The Handmaid’s Tale, that multi award winning 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, is in the news again. It’s in the news for its sequel being nominated for a Booker prize despite it not being released yet, for Amazon sending out copies before today’s official release date and for cyber criminals, apparently, trying to hack copies but it’s hard to imagine what they might do with it two days before publication. I could do with such publicity.
I’ve not read The Handmaid’s Tale and not being a cyber-criminal, I’ve not read the sequel, The Testaments. I have, however, been watching The Handmaid’s Tale TV series. I say that but, in truth, I’ve had to stop watching it. I got half way through episode two of season two and decided I couldn’t go on.
For the uninitiated the story describes life in a dystopian near future where women’s rights have been removed by the rise of a totalitarian state governed by the laws of the Old Testament. In 1985 it must have been seen as a fantasy, having won or been nominated for two science fiction and fantasy awards as well as a nomination for the Booker Prize and other gongs. However, 30 years later, with the rise of the religious right, it’s possible to imagine how such a change could occur.
The TV series currently airs on Amazon. I’m a bit of a fan of streaming services, not having a TV, and I’ll watch all sorts of streaming TV from Marvel super heroes to Newsnight; so, this next statement might seem a bit weird, but, purely for the purposes of this blog, I’m going to compare The Handmaid’s Tale to Stranger Things.
Stranger Things is proper science-fiction-fantasy-horror (although the horror is low grade or a bit silly so not so scary). Of course, it’s nothing like The Handmaid’s Tale, which is why I making the comparison. Stranger Things is set in the 1980s with monsters from a parallel universe and a heroic girl with super powers who flips vans into the air with her powers of mind and generally acts as a bad-ass. Meanwhile The Handmaid’s Tale is a work or serious social comment exploring themes of women’s rights in an extreme patriarchal society.
I watched The Handmaid’s Tale with a mix of morbid fascination and discomfort. Without spoiling the plot, the life of a handmaid is not a happy one. There are some very sadistic characters and interpretations of biblical law and the whole thing is quite oppressive.
Now, I’m not a woman, which might seem like an obvious statement to make but that’s important. As a man I can’t claim to really understand, on a visceral level, what it might be like to imagine living under that regime. And remember there are people, lots of them, living under regimes very like that all across the world. (When we complain about the council missing our bins let’s never forget how lucky we are.) However, my muse is a woman and she’s seen The Handmaid’s Tale all the way through to the end of season three. She tells me that what made the series tolerable were the little victories that the main character has as she goes about her daily life.
Stranger Things has also run to three series.
It’s in the nature of TV series, especially series such as Stranger Things, that each series has to top the previous serious. So, in Stranger Things series one there’s a monster, it bites people with its unfolding petal like face full of teeth. It’s unpleasant and unnerving, but that’s what horror, even the mild kind, is meant to be like. Of course, The Handmaid’s Tale is nothing like that. Well, not much like it anyway. But with each new series Stranger Things basically starts again. The end of season one resolves it nicely, everyone is happy but there’s a hint of some following menace to tempt viewers, and the commissioners, back for more. So, basically, the plot is largely the same; peaceful mid-west town with geeky high school kids is caught up in nasty monster adventure; some people solve the problem while other people are blissfully unaware. The monsters get bigger, more horrific, and ultimately sillier, but basically the storyline is the same.
I’ll not describe what happens in The Handmaid’s Tale as it’s a serious work of drama and I’d like you to be able to enjoy it for yourself, if enjoyment is the right word. But here’s the thing. As I watched season two, I began to realise that, ultimately, there can be no relief for the main character. If Offred escapes and, say, joins the resistance (I don’t even know if there is a resistance), then the story is fundamentally changed and, with a work of drama, that would never be allowed. That means there can never be any relief for the main character, or for the viewers. That’s not a spoiler, that’s a guess, you’ll have to watch it for yourself as I gave up before getting to episode three. If she escapes, or kills her captors or changes society back to a lovely egalitarian, liberal world where the worst that can happen is your bins don’t get collected, then it’s no longer The Handmaid’s Tale. They won’t be able to make any more. There can never be any relief or resolution. She might have her little victories but, one way or another, she will always continue to be oppressed.
Series like Stranger Things are silly and frothy, even if it’s dark froth. But it doesn’t really matter if someone gets killed or escapes. We might be disappointed that our favourite character is not going to be in any more episodes but we can watch the next season and still enjoy the froth that remains. The Handmaid’s Tale, on the other hand is never going to let up. And, because it’s so close to reality, just a few steps of badly managed politics, as mapped out in the flashbacks, could bring that scenario into real life. I’m afraid it was all too much for me. I know it’s a cautionary tale but, at some point, I need to know it’s going to be over and with streaming TV…
Apparently, they are thinking it might run to ten seasons.