A seemingly urgent show has surprisingly little political currency
The last week has been a watershed moment for ridiculous nonsense woke controversies, with people attacking titles from House of the Dragon to The Rings of Power to even remake projects like Pinocchio and The Little Mermaid for attempting to foster political action by…engaging in multiracial casting. Within this generally absurd situation, the most actually political series in mainstream American culture has returned for its fifth season. I’m referring to The Handmaid’s Tale, which saw its first two episodes come out on Hulu a week ago following a premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The Handmaid’s Tale has occupied an increasingly baffling niche in American pop culture. On the one end, it’s the biggest streaming series on Hulu, going a long way to firmly establishing its status as a major service back in 2017. On the other end, people tend to keep forgetting that it’s still going on, even the liberals who are the show’s core audience. It’s easy enough to guess why: the first season mostly adapted the original book, the story of June living in the fundamentalist state of Gilead, which forces fertile women to act as handmaids to men to try and get pregnant.
Subsequent seasons have shown the evolution of June into a terrorist figure who works to bring enslaved women out of Gilead. The fourth season ended with June and a group of other former handmaids successfully assassinating Fred Waterford, June’s first master, but more recently a defector from the Gilead regime. The first three episodes of the fifth season have mostly been handwringing about whether killing Fred Waterford was a wise thing to do either morally or politically. On the flip side of the plot, Serena Waterford negotiates her new life as a pregnant widow, attempting to find a means back into the leadership of Gilead, and not having much success as of the end of the third episode.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a property that would seem to be of greater urgency now compared with the 2017 debut. Hulu made screeners available for the fifth season before the Dobbs decision eliminated the constitutional right to abortion in the United States–months ahead of the actual premiere, but weeks after someone leaked that decision to the press. Protests during that time featured women dressed up as handmaids with some frequency. Indeed, the handmaid costume has been a popular one for liberals engaging in political protest in recent years, making the obvious statement that we’re only a few steps removed as a society from becoming Gilead, where women are little more than property.
This isn’t an arbitrary casting decision. The messaging of The Handmaid’s Tale is quite explicitly that politics founded on religious beliefs are bad. Yet conservatives have never shown themselves to be much threatened or insulted by this imagery. Honestly it’s not clear whether they’ve ever even noticed it, despite the directness of the critique. Why is that?
Well, despite the dour, dark presentation, the main reason is just that it’s very hard to take The Handmaid’s Tale seriously as speculative fiction unless a person’s already bought into the premise. I mean that literally more than aesthetically. The original book was quite vague about what exactly Gilead was and what political events prompted it. The TV series hasn’t been much better, despite the sheer increased quantity of content. It leaves fans trying to scrape together the physical location of Gilead from background props. The show focuses entirely on the character drama created by the setting rather than the setting itself. June and to a lesser extent Serena are the clear protagonists with the political machinations of larger groups generally taking place off-screen.
The biggest problem with this is that the premise of The Handmaid’s Tale was always a bit absurd, and borderline fetishistic. Allegedly Gilead came into being because of a fertility crisis, one that presumably is also affecting the United States and Canada. Yet all the depressing negativity is chiefly because of all the women being tortured. Anyone expecting Children of Men-style despair in secular and religious countries alike about an impending demographic apocalypse won’t find any. No one in Gilead acts like there’s a crisis, with polite dinner table conversation seeming to be the main social priority.
But this is probably unavoidable. In response to such a crisis, they’d have to consider male fertility in addition to female fertility, yet Gilead’s weirdly polygynous structure seems to be based on status, not fertility. And inevitably, every 10 minutes I spend trying to watch The Handmaid’s Tale I just end up asking myself, why do the men of Gilead put up with this? I’m not implying that men are inherently good people here, I mean the entire handmaid system must completely wreck Gilead’s gender ratios, to the point that most men couldn’t even have girlfriends, let alone wives. Who’s fighting in Gilead’s army that scares everyone so much?
The Handmaid’s Tale could address these critiques by adding in materialist elements. The fact that the show has made no attempt to do so well into the fifth season is an indictment of its ultimately shallow social commentary. The Handmaid’s Tale is so divorced from any actual right-wing political philosophy there’s not anything for an actual right-wing philosopher to really find offensive. Even if we try to read Gilead as a crude civilization, something very at odds with all the awkward dinner table scenes, there’s no getting past the materialist problems of such actual conservative societies. The FLDS, for example, quite literally has to abandon male children to maintain their unbalanced sex rations, since rebellion would be inevitable. The Taliban started out with an imbalanced ratio because of the greater likeliness of dead men, and have actually cracked down on polygyny considerably in recent years as this ratio has disappeared.
Ultimately we don’t really talk very much about The Handmaid’s Tale anymore because there just isn’t anything to say. It’s a show for people who find themselves invested in June and Serena’s personal stories. Even liberal critics have struggled with trying to argue that the show is relevant, despite ongoing events, as the Rotten Tomatoes ratings has dipped into the 70% range for the last season as well as this one. This one will be another negative for that pile.