The horrific regime at the heart of The Handmaid’s Tale, which just wrapped its Emmy-nominated second season on Hulu this week, is a lot of things. The word “terrifying,” immediately seems appropriate. As does “monstrous.” But, when it comes to the sexual assault-sanctioning government of Gilead, which has obviously manipulated the most conservative interpretation of the Bible for its own nefarious ends, the word “cult” likely doesn’t immediately spring forth.
Yet, when you investigate the nuts and bolts of how a cult runs, it becomes clear that Gilead is using the same playbook as Wild, Wild Country’s Rajneeshpuram, NXIVM, and the entire season of American Horror Story: Cult.
“They’re total, they’re all encompassing, and you may not also have any other beliefs,” Terror, Love and Brainwashing author Alexandra Stein, who literally got her PhD in cults, told Refinery29 over the phone about the topic, noting that in normal society one may be both an avid churchgoer and an involved member of a political party. Day in, day out, that person would have to balance those two competing ideologies, and likely many more. “But in a cult, you would have to only be [in a] cultic system,” she added. Stein would know, as the academic was in a political cult, the Minneapolis-based O, for a decade, and escaped the group in 1991.
The effects of a cult lead to outside control over every single “intimate detail” of a member's life. “Even how you brush your teeth may have to fit into the ‘correct’ way,” Stein, a research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, explained. “Or certainly how you date or raise children or what clothes you wear.”
That is definitely true for The Handmaid’s Tale, as the looming power of Gilead hangs over every moment of the streaming drama. While the setting of a series becomes a character in itself on shows like Sharp Objects — how many times can someone say “Wind Gap” in an hour or less? — or New Orleans-obsessed Cloak & Dagger, Gilead is nearly a corporeal being sitting in between each and every character. That is why June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss), our lead handmaid, is never sure who to trust. That’s definitely why Eden Blaine’s (Sydney Sweeney) father (David Tompa) is the one who turned his young teen daughter in for running away with her lover, effectively sentencing his own child to death. The ideals, and threats, of Gilead meditate every single interaction.
“The Handmaid’s Tale is very good because it shows how [cultic control] goes deep into the intimate relationships people have with their children, with their partners, and that is exactly what happens in a cult,” Stein explained. “You no longer trust even your most intimate friends or partners, or you can’t protect your children. You are truly, truly isolated.”
Isolation proves to be one of the major tenets of cult behaviour. And every single person in Gilead is isolated. Yes, you might have a spouse or a child, but the demands of Gilead come before all. Just ask poor late Eden.
Past all the fearsome isolation of Gilead, there are other principles of cultic systems on full display in Channel 4’s dystopian tale. The other main points Stein stresses to identifying a cult are a strict hierarchy (from the leading Sons Of Jacob commanders down to the Eyes and wives and Marthas and handmaids, Gilead is good on that one), constant busy work (how many knitting circles and grocery store trips are truly necessary?), brainwashing (which is created through chronic trauma, a staple of life in Gilead), and controllable, exploitable followers, which is what the entire petrified citizenry of Handmaid’s are.
The only true way Gilead doesn’t fit the cult mould is in its creation story. Usually, cults are started by a single person, often with both charismatic and authoritarian traits, Stein explained. “A psychopathic personality,” as she put it.
But, this government wasn’t exactly formed by one perfect leader. Rather, it was built by committee. Many of Serena Joy Waterford’s (Yvonne Strahovski) firebrand conservative ideals stand as the bedrock of Gilead. Yet, she wasn’t the one recruiting members, nor does she reign over the populace as some all-powerful ultra-Biblical goddess in this new world order. Rather, the Sons Of Jacob, who committed the coup that brought down the American government and now lead Gilead as “commanders” are in charge, with little respect for Serena. The misogynistic Sons even prove how little they value Serena and her efforts when they chop off her finger in season 2 finale “The Word.”
Handmaid’s Tale opened up the circle of Gilead creators even further as its 2018 run wound down, introducing commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford, in his own creepissance). Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) explains Commander Lawrence is “the architect of Gilead’s economy.”
While the world of Gilead doesn’t perfectly conform to the construction of a cult, it does run as a totalitarian state, which Stein describes as, “a state that has become a cult, like North Korea or [Adolf] Hitler’s Germany or [Joseph] Stalin’s Soviet Union.” Although we could try to parse through the differences between “cult” “totalitarianism” and even “violent religious extremism,” Stein says, in truth, there are “none.” Rather, all three are built from the same skeleton. They simply have different goals.
“[Cultic behaviour] has become totalitarianism when it has state power,” Stein said, which is exactly what is going on in The Handmaid’s Tale. “Whereas a cult isn’t trying to get state power. But they’re all operating in the same kind of way. The same dynamics.”
And if that doesn’t convince you Gilead is an overblown cult simply missing its Svengali-esque founder, here is Stein’s “short formula” to figuring out if a cult is trying to recruit you: “Watch out if a person or group tries to isolate you from your previous friends and family under whatever guise, tries to position themselves as the only source of good, and then creates a situation of chronic stress or fear.”
That is a horrifying game plan Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) could get behind (and already did).