The Handmaid’s Tale Presents a Disturbing Dystopian Society

An image of a woman in a red robe and white hat, standing in front of a concrete wall stained with bits of red, probably blood--some of it dripping onto the road. The poster reads, "We will bear no more, A hulu original, The Handmaid's Tale."
Image: Hulu via IMDB

Genre: Dystopia

Synopsis: June used to have a family and a life, until an extremist government took over. They renamed her, and as one of the few remaining fertile women, assigned her to be a Handmaid–given to an elite household for the purpose of bearing children for a commander and his wife. The story proceeds to show us a vicious dystopia where certain people are dehumanized and devalued, stripped away of their freedom and individuality.

Series: One season.

I’ve Watched: The first two episodes.

Verdict: It’s disturbing, and has a power to it–though the content can make it pretty  hard to watch.  

Well, that was uncomfortable.

The material is heavy, and that ends up outweighing every other aspect of the work. I don’t know if the recent dystopia craze has diluted the punch I expect from the genre, or if The Handmaid’s Tale is taking on particularly emotional subject matter. But damn, is this a rough watch. It’s supposed to be, it has to be. But it’s still rough.

I cried three times in the first episode. At several points, I had to stop watching, because I just couldn’t. The only thing that got me through the pilot was sheer willpower–I told myself, if I finished the pilot and found that I couldn’t do it anymore, I could stop. And then I found myself some light, feel-good show to binge on for weeks afterwards, before I could bring myself to try the second episode.

I paused the second episode 30 seconds in, and had to take an hour break before I could keep going, it disturbed me so much. Most scenes are tinged with this emptiness, this sense that the horror of what’s happening is dulled by how commonplace it is–that the characters’ emotions have to recede or it’ll be too much. It’s creepy, how placid the surface tone of the show is.

In contrast, the vague sense of paranoia–that no one can be trusted–is almost a relief. The characters are literally afraid of talking about their lives before this became their reality. It’s like that life isn’t supposed to have been real, like society doesn’t want it to be anything but a dream they can never share with anyone.

And then there’s this scene in the second episode, when the commander issues June an invitation–or what he considers an invitation, though it’s really a command. She’s told to meet with him privately, which is forbidden. In his private rooms, which are forbidden to all women, including his wife. June spends the day terrified of what he might want. Of whether he’ll accuse her of something, whether he’ll want sexual favors she doesn’t want to give. Whether she’ll be in danger.

We’re following June’s perspective, so we enter the scene as unsure of his intentions as she is. Everything he says sounds vaguely threatening, and could easily be a prelude to something awful. The whole scene is slightly creepy, with an uncertainty about whether at any point it’ll cross a line. It’s only when she’s left the room that she can be sure that nothing else will happen. (I have fuzzy memories of reading the book this is based on about a decade ago, which is probably the only reason this scene wasn’t more stressful for me–because I remembered where it would go.)

I don’t know how far I’ll get with this show. I’m probably going to have to take it slow, because it can be an uncomfortable watch. But if someone wants to watch a dystopia that seems to have hit that spot where it’s both personal and horrific for plenty of people–I can’t remember the last time I came across another that’s pulled it off like this.