The Handmaid's Tale Treats Guilt as an Epidemic

The Hulu show, like the book before it, is deeply concerned with matters of complicity—and it arrives in a culture that is deeply anxious about them, as well.


At the end of the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, the excellent show now streaming on Hulu, the handmaids of Gilead gather in a grove for a ceremony that goes by an ominous name: the Salvaging. The women file together, in twos, in their red robes, to a series of red pillows that have been laid out in neat lines on the ground. They kneel. From a stage that has been set for the occasion, Aunt Lydia, the woman who is by turns their captor and their mentor, informs them of the reason for the gathering. She summons a prisoner to the stage. The man, Aunt Lydia says, raped a handmaid. The girl had been pregnant. The baby was lost. “This disgusting creature has given us no choice,” she says, glowering at the convict. “Am I correct, girls?”

“Yes, Aunt Lydia,” they reply.

The ceremony begins. “You may come forward and form a circle,” Aunt Lydia tells them. “You all know the rules … when I blow the whistle, what you do is up to you. Until I blow it again.”

The handmaids slowly surround the kneeling man, whose hands are bound, whose lip is bust, whose eyes are defiant and scared. The whistle blows, and Offred, the story’s protagonist, starts: She kicks the man, hard, in the gut. Blood sprays from his mouth, the red of it briefly invisible against the women’s fluttering capes, as they pound and punch and scream. The man disappears, in that chaos of crimson, as the women flail and rage. Aunt Lydia blows the whistle again. They stop. They gather themselves. It is done.

Did the man rape anyone? Did he, in some small way, deserve this brutal death at the hands of women who had become, at the blow of a whistle, momentary agents of violence? In Gilead, of course, those are the wrong questions to ask: Justice, here, is vertically integrated. And the point of the ceremony, anyway, is not the man but the women who carry out the execution. The Salvagings—the ceremonies’ name, my colleague Sophie Gilbert has noted, suggests both salvation and savagery, notions of heaven mingled with notions of trash—offer a rare moment of freedom for the handmaids who carry them out. Within them, after all, what you do is up to you. For women who have been systematically stripped of their autonomy, it’s a potent promise.

But the Salvagings, as with so much else in the Republic of Gilead, are ceremonies at odds with themselves. The state-sponsored maulings may give the handmaids a brief outlet for their anger and a brief reminder of what power feels like; the rituals also, however, further enslave them. This is the cruel cunning of the ceremony, one that serves the cruel cunning of the state: The Salvaging involves the handmaids, intimately and violently, in the regime’s political project. It insists that the women are active participants in Gilead’s execution of justice. What you do is up to you.

* * *

What makes someone complicit—in a crime, in a moment of violence, in a slow-moving atrocity? Failing to speak? Failing to act? Allowing complacency to take over, until complacency is no longer an option? The Handmaid’s Tale, like the book that inspired it, is on top of so much else a nuanced exploration of all that. Its dystopia exists in the first place, we soon come to learn, because the people of the “before,” as the show’s characters tend to euphemize it, slowly allowed its horrors to come into being through the sum of small complacencies. “It isn’t my decision,” a feckless manager tells his staff as agents of Gilead invade their office, forcing the man to fire his female employees. He is explaining himself—and attempting to exonerate himself. “I didn’t have a choice,” the man insists. “I have to let you go. I have to let you all go.”

It is through that concession that June, one of the man’s employees, eventually becomes Offred—that she loses her own name to the one that understands her only as the possession-of-Fred. (Offred is, as every other name given to the handmaids of Gilead, a patronymic.) The boss is right: He really didn’t, in that moment, have much of a choice. They had guns, and he did not. And yet, the show suggests, he might have had a choice, had he acted earlier. Everyone might have had one. There had been warnings, after all, of what might come, a series of omens people seem to have ignored: a barista in a coffee shop dismissing June and her best friend, Moira, as “sluts”; the woman who would become Aunt Lydia shooting a disgusted glance at the two friends as they run in sports bras and tank tops. But no one resisted, it appears, when the warnings were only warnings. No one thought to speak up, until their power to speak had been taken away. First, they came for the women.

The world of Gilead is in one way a textbook treatment of totalitarianism: The state, serving as it does as a lived metaphor for God’s authority, controls all elements of the lives of the people who live within—or, more aptly, beneath—it. Food is regulated. Clothes are regulated. Sex is regulated. Language is regulated. “Under his eye,” people tell each other, by way of both hello and goodbye, and it is impossible to tell whether the viewing in question is earthly or divine. That, too, is by design: In Gilead, life itself is vertically integrated. There are “eyes,” yes, in this regime—men in black uniforms and black vans, armed with black guns, their job to surveil the citizens, and to be extremely obvious about it. But those men are also, when it comes to maintaining order, to a large extent redundant: “Eyes” are also embedded, Stasi-like, in people’s homes and lives. No one knows who they are; they only know—or think they know—that the eyes are always there, watching.

