Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale: What is the Deal With the Colonies?

Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale is a remarkable study of the human spirit that embodies exquisite acting, titillating visual imagery, and more tension than my poor smothered teddy bear can handle. But there is an arc to this season that is more than troubling–a xenolith of torture porn that exhibits no forward movement or even the promise of it: Emily and the colonies.

It isn’t just an interesting band name. “Emily and the colonies” is the bone spur of this season. There is no virtue or entertainment in watching women pull out their teeth and fingernails, and dig at the steaming earth over and over. There is no purpose to witnessing their decaying bondage, other than to string out June/Offred’s tale. The arc is so far gone in degrees of hope, and even reality, that it is a face-punching anchor on the entire season.

You may disagree with me entirely. But, even if you find a smidge of virtue in watching rotted bodies digging in the earth and washing their skin away at the sinks, you have to admit, there are some major problems with this storyline. So many questions. So much that makes no sense.

What are the colonies?

The answer is that we do not exactly know. Margaret Atwood–the source-material author–never explicitly states what or where they are, only that they are toxic and horrible. It is pretty easily inferred, however, that they are massive areas that were hit by nuclear bombs (or other weaponry). This explains the radioactivity, and (sort of), why they are digging at the soil. Presumably, the idea is that my scraping away the top foot or so of earth, the land may be livable again some day. Many, many, many years from now.

Why aren’t they using bulldozers?

So there are the unwomen, and the aunts, and the guardians, all slowly (verrrry slowly) digging and picking at the earth and shoving it all into bags (bags!). But why the hell don’t they have big machines to make the job go monumentally faster? The technology exists, the fuel exists.

We know that Atwood remarks the unwomen cannot have protective gear because Gilead won’t bear the expense, but surely, sending a fleet of bulldozers to cut the job time 1,000-fold, is more cost effective than the labor of the aunts and the guardians, the food provisions for everyone, the cost of all those damn bags, and the utility costs of maintaining these camps for years upon years.

Damn it, Gilead! Dig down a long way into the earth, pour a concrete shell with a nice lead lining for good measure, and then bulldoze a whole lot of toxic earth into the subterranean concrete vault, seal the thing up, and move on to the next site.

What in the name of Janine are they planning to do with those bags, anyway?

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Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Offred is a protagonist who lives in a world gone crazy. In a cautionary tale that borders on post-apocalyptic mania, The Handmaid’s Tale pulls a Planet of the Apes and seduces us into the horrors of Offred’s world and then reveals them to be our own. Offered is us. This is meant to terrify us and indulge our worst slippery slope fears. Rarely does that make for enjoyable entertainment, though. Thus, I blooped my way to Hulu’s new series, with my dog-eared, annotation-scribbled copy of the book still on my nightstand, wondering if I even wanted to spend hours of my life sucked into a vortex of depression. What I found, though, oddly delighted me. It turns out my paranoia enjoyed being indulged.

After an alleged terrorist attack on U.S. Congress, martial law is declared in Offred’s America, and there is a public movement for a return to basic values–which includes women staying in the home and owning no property. This would be terrifying enough, but Margaret Atwood, author of the book from which Hulu plucked its content, chose to add a special science-fiction twist: For reasons unstated, women and men face obliterating infertility rates. This warps the nightmare into a nation with a breeding program in which the “lucky” women are turned into procreational sex slaves.

This is the turn of the screw that is supposed to draw you in. Hook you. Women as forced breeders, wearing wimples and enslaved under such miserable conditions that most opt for one form of suicide or another. As a book reader, I was almost a bit disappointed that Atwood took it to this level. Sure, it makes the story stunning and tragic, but takes it just slightly beyond the grasp of what feels realistic. It disconnects us from feeling the likelihood that this could happen to us.

And it could. Atwood has warned of it herself. Were it not for the fertility plot line, this forced female servitude feels like it is only one international crisis away. One cry for a return to our “values”. One coordinated and well-funded grassroots movement away from decrying that women are not permitted to work outside of the home because, the children. Because the 1950s was when we were a pure and righteous nation, right? When men were men, and women knew their place. So the movements call and chant and wail that we need to go back to our roots, and they share it feverishly across social media. And in turn Facebook and Twitter accounts and voter registration records are used to identify who is a “patriot” or a “believer”, whichever bent the crusade takes. Add a pinch of racism and misogyny, a whirlwind of fear, and some financial incentives, and you’ve got yourself a real modern dystopia.

This is why I am so grateful for the updates and tweaks that Hulu has thoughtfully provided to Atwood’s mad world. It warms the world and makes it feel like it could have been our own once. Yes the show preserves the infertility thread–no way to avoid that– but it takes care to modernize the technology and add some haunting (an sometimes jaunty) soundtracks. I know those songs. Pre-Offred Elizabeth Moss knows those songs. And she orders pretentious coffee, swipes on Tinder, and worries about her profile pic. Sure the original names are still very 1980s, which is when the story was originally penned. Lydia. Janine. Angela. But there I am with Pre-Offred, believing I could hang out with her, or that I could at least pass her on the street. She is a real, modern flesh-and-blood American.

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