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1 June 2017

The Handmaid’s Tale could be straight out of Raqqa

A woman who had disobeyed the regime is punished by having her right eye removed. But the plot is clairvoyant in other ways, too.

By Rachel Cooke

Time deals with novels more ruthlessly than any critic. As the years tick by, most fade and disappear; it’s impossible to predict which will sink and which will float. When, as a student, I read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, its sole appeal was to my nascent and then rather priggish feminism; pretty much everything else about it – not even its greatest fans would describe it as subtle – I could take or leave, for which reason I never picked it up again. But what did I know? It sailed on. Twenty-five years later, its blunter edges have all but disappeared, its terrifying, otiose plot having come to read more like reportage, in places, than allegory.

As I watched the first episode of a new adaptation of the book (28 May, 9pm; screened in the United States on the Hulu streaming service, it has arrived here courtesy of some nifty shopping by Channel 4), it was this prescience that preoccupied me. How can a show in which the US has become a totalitarian theocracy called Gilead, where only a few women (handmaids) are fertile enough to carry a child (for which reason they are kept as sex slaves), do anything other than bring Isis painfully to mind?

The near-future I saw on screen was sleek and glossy, a world away from smuggled mobile-phone footage. But it felt familiar. A woman who had disobeyed the regime was punished by having her right eye removed. A gay man and a Catholic priest were hanged from a bridge. A rapist was kicked to death by an officially sanctioned crowd. Spies, and shame, were all around. Tell me: isn’t this stuff straight out of Raqqa?

The plot is clairvoyant in other ways, too. The ecological disaster that has brought on the calamitous drop in fertility? I give you the coal-loving climate-change denier who is Donald Trump. The pain and conflicts born of a realm in which nothing matters more than motherhood? Let me present . . . actually, let’s not get into that here. As for Canada to the north, it’s a land that people long to escape to, which must mean that even in the time of Gilead Justin Trudeau is still its president.

What is striking is that while all this hums in the background, the drama itself is very still and quiet, its script (by several different writers) minimalist, its ritualised violence coming to seem almost beautiful. Seen from above, the handmaids, in their long ruby gowns and white-winged bonnets, look like so many ladybirds marching across the grass. Between the noise and the peacefulness is, I think, where the real horror seeps in.

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There are many decent actors in this series – Joseph Fiennes, Max Minghella – but all focus is on Elisabeth Moss as Offred, the handmaiden through whose eyes the story is seen. She is supremely well cast, being more capable than just about any actor I can think of at suggesting internal clouds while presenting a sunny face to the world (this same quality made her the star of Mad Men).

“Blessed be the fruit,” says Offred politely to the Commander (Fiennes), the man who rapes her at regular intervals as his seething, barren wife holds her wrists. The phrase is one of the prescribed greetings in Gilead (“Under His eye”, people say, by way of “goodbye”), and Moss somehow manages to imbue it with both meekness and sarcasm. I could watch her for ever, which makes this series, for me, a keeper – that and the realisation that clearly, its writers are ­going to take the trouble to use flashbacks in order to give us (as Atwood did not) a sense of how Gilead first crept and then bounded into existence.

And now, reluctantly – drag me to it, as if to a soft-play area or Debenham’s at sales time – we arrive at Twin Peaks: the Return (launched 22 May, 2am). Watching four episodes has been the endurance test of my middle years, harder than taking up running, and ten times more tedious. It . . . is . . . unbearable. Doubtless you already know that almost all the original cast are present and correct, from Catherine E Coulson as the Log Lady to David Duchovny as Dennis/Denise Bryson; you will also be aware that the preternaturally youthful Kyle MacLachlan is currently playing two versions of Agent Cooper, one with short hair, who is good, and one with long, who is bad. But what you may not know, if you have read only – how to put this? – the more respectful reviews, is just how far Showtime, which commissioned the series, has indulged David Lynch.

A collection of rambling and samey set pieces amateurishly glued together by a frankly adolescent conviction that weirdness in any form – hey, let’s not bother with a plot – can pass for clever and interesting, it should never have been made (and, having poked about online, I detect weariness setting in even among those who hailed its promise at the start). People love to talk – The X-Files blah, True Detective blah – of the influence Twin Peaks has had on television in the years since it first screened (1990-91). But this is silly, overstated. Television changes for myriad reasons, and is changing still, thanks to Netflix. That Lynch seems neither to know of these changes nor to care does not make him a hero, or even an auteur. It makes him a fool, and a dinosaur. 

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This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning