The main themes of The Handmaid’s Tale are disturbing: forced servitude, ritualised sexual assault, and indiscriminate murder. Season 2 is especially difficult to watch — our own Anne Cohen wrote that it’s a “a heightened version of the elements that made season 1 frightening.” Elisabeth Moss, who plays Offred/June Osborn, wants you to feel that fear. “Wake up, people. Wake up,” says in an interview with the Guardian. “I hate hearing that someone couldn’t watch it because it was too scary,” she says. “Not because I care about whether or not they watch my TV show; I don’t give a shit. But I’m like, ‘Really? You don’t have the balls to watch a TV show? This is happening in your real life.’”
A theme of The Handmaid’s Tale is its prescience — the authoritarianism of Gilead feels particularly portentous today. If it seems a little too close to reality, that’s because it’s supposed to. “In the book, Margaret calls it the new normal,” says Moss, referencing the source novel’s author, Margaret Atwood. (The book was published in 1984.) “It’s a line that Aunt Lydia says – this will all be normal to you one day. That’s scary to me.”
Much has been written lately about normalisation of autocratic themes that are playing out in the Trump administration, like militarisation and changing norms. Journalist Masha Gessen, who wrote Autocracy: Rules for Survival, said that everyday normalities should not blind us to the very not-normal things that are occurring. In season 2, Offred is hiding out in the Boston Globe building; she passed two months of hiding by voraciously reading through old issues of the newspaper. "[Autocracy was] there all along. But no one noticed you,” she said as she clipped stories to a wall, under categories like “curtailing of civil rights.” Gilead creeped in slowly, while life remained somewhat normal.
If that terrifies you, Moss implores us to realise that “this is happening in your real life.” In other words, we should be infinitely more afraid of our reality than a TV show — albeit, one that serves as a warning. If we pay attention to that fear, it should motivate us to fight for the norms that we treasure. Gessen’s fourth rule for surviving an autocracy is to stay outraged, and we can use that fear to fuel our anger. It’s something that the characters of The Handmaid’s Tale may be exploring later in the series. “In season 2, we start to think about the fact that if these women actually banded together, they could overthrow Gilead,” she says. “That’s a very powerful idea.”
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