Note: This article contains spoilers for Margaret Atwood's original novel and season 4 of 'The Handmaid's Tale.'
The entertainment industry has had a difficult time learning how to categorize 'The Handmaid's Tale.' It's been called a drama, a thriller, and science fiction--all depending upon who you ask and the time of day. In truth, it's dystopian speculative fiction like George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, both of which inspired 'The Handmaid's Tale.' But there's a lot of debate in the literary world about what the genre actually entails and how to define it. I just call it horror.
These authors spent years building intricate dictatorships, caste systems, and languages, like Dante designing his inferno--not so they could wow us with fantasy or show us the wonders of science--no, they did it to make us sick to our stomachs, so terrified that we'd be hiding under the covers at night filling out a mail-in ballot.
The public was told, 'It can happen here.' America, Canada, Australia, and the UK weren't safe. Fascism could sneak up, ensnare them, invade their minds, and burst into their homes. Wicked men could find ways to control them so thoroughly that they would betray themselves and give in, believing that to be the right thing to do.
The genre showed us that reality could be far scarier than any fairy tale, and they were right. One day Guardians could invade their place of work, knock on their doors, humiliate them, beat them, torture them, and kill them. There would be no relief--no cops, no army; the world around them would have changed. That would be the new normal.
'The Handmaid's Tale' series did an amazing job of showing us what that change looked like. In season one Moira and June held Aunt Elizabeth hostage so they could escape the red center. But when they left, they found themselves completely disoriented by what they saw.
Imagine trying to escape prison after someone bulldozed your hometown. All of the familiar buildings are gone, and the streets are replaced with strange paths. There are no cars. There's bodies strung up all around, guards everywhere, and all sorts of signs with unrecognizable symbols. People are darting back and forth going about their business, wearing odd uniforms--green, red, brown. The pace of life would be different. There'd be a way to walk, a way to talk, and everything around you would be screaming to get in line, blend in, and do as you're told. It's like having the very essence of culture shock injected straight into your veins.
June and Moira found themselves in a similar situation. They knew they didn't have a chance. They weren't escaping. They were stuck, watching as Gilead picked away at the very last remnants of their former country, like a vulture pulling dried meat off the bones of an old corpse.
That's what real horror looks like, not those masked serial killers running around with chainsaws and shotguns, chasing after half-naked women. That's child's play. Margaret Atwood devised something much grander, much more devious and terrifying than anything traditional horror could come up with, and she went the extra mile.
The southwestern portion of the United States was turned into an irradiated wasteland where millions of women were sent to shovel dirt, prolonging their deaths. Their limbs would fall off. They'd be beaten and prodded into working, struggling for food.
The econopeople--what was left of the American public--were shoved into tiny apartment buildings where they spent their time watching and reporting on one another, desperate to get into the good graces of the regime.
Gilead's main workforce, the marthas, would scrub and wash and cook until old age when they'd be put down. There'd be nothing to look forward to--not for anyone. It was death, torture, and mayhem, all tainted by an endless stream of propaganda and prayers.
None of this happened in a universe outside our own. The series and the novel were both researched endlessly, made to reflect the real world. All of it had happened before, and it would likely happen again. How could anything possibly be worse than that?
The Exodus of Emily Mallek
Atwood's Gilead was shaded by the perpetual fear of death and torment. Citizens trusted no one and reported on everyone. That was the only way to survive. Every day Offred walked through a cloud of dread, her peripheral vision confined by her wings--the oversized bonnets that they forced the handmaids to wear to blind them to their surroundings.
The reader followed along with her, drowning in that same hateful cloud. There was no hope, no enjoyment. It was as unbearable for us as it was for her, and Atwood is ruthless. She didn't give us anything we could actually cling to.
There was Ofglen, Offred's elusive shopping partner who would go on about the war, the defeat of the rebels, and oranges. It was her way of spreading news, hoping it would get back to other members of the resistance. Gossip had a way of getting around.
Offred didn't know that. She couldn't take it. She thought she was pious, and she was certain that she would report her if she spoke up. So she clenched her fists and stayed quiet until Oflgen told her about Mayday.
That was the only bone Atwood threw the readers, and it was still clouded with doubt. Offred had no way of knowing if Ofglen was telling the truth or not. It could've been a trap. Later in the book, it was explained that black markets and resistance movements were often controlled by fascists to ensure that they didn't become a threat to the regime. They very well could've been Gilead in disguise, offering fake hope to the populace to give them a sense of relief.
