This article contains spoilers through the 10th episode of Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale.
The aura of timeliness that hovers around The Handmaid’s Tale has, for the last two seasons, charged Hulu’s television adaptation of the novel. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 work of speculative fiction imagines a repressive theocratic regime staging a coup in America and forcing fertile women into sexual and reproductive slavery. Since its publication, it’s never been out of print. But the 2016 election of Donald Trump—whose evangelical vice president, Mike Pence, won’t dine alone with a woman unless it is his wife—and the ongoing erosion of reproductive rights across America has made the story of Offred seem newly relevant to many.
Relevant in an allegorical way, at least. Women in America can make major life decisions without seeking permission from male guardians. They can, for the most part, interact freely with men at work and in their social lives. The government doesn’t mandate how women dress in America, and hasn’t yet obligated women to seek male consent when purchasing contraceptives, as happened in a recent Handmaid’s Tale flashback. If you’re looking for contemporary relevance, Gilead hasn’t looked or felt much like modern America. But over the last weeks, images and audio recordings coming out of America have looked and felt a lot like Gilead.
The focal atrocity in The Handmaid’s Tale is state-sponsored sexual assault, depicted in the most recent episode in gratuitously horrific fashion, as a heavily pregnant June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss) was raped by Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) while Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) held her down. But the Gilead regime is constructed on another form of cruelty, too: It routinely removes children from their biological parents and breaks up families under the pretext of laws and scripture. The second season has portrayed this practice in more detail. In the second episode, a flashback showed how Emily (Alexis Bledel) was separated from her wife and their son at the airport, as the family sought refuge in Canada. “The document is no longer recognized,” a TSA agent told her sneeringly, dismissing her marriage certificate. “You are not married … It’s forbidden … by the law.” Overnight, a decision made by Gilead’s commanders eliminated Emily’s relationship and rights to her child.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, handmaids are forced to bear biological children with commanders within the regime, and to nurse those children until they relinquish them to the commanders’ wives. But children born to women who are deemed morally unfit are also taken away and reassigned to infertile couples approved by the state. In the most recent episode, “The Last Ceremony,” June was reunited briefly with the daughter, Hannah, who was taken away from her as June and her family also tried to flee Gilead for Canada. “Did you try to find me?” Hannah asked. June’s eyes pulsated with pain and despair. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t be there for you,” she replied. “To protect you. I wanted to.” At the end of the episode, a sobbing Hannah was forcibly extracted from June’s arms by an armed guard and pulled into a car.
The scene was an agonizing one, with echoes of the first-season episode where June screamed and shook and swore from the inside of a limousine while Serena sadistically dangled a glimpse of Hannah in front of her as a threat. Watching it this week, after recent news reports revealed that almost 2,000 children have been removed from their parents by U.S. officials at the border over the course of six weeks, is hard to bear. The Trump administration has offered a variety of excuses and explanations for the decision to separate children from families seeking to enter the country. Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked the Bible. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” he said. The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, agreed. “It is very biblical to enforce the law,” she told reporters.
If Sessions and Sanders are really intent on using a literal interpretation of the Bible to justify inhumane policy, The Handmaid’s Tale is a road map for how to do so. In this week’s episode, Commander Waterford furiously sputtered out Genesis 30:1 while raping June, spurring himself on while inoculating himself from even his own sense of shame. Earlier in the season, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) riffed on 1 Peter 5:10 while handcuffing a handmaid to a gas stove and holding her arm in the flames. “This is painful for me as well,” Aunt Lydia said, “but only in suffering will we find grace.” When Nick (Max Minghella) was married to a 15-year-old girl he’d never met in a mass ceremony, the minister quoted Genesis 1:28 as the primary goal of Gilead: “Be fruitful and multiply.”
Children are the raison d’être of The Handmaid’s Tale’s regime, the justification for all its most egregious actions. They’re also a measure of value. Gilead is a theocracy built on archaic and arbitrary readings of scripture, but its principle tenet is simple: Some people deserve children more than others. Those who’ve broken the (newly written) laws regarding procreation—by having children alone, or within same-sex relationships, or outside marriage, or with people who’ve previously been married—are criminalized. They’re stigmatized and viciously punished for their actions. They lose their legal right to be parents.
It’s this enforced moral hierarchy, this deliberate inability to see human beings as equally human, that defines the Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale. And it’s what has made the show feel like such a sharp warning recently against failures of empathy. You can argue, as I did, that the weekly torments June and the other handmaids are forced to endure are unjustified and grueling to watch. (I found the rape scene this week completely indefensible and nauseating.) But somehow the show has tapped into a peculiarly American kind of horror. Before this week, the images the show proffered felt comfortingly anachronistic, with the pilgrim-like costumes and pictogram-only supermarkets. It can’t happen here, the adage goes. But crying children being taken from parents by men clutching guns? It can. It is.