This anime show seems like it’s aimed at teens. But the graphic violence and Netflix’s own TV-MA rating send seriously mixed messages.
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 earth barren and the human population infertile. And that makes the few proven remaining fertile women particularly desirable.
Offred is one such baby-bearing handmaid in the land of Gilead. She used to belong to the rich and powerful Waterford family, and her name means, literally, “of Fred,” as in Commander Fred Waterford. But she was transferred to one of Gilead’s creators, the unsuspecting Commander Lawrence, before she managed to escape her oppressors (though she still remains in Gilead, undercover, for her own reasons). Either way, she lived to breed.
And so she has. By the second season, she carries and births the child of Nick, the Waterford’s chauffer. And by the end of Season 3, Offred has successfully helped 87 children (including her daughter with Nick) to escape across the border to a safer place. A place like the one she remembers.
You see, there was a time when Offred was simply called June and 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 since the birth of her new baby, she’s determined to find both her daughters (not to mention the other daughters of Gilead who will be married off at age 14 to become breeders themselves) a better, freer place to grow up. A place where they can play Scrabble without fear of losing a hand.
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 an interview for The New York Times, she said 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.” And by its third season, we begin to see more positive portrayals of people of faith—even if their own faith may depart, in certain critical instances, from Christian orthodoxy.
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.
Sex, or more accurately, rape, is absolutely central to this story, and, especially early on, we saw a lot of it: the disgusting breeding rituals involving a man mating with someone while his wife holds her down. The illicit encounters that handmaids have with secret paramours, filled with nudity and sexual movements (and while some of these are consensual, not all are). 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, but often flourish anyway. Genital mutilation is verbally referenced and, we hear, committed. Brothels, technically illegal but officially tolerated, are frequented.
Gilead is a violent place, too. The leadership justifies its strict, often horrific punishments using Scripture: Minor infractions might cost inhabitants 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, often in pretty terrible ways. And as rebellion burbles under Gilead’s bleak surface, the violence will likely grow.
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.
After June is captured trying to escape Gilead, she is taken to a facility where she is tortured for information on the whereabouts of the other handmaids she was travelling with.
A woman is muzzled and chained by her neck in the back of a vehicle while being transported to a torture facility (where we see other people similarly held captive). Here, her captors torture her for information. (She is confined to a box, waterboarded, forced to watch her friends pushed off a building and nearly has her fingernails pulled off.) We see her exposed back (revealing multiple cuts and bruises) as she is hosed off. And her daughter’s life is threatened by her captors. Women are shot and some are hit by a train while trying to escape Gilead.
While torturing a woman, several men use Gilead’s twisted faith to justify their means (they pray, quote Scripture, use torture devices with crosses imprinted on them).
Two people kiss. People talk about rape. Several women are sent to a “breeding” colony. We hear a few uses of the f-word.
In the season finale, June works with other handmaids in a dangerous effort to free children from Gilead. Serena Waterford hopes for a better life in Canada, but unexpected criminal charges, related to her life in Gilead threaten to derail her future.
June has a violent flashback to the start of Gilead: male guards hit and verbally abuse groups of women as they’re herded onto buses and shipped into Gilead. Women and young girls with Down syndrome are shoved into a room with vicious dogs and we hear screaming and pleading.
June and a handful of fellow handmaids throw bricks at a guard who in turn shoots a few of the women. June shoots a guard at point-blank range. (We see blood splatter onto her face and later see his dead body lying on the ground.) A woman suffers an abdomen wound and blood seeps through her dress. A young girl is held at gun point. Several men and women are threatened.
It’s insinuated that young girls in Gilead undergo genital mutilation against their will before they’re married off to older men. A few women are briefly seen naked from afar during a medical checkup. Serena Waterford is accused of aiding in rape and sex-trafficking in Gilead.
A guard smokes a cigarette. God’s name is misused twice. The f-word is heard nearly 20 times, the s-word is used three times and women are called “b–ches” on multiple occasions.
While being detained in Canada, Serena Waterford betrays her husband, Commander Waterford, to see her illigitmate daughter, Nichole. Commander Lawerence suffers a devastating loss.
June violently shakes Commander Lawerence’s wife and threatens her at gunpoint. June gets away with the murder of a high-ranking commander. A man punches Commander Waterford in the face. Commander Waterford chokes his wife, Serena. A woman overdoses on pills and June lets her die.