And then there are the handmaids, who are at once victims and vehicles of the state. “Her fault! Her fault! Her fault!” they chant at Janine, in unison, thrusting their index fingers at her, after their fellow handmaid has been insubordinate. It is impossible to tell—nor, for practical purposes, does it matter—whether they believe it. In Gilead, performance and reality have been fused so efficiently that the two are indistinguishable. The handmaids go everywhere in pairs—not for companionship, Offred makes clear, but for mutual surveillance. “I am her spy,” she says, initially, of her partner Ofglen—“and she is mine.”

Which has allowed the leaders of Gilead to destabilize the notion of the home as a private space, safe from the public gaze. The constant surveillance, or at the very least the canny threat of it, has also allowed the thus-far-unseen leaders to chip away, methodically, at the emotional foundations of a functioning society: trust, companionship, a general sense of shared purpose. The embedded eyes make everyone fearful and suspicious and, in that, unwitting agents of the state’s surveillance. The eyes enlist everyone, effectively, into the project of policing. Here is the Panopticon, distributed across a constructed nation.

* * *

Many Americans think of “the surveillance state,” these days, in technological terms. If they’re going to get us, we figure, it will probably be with an able assist from hacked computers or omnipresent security cameras, facial recognition software or smart homes that become a little too smart. That’s why one of the best decisions the creators of The Handmaid’s Tale made was to set the show’s action squarely within “these days,” or a rough approximation thereof. Flashbacks to the “before” find June and Moira in a world that will be uncannily familiar to viewers: ordering espressos, calling up Ubers, running with earbuds, referencing Tinder, and living the kind of open existence in which women are free to swear and laugh and love and talk in terms of “humanism, not feminism.”

In those flashbacks, technology means to the show’s central women essentially what it means to us, their living analogs: ease, convenience, check cards. Until, suddenly, technology betrays them. The coup that established Gilead followed, essentially, the pattern you’d think such a modern-day event would adhere to: martial law implemented in response to terror attacks either real or fabricated, and the empowered regime then using computers against the people, easily locking women out of their bank accounts, robbing them of their money, and then, from there, robbing them of their freedom.

It’s striking, then, that Gilead itself, its coup having been so utterly, chillingly successful, is so lacking in the surveillance technologies that were ostensibly plentiful in the world it overtook. The regime’s admiration of the ancient, evident in its clothing choices, its home decor, and its preferred methods of baking bread, seems to have extended, as well, to its control over its citizens. In Gilead there are, at least in the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, very few cameras, no internet, no RFID or GPS or other tracking technologies, and overall very few of the tools that one would typically associate with contemporary totalitarianism. (There are, however—and this is key—many, many guns.)

So while there are Black Mirror overtones, certainly, to this world of red-cloaked women, the anxiety here comes not from technology, but from people. The surveillance in The Handmaid’s Tale is intimate. It plays out not on screens, but in minds, through language that speaks, but says nothing. Through institutionalized suspicion. Through ceremonies like the Salvagings—where “disgusting creatures” give people “no choice,” save for the manner in which those creatures will be savagely beaten to death.

So Gilead is a place where the lines between complacency and coercion have been erased: Most everyone here has been convinced, in ways tailored to their station, that their capacity for choice itself has been undone. In this stiflingly closed system, the desires of the state and the desires of the citizen become one. Serena Joy, the wife of Offred’s Commander, tells Offred in a moment of apparent compassion that “what you do and what we do together is so terrible”—she catches herself—“it’s terribly hard.” The “together” in her admission is as wincing as the edit Serena makes to its message. It’s not terrible, what she and Offred and everyone else are doing, it is simply terribly difficult. And they are doing this difficult work, unavoidably, together.

The Handmaid’s Tale arrives, as it happens, during a time of deep and specific cultural anxiety about the very questions the show is pondering: not just about institutionalized misogyny, not just about women’s rights over their own bodies, but also about what it means to speak up—and what it means, conversely, to stay silent. The real story of the show, The Huffington Post’s Kayla Chadwick put it, “is how many ‘good men’ must have said nothing along the way. How many ‘good men’ put their heads down and decided not to make trouble for themselves on behalf of the women in their lives?” The real story is also, however, how easy it is, in this insular world—how terribly easy it is—to turn people against each other, using little else beyond manipulation. The story, too, is how readily guilt can spread, like an infection of the heart, among people who fail in the smallest of ways until they fail in the biggest: to act, to speak, to resist.

In Margaret Atwood’s book, the Salvaging ceremony in which the “rapist” is executed finds Ofglen, not Offred, playing a central role in the beating. Ofglen dispatches him brutally, and speedily. She later explains why. The man was part of the rebellion, Ofglen says, and she wanted to pay him the only mercy she could: to give him as quick a death as possible.

The TV show, tellingly, changed that. Here, in this version of The Handmaid’s Tale, it is Offred, quaking with rage and presented with a human on whom she might release it, who deals the first blow. Here, it is Offred who helps to take this man’s life, and her reason is violent and selfish. And that is what, in this version of things, makes the ceremony imagined by the Sons of Gilead complete. Through the Salvaging, Offred gains a measure of catharsis. But she also gains a measure of guilt.