‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ finale: stunning, intoxicating, unnerving
The series adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novel has given birth to a real-world army
Women dressed as handmaids promoting the Hulu original series The Handmaid’s Tale, stand along a public street during the South by Southwest Music Film Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, Photograph: Reuters/Brian Snyder
The Handmaid’s Tale: Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) and Offred (Elisabeth Moss), as two the few fertile women in the oppressive Republic of Gilead. Photograph: George Kraychyk/Hulu
At any time over this summer – on the screen, in newspaper columns or in the streets – you could be forgiven for thinking that The Handmaid’s Tale (Channel 4, Sunday, 10pm) was everywhere. Because, under His eye, it was.
Before the US streaming service Hulu had issued its adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s influential novel – a “speculative fiction” in which America has become a theocratic police state, pushing its diminishing number of fertile women into domestic slavery – images of Elizabeth Moss’s indentured servant, Offred, in her red habit and enfolding white wings, had taken over the buses and billboards of Manhattan (whose conspicuous liberties always operate over a steady hum of anxiety).
Since the programme emerged, with its alarming tone and unnerving visual style, we’ve seen crowds of Handmaids appear in speculative non-fiction, demonstrating for reproductive rights in Texas, or against Trump and the Law and Justice Party in Warsaw.
Closer to home, where the rights of women are still constitutionally subordinate to their reproductive imperative, it struck a nerve. In the compellingly austere vision of The Handmaid’s Tale, many moments could find their symbol.
That owes less to Atwood’s novel, to which the series has been largely faithful, than to the show’s embellishments – showing our recognisable world ceding to jackboot troops and religious fanatics in stunned flashbacks, as well as the corollary, a heavy emphasis on the lip-curl of resistance.
“It’s their own fault,” says Offred, as though rallying her real-world followers, with a swagger she never attains in the novel. “They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.”
At its conclusion, that call to action, like the escape to Canada of her friend Moira (played by Samira Wiley), partly serves the demands of a drama that has run out of novel, but it mainly appeases an audience’s need for something more than helplessness.
That’s nowhere clearer in the package that Moira has gone to dangerous lengths to get to Offred, who, now pregnant and – to some extent – untouchable, is a de facto resistance leader.
The package, we discover, is an ark of testimony, a bundle of letters from innumerable handmaids in words that are finally stark and uncensored: “My name is Maria.” “They took my son.” “We are prisoners, they rape us.” “Help me, for god’s sake, help me.”
Director Kari Skogland (eight of the ten episodes were directed by women, incidentally, and half had female writers) maintains the tranquilised haze that defined the series, where nothing is quite as lovely, nor as sinister, as crepuscular rays of winter sunlight streaming through every window.
There are scenes of punishment and torture, none more sadistic than Offred’s torment with a view of her stolen child, just out of reach, when Serena leverages her daughter’s safety for the protection of Offred’s pregnancy. But the climax of the episode, and the series, is a defiance, when Offred leads a revolt against the stoning of Janine, letting her rock fall with a subverted refrain, “I’m sorry, Aunt Lydia.”
Where Atwood weaved her unsettling tale with a novelist’s ambiguity, her adapter Bruce Miller is a much firmer believer in unequivocal hope. That’s one of the reasons that the final moment, faithful to the book, should appear so gravely threatening, yet be delivered with galvanising energy.
A fearless Moss conveyed abruptly into the unknown, as though she too can hear the soundtrack bounding into Tom Petty’s American Girl. Such an unlikely balance has made The Handmaid’s Tale intoxicating television, a kind of dystopian escapism of falling low and fighting back.
Is it any wonder that those uniforms should have already found their armies in the world, confident that we know exactly what they mean, and secure in the fact that they can still be taken off.