A couple kisses. A commander offers his enemy hard liquor. The f-word is used three times, the s-word is heard once and “a–” and “b–ch” are each uttered a few times.
June works with undercover group, The Marthas, to set 52 children free from Gilead, but before she can she must pay a visit to the prostitution home of the Jezebels. The Waterfords go on a trip to Canada to try and negotiate the return of their illegitimate daughter, Nichole.
At the Jezebels, June is solicited for sex by The Commander. He punches her and tries to rape her but she struggles out of his grasp, stabs him with a pen and kills him by hitting him on the head (blood covers June, The Commander and most of the bedroom). The Commander’s dead body is shoved into a furnace.
A wife threatens her husband at gunpoint. June admits she’d like to kill a commander. A group of women threaten to poison June and dump her body in the river. A few prostitutes, wearing bras and underwear, are solicited for sex. A man kisses his wife’s neck and sex is implied as the camera pans away.
The f-word is used nearly 10 times while the s-word is heard five times. “D–n,” “b–ch” and “h—” are each uttered once. Men and women consume hard liquor and wine.
June plans to free the children of handmaids by smuggling them across the U.S. border into Canada. Commander Waterford and other Gilead officials pay Commander Lawerence a visit to make sure he’s upholding the principles of Gilead.
The only principle worth keeping, according to many, is the insemination ceremony. Commander Lawerence is forced to have sex with Offred, although neither of them want to, while his wife sits in the room, crying. We don’t see anything, but Offred consoles both the Lawerences and advises them to treat the ceremony as a transaction. Offred tells Commander Lawerence that if the doctor doesn’t find semen afterward, they will all be killed. The doctor checks Offred for proof (we see her bare thigh).
Commander Lawerence offers Offred a Plan B-like oral contraceptive after the ceremony, which, if consumed, will upend any possible pregnancy, and the taking of which is punishable by a gruesome death. Offred suggests that Commander Lawerence and his wife flee Gilead, even though he’d likely be tried for war crimes and killed. Offred confirms that a former fellow handmaid is dead. A handmaid reveals a bloodied, injured ear.
The f-word and “h—” are heard once. God’s name is misused. Men consume hard liquor.
June is forced to stay by OfMatthew’s side at the hospital as the woman and her unborn child fight to stay alive.
As each day passes at the hospital, June becomes increasingly unstable. She contemplates murdering OfMatthew and her baby, believing that death for them would be better than a life in Gilead. Once, she tries to restrict the airflow coming from OfMatthew’s life support.
June tries to stab Serena Waterford when Serena visits the hospital to pray for OfMatthew’s baby. June also imagines “slicing the veins” of the doctor and a nearby couple. She accidentally stabs herself with a needle and a scalpel, after which blood covers the floor. A doctor stitches June’s wound and, later, we also witness him perform a C-section to save an infant. A handmaid nurses her maimed eye. June confesses having suicidal thoughts. June prays that OfMatthew and the baby will die.
Many prayers are prayed for OfMatthew and her infant, some genuine and others in anger and bitterness. The handmaids are asked to pray for healing and to pray without ceasing. Aunt Lydia tells June, “God never gives us more than we can handle.” A doctor asks June how she will honor her daughters and encourages her to seek hope.
We hear two f-words and five s-words.
June seeks revenge against Ofmatthew, a pregnant handmaid who is responsible for the relocation of June’s stolen daughter, Hannah. Flashbacks show Aunt Lydia’s broken, rejected life before the creation of Gilead.
A handmaid beats a fellow handmaid and a nearby guard to death with a can of vegetables. June talks about stabbing Aunt Lydia. Later, June sarcastically asks Lydia if she’d prefer to cut out June’s tongue or burn her. June accuses Commander Lawrence of holding his wife hostage and killing her spirit. Aunt Lydia breaks a mirror in anger. A handmaid suffers contractions and gives birth to a stillborn baby.
In the past, a woman details her promiscuous relationships, including having an affair with a married man and wonders if Aunt Lydia has a boyfriend or a girlfriend. In a flashback, Aunt Lydia and her date dance and kiss and when she grabs his genitals, he pushes her away.
Handmaids are forced to sit in a circle and point out the
“sinners” in their group, who are then shamed and forced to publicly repent. Handmaids are called “selfish fools” for wanting to keep their children(which is a sin in Gilead). A woman spits in a glass of water before offering it to a handmaid. A racist couple refuses to house a black handmaid.
