The Handmaid’s Tale Portrays Unspeakable Horrors Against a Pristine Backdrop

Have you been watching Hulu’s original series, The Handmaid’s Tale, which dropped its first three episodes on us last week? If so, you’re probably counting down the minutes until you can watch episode four, which came out this morning. Either that, or you’re cowering under the covers wondering how many steps there are between us and Gilead, in which case you have my sympathy.

Whether you find the show terrifying or comforting, it’s a gripping show (and it just got renewed for a second season). Based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, The Handmaid’s Tale is about a future in which women aren’t allowed to have jobs or bank accounts, and fertile women are kept as sex slaves in order for the elite to have children. It’s a terrifying premise, but one made even more jarring due to the gorgeous backdrop before which these horrors occur. The homes of the society’s wealthiest and most entitled are pristine that you’d have no idea that horrifying “ceremonial” sexual assaults are taking place there on a monthly basis.

Women who can’t bear children but aren’t rich are relegated to kitchen work and running the household in general. But at least they get to painstakingly make bread from scratch every single day in kitchens with top-of-the-line appliances, am I right? Handmaids, the red Puritanical-uniformed women who are kept for child bearing, are given slightly higher status and have sparse, tidy rooms of their own. Just never mind the shatterproof glass, so you can’t escape or attempt suicide!

The rich wives keep beautiful homes with tasteful furniture and surprisingly good natural lighting, but none of them seem too happy to be in Gilead, either. They all have to wear uniforms every day too, to make sure every woman’s status is super clear. They’re also goaded into being super preoccupied with their designated handmaid’s fertility, because all women in this Dystopian society have been trained to believe that motherhood and childbearing are the height of their worth.

One thing that doesn’t make sense to me is how lush all of these rich people’s gardens are, considering everyone is always hinting that the environment has been ruined that that chemicals are to blame for everyone’s problems, including infertility. Also, apparently a big chunk of what was formerly America is covered in toxic waste, because any time anyone steps out of line they’re threatened with deadly clean-up duty. Something tells me the accommodations for that line of work don’t come with soothing paint colors or marble basin sinks.

It’s been awhile since I read the novel the show is based on, but the set folks are doing an awesome job of making Gilead feel both plausible and extremely unsettling. The homes we see look like everyday ones, as if we could be living in one tomorrow. In fact, this is exactly production designer Julie Berghoff’s goal: “I wanted viewers to remember that this isn’t the past or future, it’s now,” she told Curbed. “It has to feel real, like it could happen to you.”

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