It worked for Offred, and it worked for the reader. In the series, June was overjoyed, ready to jump for joy. Then one morning she went out to meet Ofglen, and the girl was gone, replaced by someone else. That's how it was when people were taken away. They wouldn't exchange names. There was never an explanation. The handmaids would just disappear and that would be that.
The mystery of what happened to Ofglen haunted the readers. She was the face of hope, snuffed out as soon as she had come. That's why viewers were so excited when they realized that after decades of waiting they were finally going to get an answer.
Emily's story was a heartbreaking triumph. For hours we listened to Offred talk about the boots on the stairs, the Eyes, Gilead's secret police--notorious for portraying real-life totalitarian bodies of power. To this day, there are people who talk about Russia's equivalent as if they were mind readers. If anyone harbored secret anti-government sentiment, they would know. They didn't have to hear it in words. They were skilled at reading body language. People would convince themselves to believe just to avoid them, but even then, they knew to expect a knock on the door. Men who never once voiced their feelings about the regime found themselves ripped out of their homes and shot in the back of the head.
Gilead did the same thing, only their beliefs were outlandish and unreasonable. Modern men and women could never be expected to accept them, and their laws went against basic human nature.
Emily disappeared because she was in love with a martha. They took her to a courthouse, accused her of violating the Old Testament, and sentenced her to redemption. She was muzzled and chained at the neck. Then they dragged her into the back of a van, where the martha was seated across from her. They wanted the two to have a moment together, reaching out to one another, and they wanted her scream when she saw her lover hung at a construction site.
They even kept the van's doors open, so she could stare at the body when they drove off. Instead of killing Emily, they mutilated her and forced her back into slavery. The experience drove her insane. She couldn't operate within the confines of her existence, so she acted out, stole a car, and ran over a Guardian's head.
She knew she would die. She probably meant to kill herself, which would've made perfect sense. Handmaids were ravaged until they couldn't serve any longer. They were beaten, confined, perpetually demeaned, and poked with cattle prods. Death would've been a release.
But they didn't kill her. They sent her to the irradiated southwest, giving viewers their first glimpse of a gulag--a death camp, where women worked until they lay starving in bed, dying of radiation poisoning.
Fiction rarely allows us to see these places. They're too depressing. Just the idea that they exist is enough to give readers nightmares. In fact, that's one of the reasons so many people avoid this genre.
In order to make it bearable for the readers, authors have to dull things down. Usually characters can avoid being shipped off so long as they don't break the law. But real totalitarian governments don't play by their own rules. They let people slip through the cracks to thin the population.
When characters are sent off, they'll waste away. But Emily was different. She was a biology professor who had obtained her Ph.D. from Harvard. She had a beautiful mind.
She found painkillers, antibiotics, and salves that she could use to keep herself alive longer. She'd provide care to the other unwomen and make their passing less painful. It was extraordinary, but she was stuck in that place, obsessed with the confines of her existence.
In her mind, she was trapped, and she was going to die. She was like an animal in a cage. Her confinement made her vicious, straight-lipped, and stern--as sadistic as the aunts that force them to shovel dirt.
When she was released and turned into a handmaid, she killed her new commander and found a knife to use on her next one. She still believed that her life was basically at an end, so she planned on putting up a fight. What else could she do?
Had she continued down that path, her death would've been brutal and heartbreaking. Gilead was not designed for women like her. She was too smart, too capable, and far too angry. She needed an angel if she was going to survive.
That angel came in the form of the mastermind who created the colonies. She stabbed Aunt Lydia, sending the woman toppling down the stairs, and Joseph Lawrence grabbed her and dragged her out to his car. Joseph was not easy to read, and he loved to provoke people.
Emily was bawling in his backseat, certain that she was about to be tortured or killed, and instead of comforting her, he decided to let her squirm. He turned the car's music on full blast while they raced through the streets of Gilead.
The car stopped in front of a tunnel where a Guardian's truck was waiting. June came walking out of the bushes holding Nichole, and announced that they were getting out. Emily was confused. There was no 'out' as far as she was concerned. The concept did not exist in her mind.
Gilead was her entire universe. Everything outside of it was nothing more than a fever dream like Oz or Narnia. So when she was picked up by Canadian authorities, she couldn't process the fact that she was being rescued.