Men and women alike drink wine, beer and hard liquor. The f-word is uttered three times and the s-word is used once. “B–ch” and “a–hole” are heard twice.
Emily, now safely in Canada, has trouble connecting emotionally with her lesbian partner. June plots to see her daughter, Hannah, with the help of Commander Lawrence’s wife. Serena and Fred Waterford begin to rekindle their relationship while in the capital.
Once Emily arrives in Canada, she is forced to detail her violent past in Gilead. She admits to stealing a vehicle and running over a prison guard, stabbing a supervisor and throwing a woman down a staircase. Similarly, another former Gilead handmaid confesses to poisoning, and killing, a commander.
Handmaids are forced to erect gallows, and men and women are hung there (we see their bodies drop, and the camera focuses on their lifeless frames). June admits she had thoughts of harming herself while pregnant.
A very strict religious woman tells a group of Handmaids that helping to erect gallows is part of the Lord’s calling and those that faithfully help will be blessed.
A couple dances and kisses. Two women talk about the difficulties of their relationship. A group of married women insinuate that they have lovers on the side.
The f-word is uttered five times, the s-word is heard once and other profanity includes one or two uses of “h—,” “a–” and “b–ch.”
In a previous episode, June sent her daughter Nichole (the Waterfords’ illigitmate child) with handmaid Emily on a perilous journey to cross the Canadian border. Now, the Waterfords’ want “their daughter” back. So they take June to Washington, the capital of Gilead, where they petition Canadaian officials to return Nichole.
In the capital, Handmaids must keep their mouths covered and are told “blessed are the silent, for only they will hear the voice of the Lord.” A handmaid turns to reveal her mouth, stapled shut. A powerful woman seeks to do “God’s will” and help those she can. The people in the capital, as well as those in the rest of Gilead, are asked to pray that God return the Waterfords’ child. June prays that the Waterfords’ get hit by a bus and die.
A man lies to his lover and harbors evil secrets. Couples kiss. The f-word and s-word are each heard once. A woman is called stupid. Two men drink hard liquor.
Emily, a former Gilead slave, tries to save June’s baby, Nichole, by crossing the border out of Gilead and into Canada. June chooses to stay behind in Gilead. She’s determined to rescue another one of her children and to create change. Serena, the female head of the Waterford household, sets fire to her home in a symbolic, rebellious statement of solidarity with June, then watches it burn to the ground.
June is arrested, handled roughly, hit by a police officer and told that “God needs penance” for her poor behavior. (We later see her feet covered in bloody scars as she mops up her own blood.) June admits that she wants to inflict emotional pain upon the woman who stole her first daughter.
A woman accidentally slips under water with a baby, but both survive. Women are degraded, intimidated and manipulated. A man and a woman share a cigarette.
God’s name is misused twice, and Jesus’ name is abused once. The f-word is heard five times, while “h—” and “b–tard” are each used once.
In the Season 2 finale, Eden’s brutal drowning as punishment for having an affair encourages the women of Gilead to unite and seek change. Serena speaks out in opposition against the men of Gilead, Ofglen stabs a crucial character and Offred searches for a way to save her infant daughter (Serena’s pseudo child).
Women are called herectics to be used as “animal feed,” sinners, perverse, degenerate and “the misery of all men.” A woman dares to read publicly, resulting in her finger being cut off (we only see her missing finger and bandaged hand). Dead women hang from a bridge (their heads are covered). Someone is stabbed and kicked repetivitely. A woman is slapped in the face and retaliates by slapping her oppressor.
A woman confesses her love for a man and kisses his cheek. Other women are verbally abused and threatened into being “obedient.” Someone admits to having an affair. God’s name is misused once, the f-word is uttered three times and profanities include “b–ch,” “s—” and “a–.” Someone swishes they had tequila and men drink hard liquor.
Offred, perhaps numb or chastened or simply going insane, presents herself to her mistress, Serena Waterford, as a completely compliant handmaid now. She responds only with phrases such as, “Yes, Mrs. Waterford,” or “No, Mrs. Waterford.” But there’s trouble brewing in her womb, and there’s bloody evidence that she may lose the precious baby she’s carrying. Meanwhile, Nick, Offred’s onetime lover, is given a teenage bride of his own. In the outer colony, Janine, Emily and other women—females now thought to be below the very simplest rights—labor in the toxic, smoking ruins of the land, watching as their workmates slowly succumb and die from the poison.
