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.