‘Between Trump the Liar and Teresa May cosying up to bigots DUP, The Handmaid's Tale has become more chillingly persuasive’
The Handmaid's Tale episode 3 review (Channel 4, Sunday)
The Handmaid’s Tale is a gruelling test of lung strength. The sense of unease at what might unfold in the very next scene exerts such a powerful grip, you find yourself fully exhaling only when the end credits start to roll.
Up to now, this superb adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, to which it has added layers of its own, has done a stunning job of bringing to life the claustrophobic horror of the Republic of Gilead.
This authoritarian, fundamentalist regime has overthrown the US government and subjugated women, stripping them of their basic human rights and condemning them to lives as household servants, known as Marthas, or Handmaidens, sex slaves.
The sole role of the latter is to bear children for the barren ruling elite in a world where environmental toxins have slashed the birth rate to almost zero.
The world-building has been flawless and meticulously paced, parcelling out its routine atrocities piece by piece. The result is a near-unbearable sense of dread.
This week, however, the series moved up a gear. Flashbacks revealed how society descended to this deplorable state.
“Now I’m awake to the world,” says Elisabeth Moss’s Offred (real name June). “I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then either.”
The march to oppression begins perniciously but rapidly gains momentum. When June and her friend Moira (Samira Wiley) go into a coffee shop, a hostile male barista declines her credit card. Knowing there’s money in her account, she asks him to run it through again. He responds by calling the women “f***ing sluts” and ordering them out the door.
In June’s workplace, heavily armed men suddenly appear in the corridors. Her shocked boss says all the women in the company are being “let go” and have 10 minutes to leave. “It’s the law, there’s nothing I can do about it,” he says helplessly.
At a stroke, women’s bank accounts are frozen and they’re banned from owning property. Martial law follows.
June and Moira attend a protest march. Cops in riot gear barge forward, cracking heads and shooting protestors in cold blood. The women take refuge in a store as explosions rock the streets. It is the state turned terrorist against its own citizens.
Things were no less urgent back in the totalitarian present. Offred has a brief respite from everyday cruelty when it appears she might be pregnant. When it turns out to be a false alarm, the cruelty is redoubled.
She is interrogated with an electric cattle prod by a state goon and the loathsome guardian Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) about her friendship with Handmaid Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), the “gender traitor”. The word “gay” is something else that’s banned in Gilead.
We learn Ofglen’s “crime” – having a sexual relationship with one of the Marthas – and their fate. The Martha is sentenced to “God’s mercy”, which means she’s publicly hanged swiftly and with maximum brutality.
Ofglen, who’ s still useful to the regime as a breeder, is sentenced to “redemption”. She wakes up in a hospital room and discovers she’s been genitally mutilated.
Between Trump the Liar dragging the office of US President through the sewer and Theresa May cosying up to the assorted bigots that make up the DUP, The Handmaid’s Tale has become even more chillingly persuasive.