Women, men, LGBTQ, black and white and shades of brown, a panoply of the marginalized, all march down the streets holding signs, chanting and shouting. They are met by helmeted police geared to face an army, bearing shields and guns made to take down tanks.
It’s a scene that feels ever more familiar these days — until the police actually do fire on the crowd. Panicked protesters flee, sobbing, bleeding, dying.
The scene is from Hulu’s original series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s best-selling 1985 novel of the same name, and though the material is more than 30 years old, the series feels almost like a tornado warning when a mile-wide twister is roaring down the drive.
Atwood’s book, which once again became a best-seller after the election, tells the story of Offred (Elisabeth Moss in the series), a so-called handmaiden in the Republic of Gilead. Gilead is what the United States has become after an attack that killed Congress and the president; though blamed on Islamic terrorists, the attack was actually the work of the Jacobites, Christian fundamentalists who suspend the Constitution and establish a theocracy based on the subjugation of women and warped interpretations of the Old Testament.
Fertile women, who are in short supply due to the effects of pollution, are treated as nothing more than ambulatory wombs. Members of religious sects other than the Jacobites are subject to death. LGBTQ people are labeled gender traitors and also subject to death. Abortion providers: death.
There was a time in American history when this world didn’t seem so foreign, before Roe v. Wade, before Title IX. But for the last 20 years or so, large swaths of the U.S. population felt as though we were headed further and further away from such a path.
In March, Atwood penned an eloquent piece addressing her novel’s prescience for the New York Times. “No, it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities,” she wrote. “Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.”
The first season of the Hulu series, consisting of 10 hourlong episodes, premieres April 26. Hulu has had several shows from high-profile creators before: “11.22.63,” based on Stephen King’s novel about the John F. Kennedy assassination, starred James Franco and came from J.J. Abrams. And “The Path” is a beautiful exploration of life in and around a modern cult, starring Aaron Paul, Michelle Monaghan, and Hugh Dancy. But Hulu hasn’t yet had a show that has woven itself into the cultural woof like Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” or even Amazon’s “Transparent.” “The Handmaid’s Tale” may just be that show.
But to what end?
The marchers who are gunned down by police aren’t found in Atwood’s text — they were invented by the show’s creative team, led by showrunner Bruce Miller. What’s troubling is that the scene was filmed long before the current wave of unrest, based on protests like those that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, rather than on the Women’s March.
The protests in the show come after the government has declared it illegal for women to hold jobs or money or own property. The episode itself is a bone-chilling 52 minutes, full of men standing idly by as friends, lovers, and coworkers are stripped of their agency. Like all the best works of dystopian fiction — World War Z, 1984 — it makes the dystopia seem not just plausible, but probable. How many times have men done nothing but look on as women have suffered?
It is the kind of art that takes you by the throat. For those who have marched, more recently or in decades past, this episode, in particular, is a reminder of what waits on the other side of complacency.