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TV Series Review

Gilead is dying.

That may be a surprise to the guys in charge. After all, Gilead replaced the godless government of the United States, installing in its stead a strict theocracy. This section of the New World is now God's country, its laws drawn straight from the Old Testament. Or so its rulers say.

Alas, God still withholds favor. Pregnancies are rare. Viable children are rarer still. The environmental catastrophe that accompanied the revolution has rendered huge swaths of the population infertile. And that makes the few proven remaining fertile women particularly desirable.

Offred is one such a baby-bearing handmaid in the land of Gilead. She belongs to the rich and powerful Waterford family, and her name means, literally, "of Fred," as in Commander Fred Waterford. She lives to breed.

When Offred is most fertile, she engages in ritualistic sex with the Commander: She lays on a bed, her head resting in the lap of Fred's wife, Serena Joy. Fred performs his duty. Offred participates in the demeaning rite because she must: The alternative is dire indeed. Those who are deemed too undisciplined or infertile are shipped off to the dangerous, bleak outer colonies to work the blanched land. And there are even worse fates than that.

But Offred remembers a time before—a time when she had a husband of her own. And a daughter. She remembers an age in which women weren't owned, but could be owners—masters of their own fate and able to buy property and drive cars and read and even choose their own mate. Perhaps it wasn't a perfect time. But when Offred hears that there's a burgeoning resistance movement, she wonders: Is it possible to return to a time like the one before? When women could play Scrabble without fear of losing a hand?

Hulu's Much-Praised, Problematic, Prestige Show

"We only wanted to make the world better," the Commander tells Offred.

"Better?" She asks in exasperation.

"Better never means better for everyone," he says. "It always means worse for some."

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, based on the landmark dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, gives us a world that is indeed worse for some—particularly if you're a woman. Atwood's story damns a certain kind of demeaning Christian fundamentalism, even though the vast majority of Christians would find this world horrific and repulsive.

Atwood herself refutes the idea that her Tale is anti-Christian. In a story for The New York Times this year, she says that the theo-political powers in her Gilead destroyed other Christian sects (Catholics and the Baptists, specifically), while other Christian groups are running a sort of underground railroad. "So the book is not 'antireligion,'" she says. "It is against the use of religion as a front for tyranny; which is a different thing altogether."

Still, the story certainly could stoke anti-religious sentiments, and it's unquestionably meant to serve as a cautionary tale of the perils of religious fundamentalism. Its overtly "Christian" characters are the story's most evil and, often, the most debauched. As such, The Handmaid's Tale has the power to shock and offend.

But even if we set aside The Handmaid's Tale's spiritual trappings, Hulu's much-lauded series still has problems aplenty.

A Bleak World Indeed

Sex is absolutely central to this story, and we see a lot of it: the awkward breeding rituals involving a man mating with someone while his wife stands right there. The illicit encounters that handmaids have with secret paramours, filled with nudity and sexual movements. Even in a society where fidelity and sexual purity is supposedly prized, infidelity is prolific and sometimes encouraged (in a desperate effort to create new children). Homosexual relationships are a serious concern for the powers of Gilead. Genital mutilation is referenced. Brothels, technically illegal but officially tolerated, are frequented.

Gilead can be a violent place, too. The leadership justifies its strict, sometimes horrific punishments using Scripture: Minor infractions might cost handmaids hands, eyes or other body parts. One unfortunate young woman spends most of the series with scar tissue covering one of her eye sockets. But we see violence elsewhere, too. People die, sometimes in pretty terrible ways.

The Handmaid's Tale is a troubling story, one that casts Christians in Satan's role and freely shows us the sins in which he revels.

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Episode Reviews

The Handmaid's Tale: May 10, 2017 "Faithful"



Readability Age Range



Elisabeth Moss as Offred; Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy; Alexis Bledel as Ofglen; O-T Fagbenle as Luke; Max Minghella as Nick; Amanda Brugel as Rita; Joseph Fiennes as The Commander; Samira Wiley as Moira; Jordana Blake as Hannah






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Paul Asay

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