dawkins thinks that Christian evangelical movements pose a thread to American secular democracy because they are allowed to express and push agendas that are, ultimately, against those secular values. He references books such as Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy or Chris Hedges’ American Fascists to warn of the dangerous consequences that those ideologies pose to American democracy. He maybe exaggerating his case, but there is something terrifying when you take evangelical claims to their ultimate consequences and what their effect would be to our democratic system.

How Democracy Ends: Death by a Thousand Cuts

One of the fascinating aspects of the show is how, through flashbacks, it reveals how the United States ended up becoming the Republic of Gilead, or how a democracy became a totalitarian Theocracy in which many Americans lost their rights. We saw this throughout the first season when they cancelled bank accounts for women, or when they were all fired from their jobs because “it is the law now.” The Republic of Gilead did not happen in one day, but one small change at a time, with the rolling back of one liberal policy at a time (women’s rights, gay rights). In this episode, we see this in a flashback in which June, still a working mother, is called to the hospital, where the school has sent her daughter due to a fever. There, a nurse starts questioning her behavior as a mother for not taking care of her daughter. In the America of the flashback, we see how a new attitude towards empowered, independent women is starting to crumble, is being questioned, is not seeing as a strength and an important aspect of our society, but as a weakness, and as one of the causes of the social unrest occurring during that time.

Reinterpreting Democracy: Freedom To and Freedom From

In another scene of the episode, we see Aunt Lydia lecturing the Handmaids as to why their act of defiance shows that they have a wrong  understanding of what freedom means. She talks about the difference between ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from.’ This is a classic philosophical distinction between what is called positive (freedom to) and negative (freedom from) liberty. According to Aunt Lydia, the previous world offered them ‘freedom to’, the Republic of Gilead, due to the grace of God, offers them ‘freedom from.’

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The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines the difference as:

“Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense. Positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities.”

The Republic of Gilead seems to follow Thomas Hobbes idea of negative liberty as outlined in Leviathan, which “outlines a commonwealth based upon a monarchy to whom citizens have ceded their rights. The basic reasoning for Hobbes’ assertion that this system was most ideal relates more to Hobbes’ value of order and simplicity in government. The monarchy provides for its subjects, and its subjects go about their day-to-day lives without interaction with the government” [Wikipedia]. In this case, the subjects of the Republic of Gilead have ceded their rights not to a monarchy, but to God.

Aunt Lydia and the Dangers of Faith

Aunt Lydia is the primary example of how a citizen in that sort of Republic will give up its individual rights at the service of a higher idea, without a hint of cynicism. She is a true believer, she is a zealot. While she is admonishing the handmaids for what she considers is their pride against God and their defiance to God’s will, she finds out that Offred is pregnant, and she runs inside the building to ring the bell to announce the happy news. In the scene she is genuinely moved, she sees this as God’s blessing, as a sign that her hardline is necessary for the Republic to survive.


Resist! Or How To Be Free in a Totalitarian Society

In the next scene, Aunt Lydia wants Offred to eat something so she can recover some strength. Offred refuses, and a tense exchange occurs between the two, a battle of wills in which Aunt Lydia finally persuades Offred that the best thing she can do is to comply. The scene is a great example of something we witnessed throughout the first season: how can you resist a totalitarian system that it’s oppressing you and taking away your freedom? Offred has shown that in this type of situation is the small acts of rebellion that matter, small acts of defiance that show that, even though the Republic of Gilead may have taken away her freedom, there are still small acts that make her feel that she still has some agency. Aunt Lydia understands the dangers of that, and that’s why she is so hard on Offred in the scene, taking her to see another pregnant woman chained in the basement during the length of her pregnancy for showing similar defiance.

Is Offred Finally Free?

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In the final part of the episode, Offred, with the help of Nick, her Eye and lover (and the father of her child), is able to escape. She burns her Handmaid’s clothes, and in a gruesome scene, she cuts with a scissor the earring with a GPS tracker that all Handmaids have.
The Handmaid's Tale
But is she truly free? One of the important questions this season presents is the notion of any of the characters being truly free even when they have escaped Gilead. Is Offred, now June, again free when her daughter is still in Gilead? Is Moira free, living in Canada away from the horrors of being a Handmaid? I think one of the answers of the show is a clear NO, once you have lived the horrors of the Republic of Gilead, they stay with you, they are part of you, and they forced you to confront some of the darkest aspects of human nature.

A Final Note

I am glad that The Handmaid’s Tale is back, although watching it is still a very hard experience. It is relentless, it is heartbreaking, it is infuriating. But it is also necessary, so blessed be us, so what we watch stays in the realm of fiction.

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