The world became gray and dull, unreal to her battered mind. She was numb to everything around her, stuck in her concerns and her pain. This wasn't a triumph. It was a strange parallel reality. It was like when Moira and June escaped. Everything was strange.
The Canadian Dream
When Emily was picked up by Canadian authorities, after nearly drowning with Nichole in her arms, she was taken to a hospital to be given a checkup. There were odd faces watching her, people darting all around and whispering, and all of a sudden, the building erupted in applause. They saw that she was holding a child, and they knew what she had accomplished. But she was scared and shaken. This new reality hadn't fully sunken in.
Moving on didn't seem easy. At first, it must've been strange. She didn't want to believe that dreams could come true. That was dangerous and painful, but everything she had been mourning, her old life, her freedom, her ability to work--it was all right there ready for her to reach out and grab it.
She found a community. Canada had a thriving population of refugees who had also done the impossible and left Gilead behind. Moira and Luke were there, so she wouldn't have to take care of Nichole by herself, and Syl--the wife she never thought she'd see again--was waiting for her with her son.
Moira didn't believe that it was possible either. After she escaped the red center, she found a safehouse and managed to contact a group that called themselves the underground female-road. Their safehouse was raided by the Gilead authorities, and she was forced back into captivity.
Instead of turning her into a handmaid, they sent her to work at a Jezebels in Boston. June found her there, and she encouraged her to find a way to get out. Moira said that she knew the way out: in a body bag. But June's words sunk in. She finally worked up the courage to kill a commander, so she could steal a truck and drive to Canada.
When she got there, she was given money, an insurance card, food, and a place to stay. Luke was waiting for her--wonder of all wonders. He called her family, and they lived together ever since.
Emily, Moira, and Luke were all traumatized, battered, and tired. They had faced death. They lost their country, and they needed support. So they took advantage of the resources available to refugees. They received counseling. They joined support groups, and they began working on a way to return to their former selves again.
They would have to overcome propaganda, trauma, and emotional issues, and they would need help to do that. That's one of the reasons why counselors are so important. People sometimes lose their compass, and they need someone to help them find the path back to normal.
Moira seemed to memorize that path. She worked with a lot of people at the refugee center. She saw what they went through, and she started to absorb the advice and coping mechanisms that the counselors taught. She knew what it was like to leave. She had been there, and she saw what other people had gone through. She even started to work with trauma victims. She ran a handmaid support group, and she talked quite a bit about what it meant to heal.
It seemed to work. They all had cars and nice homes. Emily thought of teaching again. Moira started learning to program. They found their place in Canada, and eventually, they started to get over the problems they had brought across the border.
The border between Canada and Gilead was far too big to patrol, so it remained open. There were also large contested territories where the residents would welcome refugees and help them across.
Every time Gilead tried to raid them, their guardians would disappear. Authorities would rage over it. It was their greatest shame. All they could do was keep things quiet, which helped stop the flow of handmaids going north. They didn't all know that escape was possible, but it was never far out of reach.
Canada watched all of this with their usual wary eye to the south. They had just seen the worst holocaust in human history. An entire section of the United States had been nuked, and now they were practically inches away from the greatest totalitarian dictatorship that had ever existed.
Canada's size can be deceiving. A significant portion of the country is far too cold to live in, so most of the cities hover around the border. In the time before, much of what they needed to live was shipped in from the south. The war with Gilead made that impossible, and while they must have found other countries to trade with, supplies were still scarce. Shifting weather patterns were causing crops to fail worldwide. That's why everyone was marveling over oranges and chocolate in the first season.
The series does not do a good job of portraying the situation. They want us to see a world that looks like old America, where people lived just like they did during the time before. It's the normal life that Moira, Emily, Luke, and Rita needed to feel comfortable again. But that world was gone.
It was a facade. There was a writhing beast to the south, eying an already strapped Canada. Toronto and the other cities were filling up with refugees, many of whom were mentally ill. People who leave those situations have a tendency to turn to drugs and alcohol. Ex-FLDS members, for example, are known to congregate in flop houses, where 13-year-old lost boys will shoot up heroin and smoke meth. It would've been no different.
There's a reason Commander Lawrence warned Emily about drugs before he sent her to Canada. PTSD and addiction go together like bread and butter. Alcohol specifically is known to correlate with the illness for biological reasons. There also would've been gangs, ghettos, and violence. All of the mental health issues people brought with them would cause them to spiral, and that would be the result.
