Why Gilead’s Origin Story Has Remained Purposefully Unclear

The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale premieres on Hulu on 25th April (UK release TBC). So, pretty soon, we’ll learn what happens to June (Elisabeth Moss), the 30-something book editor and mother turned child-bearing chattel. A week from today, we’ll be plunged back into the eerie world of The Handmaid’s Tale, where everything — from the camera angles to the lighting to the entire premise of the society — seems deliberately designed to make us uncomfortable.
Given the looming proximity to season 2, I’ve been thinking a lot about the world of the Handmaid’s Tale — how it happened, and why it happened. I think about the Commanders drawing up the blueprints for a new society that divides women into rigid castes, back when they weren’t Commanders but just dudes with an outsized sense of self-importance. I think about men who dreamt of boiling down women’s careers, ambitions, dreams, and accomplishments, and leaving only their capacity to serve Gilead through rearing children or cleaning houses or toiling to their deaths in the colonies. I think about men who’d be happy to redefine womanhood without asking permission.
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After completing season 1, we can probably all give a lecture explaining Gilead's trademark warped version of Christianity. According to Gilead's governing philosophy, we are all fallen creatures. If we are to remain moral, we need to be forced back into a rigid system of structure and servitude. So the collective purpose of all women is reduced to being caretakers, in a variety of strata. Everything that makes women “dangerous” — or anything that makes her able to tempt a man into behaving immorally — is curtailed through uniforms, and punishable by death or exile.
Gilead's Old Testament redux philosophy has been made obvious through uncomfortable scenes and rants from Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). But what has remained fairly vague, so far, is Gilead's origin story. To use the language of Hamilton, we don’t have many concrete details about the “room where it happened,” aside from the fact that Commander Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) were two of Gilead's primary orchestrators.
Here's what we do know. Gilead was conceived by a group called the Sons of Jacob, comprised of men and women united by the goal of "[wanting] to set things right [and] clean up this country," as an early member explained in the show. The sprawling, US-wide Sons of Jacob took orders from an inner sanctum called the Committee; they were the ones who devised the terrorist attacks on the United States that destroyed the government. In Gilead, the former Committee members are Commanders.
Likely, there were many levels in the Sons of Jacobs' hierarchy. Fred told Nick (Max Minghella) that a "field commander" of Sons of Jacob conspirators captured New York; perhaps there were similar commanders in each major city. Despite an ongoing military campaign, the Sons of Jacob did not completely destroy the United States Government — after the attack, an exiled government moved to Anchorage, Alaska.
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We could spend a long time combing through The Handmaid's Tale for scraps of mentions of the revolution, and our understanding of the Sons of Jacob's inner workings would still be about as clear as an impressionist painting. Aside from the occasional mention of the Sons of Jacob, or a brief flashback of Serena Joy and Fred, we never see Gilead actually take shape. The show also only features four Commanders — Fred, Pryce, Warren, and Guthrie — who rarely discuss the past.
The lack of tangible details about Gilead’s origin drives me into swirls of distracting speculation — perhaps because I think if I can identify the origins of this terrible (luckily, fictional) world, I can identify similar patterns in our own reality. What men sat around and thought, “Look, the answer to solving all of our problems is corralling women up and ruining their lives?” Were the plans’ designers home-schooled conspiracy theorists? Were they powerful former members of Skull and Bones? Were they members of state senates?
Where was this idea born? In caves? In dimly lit basements of suburban mothers’ houses, à la I, Tonya? In government offices, after everyone has gone home for the day? Reddit chatrooms?
Did they come to this conclusion independently, or after brainstorming sessions led by a solitary mastermind? Where did these people find each other? Did they speak in code? Who did they know in the government?
Was there ever any hesitation in carrying out the plan? Did any of the Sons of Jacob defect? Did the leaders' wives murmur concern, or were they all power-hungry automatons like Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), overjoyed to be included in the new world order? What women nodded along, corroborating this idea, and consigning themselves to a lifetime of oppression?
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Likely, we'll never get the answers to these questions. The hate fueling Gilead cannot be ascribed to one identifiable figure or movement, but rather on an amorphous collective of enemies that once hid in plain sight. All we'll know about the orchestrators of Gilead is that they drank the same cocktail of fear, loathing, and conservatism.
Like June (Elisabeth Moss), we’ll spend our time in Gilead wondering how this came to pass. But it did come to pass, and it came to pass through human agency. What I mean to say is: Remember that every single detail of this particularly cruel form of oppression was designed by people who thought they were right. Incredibly intelligent, strategically minded people who once blended in with the an increasingly liberal 21st-century society like sleeper agents of dangerous conservatism. Highly organised people who successfully overthrew the oldest democracy in the world.
People, above all, whose plan worked. After carrying out a terrorist attack that eliminated the legislative, judicial, and executive branches, they orchestrated a seamless implementation of their oppressive, Old Testament-based societal system. Five years after the initial attack, Gilead is stable and has more births than other countries around the world, as the visit from the Mexican consulate proves. Ten years ago, the masterminds probably sounded like raving lunatics. Now, they answer to the name "Commander."
The Handmaid’s Tale shows the oppression people can endure – and the oppression people can deliberately create. Who thought Gilead was a good idea? Who thought any oppressive system in human history was a good idea? Someone. And that’s the scariest part.

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