Review: 'The Handmaid's Tale' is by far the best series of the year

This mesmerising series, coming to M-Net soon, imagines a scary future where women are enslaved and ritually raped, writes Andrew Donaldson

27 October 2017 - 10:25
By Andrew Donaldson
The handmaids in the tale are enslaved and routinely and ritually raped.
Image: George Kraychyk/Hulu The handmaids in the tale are enslaved and routinely and ritually raped.

Six months after its US premiere, M-Net will at last screen, starting on Monday, The Handmaid's Tale. Better late than never, for this mesmerising series based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel of the same name, is by far the best television of the year. It is also profoundly shocking and controversial.

But it did win eight 2017 Primetime Emmy Awards from 13 nominations, including Outstanding Drama Series, and the acclaim and accolades may have emboldened the notoriously prudish and conservative channel to get with the programme, as it were.

Certainly, Atwood's horrific vision has never been more timely: a future totalitarian America known as Gilead where fertile women - "handmaids" - are enslaved as "two-legged wombs" and routinely and ritually raped in a bid to offset dwindling birth rates brought about by disease and ecological disaster.

The show has been described as a political allegory and a dystopian feminist text, but these labels do it a disservice. At its heart is the not unrealistic presumption that societies will permit the destruction of basic human rights provided it benefits an elite, male ruling class. It's tempting, then, to think of the series as commenting on the misogyny of the Donald Trump era but, in reality, it's more the outright horror of what life must be like under the mullahs.

WATCH | The trailer for The Handmaid's Tale

This is a world where the "Plague of Infertility" has been ascribed to God's disapproval of dating apps, abortion and birth control. In the flashback sequences to civil war and unrest that led to Gilead's emergence and its enduring brutality, there's talk of sexual assaults on campus, of gender treachery, of lovers lost in the "dyke purges".

Consider the lot of June Osborne (an impressive Elisabeth Moss). Captured in an attempt to flee Gilead with her husband Luke and daughter Hannah, she's pressed into service as a handmaid to a military leader, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), and his childless wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski).

June is now "Offred"; she literally belongs to Waterford, and once a month is forced to undergo a bizarre, pseudo-religious ceremony in which Waterford rapes her while his wife cradles her body.

Resistance, we soon learn, is futile. The bodies of those who have fought back, and those deemed superfluous to the theocracy, some with pink triangles on hoods, dangle from gibbets in public.

The handmaids occupy a peculiar position in this society. They are powerless, but they are precious; without them, there is no future, so they are treated marginally better than most women. But they are mentally and physically abused in unspeakable ways.

At the Red Centre, where handmaids are "prepared" for their forthcoming roles, one rebellious woman is dragged off by guards to have one of her eyes surgically removed as punishment. Another wakes in terror after surgery to find her crotch bandaged, and is smugly assured that her "deviant" sexual urges won't be troubling her anymore. Punished handmaids with missing hands and scarred faces are shunned in public as shameful - and yet fetishised in private.

Overseeing the handmaids' education and the discharge of their duties is the villain of the piece, the brutal Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). She's a firm believer in the Gilead doctrine and in the sacred nature of the handmaid project.

In one scene, Aunt Lydia assembles the handmaids together for an execution, or "salvaging" as they call it. They must stone a woman to death. It is a lesson to the others. "I know how difficult this is girls, I do," Aunt Lydia tells them. "But God gives us blessings and he gives us challenges. The price of his love is sometimes high, but it must be paid."

No spoilers now, but there is hope. And the stoning doesn't turn out as expected. That incident is still months away. But by then you will have long been a fan of this show. Production has begun on a second season and here's hoping M-Net do the right thing when it's released.

• This article was originally published in The Times.