Inflation due to new trade agreements and the failing crops would've made life nearly impossible. Meanwhile, Canada was giving refugees insurance cards, money, and food. Entire cities were filled with traumatized Americans living off of the government. Canadians had something to say about that.
Gilead started running information campaigns and finding ways to influence the politics of the nation. They wanted Canada to come back, restart trade, and rebuild the relationship they once had. Canada wasn't being given a choice.
Imagine flipping through the channels on TV, past cheesy sitcoms and drunken reality shows, until you see hundreds of handmaids kneeling at the Washington Mall.
Behind them is the Washington Monument, an obelisk that has been altered to look like a cross. In front of them is the Lincoln Memorial, beheaded during the Revolution.
Now imagine they're praying for the child you have sleeping in a crib in the other room, begging Canada to send her back to a totalitarian dictatorship. It was earth-shattering.
During the baby Nichole campaign, commanders were blowing up Canada's phones, threatening war and border closures, ready to cut off the few supplies they were sending across. Canada had no choice but to give in. If they went to war with Gilead, they would've lost their democracy. So they agreed to meet with the Swiss.
Switzerland's neutrality is more than just a pretty idea. It's an official policy that allows them to oversee agreements between foreign nations. It can be a brutal process. Sometimes you have to side with the devil, but that's the sacrifice that neutrality requires. They don't interfere with the affairs of others; they act simply as a negotiating party.
When Emily and Moira heard what was happening, they attended a type of protest. The idea was to confront the Prime Minister on his way to his limousine. He lied and told them that June had already given up rights to the child, and Emily called him out, so they had her and Moira arrested.
Shortly after that, Emily was called in to do an interview with the Swiss. They wanted to know about what happened with Aunt Lydia. They asked if she stabbed her, and she admitted to it. They also asked if she stole a car and ran over a Guardian, and she said yes. They wanted to prove that she committed crimes.
This scene was never explained to the viewers. What happened was Gilead was trying to influence Canada into making policy changes. They had always hated the fact that so many refugees were escaping, so they were trying to set up an extradition treaty. Putnam mentioned it in passing.
Extradition is the process of deporting criminals back to their home country. In an agreement was made, Gilead could say that handmaids are not legally allowed to escape and force Canada to send them back. They could do the same thing with a wife or a martha--or any other group.
The only thing scarier than the rise of Gilead was the influence Gilead gained around the world. Deportation was the beginning of that. There were buses of people wailing and shrieking, begging--knowing that they were going to die--after everything they'd been through, after finding peace and reconnecting with their loved ones. They were dragged back to hell, where they were forced to shovel dirt until they found themselves lying in bed, dying of radiation poisoning.
A Burst Bubble
We know from Atwood's epilogue in the original novel that Gilead influences Canada in much the same way America influenced them in the time before. The culture and their policies will cross that invisible line, and Gilead will start forcing them to send people back.
There was slaughter. Families were torn apart after reuniting. Handmaids were reenslaved. Marthas were brought back into Commanders' homes, and the people that once lived as if the war had never happened were forced to see the truth: The old normal didn't exist.
The world changed when Gilead rose to power, and that didn't stop with their borders. They influenced other countries. They put pressure on the UK, Mexico, and the Republic of Texas. They raised their guns for the world to see, and the world listened.
All of the Emilys, Moiras, and Ritas of the world had to find a safe haven. Some of them ran, making their way to countries that were still accepting refugees. Sometimes it worked. The Canadians worked fast, moving them before they could be sent back.
Many refugees were able to go underground, which is probably what happened with the main characters in the series. The Mayday resistance printed out ID cards and gave people new identities, and sometimes they were able to give them shelter.
At a certain point, Canadians had to withdraw assistance. The border patrol hunted citizens of Gilead, raiding safe houses, and shutting down underground railroads. Their heart wasn't in it at first. They would look aside if they could, acting in secret within their own government. But eventually, Gilead won out. The cultural resistance against their regime fell, and the world embraced them as one of their own.
These changes hit people hard. Many Canadians avoided looking south when Gilead rose to power, and refugees did the same. They saw a world that looked like the time before, and they decided to focus on healing and reintegrating, just like Moira.
So when the authorities came and dragged them out of bed, they were caught completely off-guard. Had they sought out Mayday, and kept their hearts in the fight, that wouldn't have happened to them. We are seeing characters get complacent in the series, and this is coming. Maybe one of them will be shoved onto a bus and dragged back into Gilead. Let's hope not. They might not make it if they are.