Two of their female workmates show deep affection for each other, one kissing the other on the cheek. And when one of them is clearly on the verge of death, Janine organizes a same-sex wedding between the two. Emily’s furious. “Now we’re cows being worked to death and you’re dressing up the slaughterhouse for them,” she hollers. “Cows don’t get married,” Janine counters. The two newlyweds kiss during the ceremony, but the dying woman is a corpse by morning.
Offred sees blood on her underwear while sitting on the toilet. More blood is visible by the time she finishes. She takes a bath, and the water’s a deep pink. Later, her underwear is again soaked in blood, perhaps portending a miscarriage. The baby survives, though: “You’re tough, aren’t you?” Offred whispers tenderly to her womb, sounding more like herself.
In a mass wedding ceremony, several men are given young brides—all of whom appear to be in their early teens or even younger. Serena tries to coach Nick’s new bride on what to expect during their wedding night. “Lust is a sin,” the young girl says. “Not between husband and wife,” Serena tells her. “It can bring you closer together. It should, anyway.”
Someone loses a tooth due to the toxic environment where she works. A character smokes a cigarette, while someone else is trying to quit. Whiskey is imbibed. We hear lots of references to God and biblical quotations. One woman working in the outer colonies insists that God has saved her life for a reason. The same-sex wedding ceremony is presided over by a former female rabbi, and we hear a Jewish prayer. People attend a “Prayvaganza.” Characters say the f-word twice and the s-word once.
Offred hasn’t gotten pregnant, likely because the Commander is sterile. But Gilead never acknowledges male sterility—only female infertility. So the Commander’s wife, an ex-televangelist named Serena Joy—hatches a plot that echoes the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar: She’ll have Offred hook up with the family chauffer, Nick.
Offred has sex several times. There’s a passionless encounter with Nick. Pants are unbuckled and a dress is lifted, though nothing critical is shown. Another sex scene involves ritualistic intercourse with the Commander, which looks much the same—only with Offred’s head resting in Serena Joy’s lap (who looks away in embarrassment and shame). It’s implied that there’s other illicit touching as well (though, again, we don’t see any of it). Offred sneaks away and couples with someone else, this time willingly. Their encounter involves some shadowy breast and rear nudity. Movements and kissing are involved also. In flashback, we see how Offred’s relationship with her husband began: as an affair. The two meet at a hotel, kiss and talk about lovemaking. We see them in bed together, apparently naked. Offred (then known by another name, obviously) asks the man to leave his wife, and he says that he will. “Look, I’m in love with you,” he tells her. “What else am I going to do?”
We learn that a handmaid caught in a lesbian relationship has been forced to have genitally mutilating surgery to “take care of the problem.” In a flashback, people talk about homosexuality and nude pictures. The Commander encourages Offred to engage in illegal activities: They play Scrabble together; and he gives her old, forbidden beauty magazines to read. (He looks at one and says that, back then, “No woman was ever rich enough, young enough, pretty enough, good enough.” When Offred responds, “We had choices then,” Fred retorts, “Now you have respect.”) They also drink whiskey. All of these activities, if discovered, could cost Offred a hand or worse.
A handmaid steals a car and takes it for a brief joyride. She hits an armed security guard with the vehicle (he flies over the hood and roof), then runs him over (squishing him and sending blood flying). She’s then yanked out of the car and carted away, disappearing into a black van. Offred contemplates killing Serena Joy with a pair of gardening clippers. A handmaid walks about with a mutilated eye socket. People hang from a gallows on the side of the road. We hear about various popular punishments. Someone smokes. A handmaid talks about her previous addiction to OxyContin (and what she would do to get her next hit), saying that, for her, things are indeed better. Bible verses are quoted and religious sentiments are spoken in passing. We hear someone use the f-word, as well as one misuse of God’s name. Offred vomits into a sink.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.
Kristin Smith joined the Plugged In team in 2017. Formerly a Spanish and English teacher, Kristin loves reading literature and eating authentic Mexican tacos. She and her husband, Eddy, love raising their children Judah and Selah. Kristin also has a deep affection for coffee, music, her dog (Cali) and cat (Aslan).
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