Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum: A Spoiler-Free Review of The Handmaid’s Tale by Guest Lydia Schoch @TorontoLydia

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#NoSpoilers
Review of  The Handmaid’s Tale season 1
by Guest Lydia Schoch @TorontoLydia

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a speculative novel about a woman who was kidnapped and forced into reproductive slavery after the U.S. government was overthrown by a group of religious extremists called the Sons of Jacob. Last year, I was thrilled when I found out that it was going to be turned into a TV series.

Today I’m going to tell you what season one of The Handmaid’s Tale was like and what I thought of it without giving away any spoilers for it. Let’s begin with the introductions of the main characters and a brief summary of the plot.

O.T. Fagbnele as Luke, Jordana Blake as Hannah, and Elisabeth Moss as Offred (Photo: George Kraychyk © HULU)

June was the protagonist. Before the United States government was overthrown, she was married to a man named Luke. They were one of the dwindling number of families who had been able to successfully have a healthy child. They named their little girl Hannah.

Unfortunately, this family’s happiness was short-lived. Fertility rates dropped so much in the place formerly known as the United States that it became rare for any pregnancy to lead to a healthy, viable baby. The Sons of Jacob, an extremist movement whose political platform was based on harsh, literal interpretations of certain passages from the Bible, believed that this widespread infertility was a curse from God.

When they gained power and formed Gilead, they passed punitive laws aimed to strictly control marriage, fertility, gender roles, and how people were allowed to live in an attempt to win God’s favour again.

Elizabeth Moss as Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale © Hulu

As you might have already imagined, fertile women were highly sought after in this new society. June and her family was no exception to this rule. June was prized because she’d proven herself fertile, and Hannah was prized because there were far more families hoping to adopt than there were children of any age or race who could be placed for adoption.

After being captured by the authorities, June was torn away from her family and assigned to be a Handmaid for the wealthy and powerful. That is, her only duty in life now was to bear children for couples who couldn’t have their own.

Rather than keeping her own name, June was renamed at every posting. Offred — or “of Fred” — became her new identity after she was sent to live with Fred Waterford, a top-ranking Commander of the new government.

Joseph Fiennes as Commander Waterford (Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu ©

His wife, Serena Joy, was a wildly unpredictable mistress whose sole desire in life was to be a mother. Her jealousy of June’s fertility is only matched by her hatred of this arrangement.

Offred had a limited amount of time to conceive a baby with Fred. If she failed to become pregnant, she would be sent to a work camp to die a slow, agonizing death. While she waited to see if the monthly sexual assaults from Fred will result in a baby, she also quietly worked to find out what happened to her husband and daughter.

Are they still alive? Will she ever be able to see them again? Even saying their names was forbidden, but this didn’t stop Offred from fantasizing about what it would be like to be her family again.

Roughly translated, nolite te bastardes carborundorum is supposed to mean “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” It was a phrase she found scratched into the wood of one of the pieces of furniture in her room at the Waterford’s home. While Offred waited to see what would happen to her next, she had to figure out how to avoid being ground down to dust in the process.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (1st edition)

Analysis

As someone who has been a huge fan of the book for nearly 20 years, I was quite happy with how this story was translated to the small screen.

Gilead was a violent and dangerous place to live for anyone who stepped out of line, and the screenwriters weren’t at all afraid to show exactly what happened to people who broke the strict rules there. While I can’t go into any details about that part of the plot without giving away spoilers for everything after the first episode, I will say that this portion of the storytelling was exquisite.

There is a massive difference between maintaining the appearance of a virtuous society and actually constructing it in a way that benefits the very people it was originally meant to help.

Some of my favorite scenes were the ones that showed the stark difference between the outward appearance of someone’s life and the quiet reality of it behind closed doors. While most of the villains were at least outwardly pious, what happened when they thought no one was watching them was much more complex than following or breaking specific rules.

One of the other things I loved about this season is how it handled the character development. No one in this world was completely evil or good, including people who really did seem like they could be boxed in by these labels when I first saw them.

There were times when the good characters made decisions that I detested. In other scenes, characters who had been violent or cruel showed moments of mercy.

This is not to say that a single act of kindness can wipe away even the worst crime or that good people should be forever judged by their worst mistakes in life. All of these characters are a mixture of faults and virtues just like real people are, and that has permanently endeared them to me.

The science fiction in this universe has a very light touch. If this is not a genre you typically watch, know that The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t like most other scifi shows. Other than the mysterious origins of the infertility plague, everything that happened in this show could really happen in our world. Indeed, much of it already has happened at various times and in many different places.

By the end of the season finale a question lingered in the air. Would we let something like this happen to us if we began to see the signs of a real-life Gilead beginning to form?

Season two of The Handmaid’s Tale is tentatively scheduled to be released in April of 2018. Until then, I hope you will mull over this question and come up with your own answers to it as you enjoy season one.

The Handmaid’s Tale won several Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Elisabeth Moss, as Offred), Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Ann Dowd, as Aunt Lydia), Best Guest Actress in a Drama Series (Alexis Bledel, as Emily), Best Directing for a Drama Series (Reed Dowd), and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (Bruce Miller).

Elisabeth Moss at 69th Emmy Awards, Photo by Kevin Winter, Getty Images ©

The Handmaid’s Tale is available on Hulu (free one-month trial subscription, $11.99 with no commercials, $5.99 with limited commercials), Amazon ($1.99 SD, $2.99 HD per episode, or $14.99-19.99 for season), and, for similar purchase prices, on YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and GooglePlay.

Lydia Schoch is a science fiction author and longtime fan of Margaret Atwood’s stories. Lydia blogs at Lydia Schoch, tweets at @TorontoLydia, and lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Related Posts
on The Handmaid’s Tale
by Lydia Schoch
#Spoilers

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Introducing Offred’s World

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Gender Treachery

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Faithful

The Handmaid’s Tale:
A Woman’s Place

The Handmaid’s Tale:
The Other Side

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Jezebels

The Handmaid’s Tale:
The Bridge

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Night

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9 Responses to Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum: A Spoiler-Free Review of The Handmaid’s Tale by Guest Lydia Schoch @TorontoLydia

  1. OH I can’t watch too much of the hulu series at once because I just end up shouting at perfectly nice men on the street ” WE’RE PEOPLE!” and then they look confused and I feel embarrassed…

    • Heh, I know the feeling. This definitely isn’t a show that anyone should binge-watch. It should be digested slowly. 🙂

      Have you read the book yet? I hope you will if you haven’t. It was fabulous.

  2. I think this is a great intro to convert non-show watchers. I will say I have some trepidation about Season 2 as we move beyond the book. Not too happy with how things have been going on Game of Thrones in a similar situation.

    • Thank you, Darius!

      I have no idea what to think about season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale. I am looking forward to it, but I sure wasn’t expecting season 1 to cover the entire book.

      The fact that Margaret Atwood is so closely connected to the show gives me hope, though. My fingers are crossed that she’ll guide them in the right direction. There were definitely a lot of unanswered questions in the original story.

      I hadn’t heard that Game of Thrones had run out of book material to cover. Isn’t the author still working on that series, or has he finished it now?

      • Dear Lydia,

        George R.R. Martin provided the outline for seasons 6, 7, and 8 to showrunners Benioff and Weiss for HBO’s Game of Thrones, though he has not yet finished the books on which those seasons are based. He’s still working on them.

        Love,
        A

  3. Terry Tyler

    Nice one, Lydia – I adored this series and can’t wait for the next season!

    Alexandria, thanks so much for the link to my blog on the side bar 🙂

  4. Pingback: I Have a Guest Post at The Alexandria Papers About The Handmaid’s Tale | Lydia Schoch

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