"We only wanted to make the world better," a powerful man explains to a woman who's basically his sex slave in the fifth episode of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale. Of course, he clarifies, "'Better' never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some." The Commander's (Joseph Fiennes) words are so arresting because they capture a universal truth about sudden, seismic changes in the structure of a society. I couldn't get them out of my head as I watched the fifth season of Orange Is the New Black, which unfolds during a three-day prison riot.
The two shows have more in common than shared cast members (specifically, Samira Wiley and Madeline Brewer). Both The Handmaid's Tale and the new season of Orange imagine what rapid societal upheaval might look like in scenarios that are more extreme than anything most American viewers have actually experienced. In The Handmaid's Tale, a cabal of ultra-religious patriarchs succeed in transforming secular, 21st-century America into the authoritarian theocracy of Gilead; in Orange, the perennially oppressed inmates suddenly gain control of the closed system that is Litchfield Penitentiary. With their large casts, both shows explore how many different types of people weather a revolution. Who leads it? Who jumps on the bandwagon? Who just keeps their head down and survives? Who ends up suffering the most? What's remarkable is how similarly the shows answer those questions.
On television, as in real life, dramatic reorganizations of society benefit two types of people: the ideological leaders behind the shift and the opportunists who join the revolution for personal gain. Although the Commander doesn't actually live up to Gilead's chaste, reverent ideals, he and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), were both early subscribers to the retrograde belief system that gave birth to the new state—and they're compensated for their loyalty with a luxurious home, servants, and the Commander's prominent place in the government. On Orange, it's Taystee (Danielle Brooks) who starts the riot, fueled by moral outrage over her best friend Poussey's (Wiley) death at the hands of the careless, inexperienced prison guard Bayley. As its leader, she's the inmate who has the power to negotiate with government officials and higher-ups at MCC, the private-prison corporation that manages Litchfield.
But in the end, the opportunists tend to fare better than the true believers. Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) is perhaps Litchfield's shrewdest operator; after Daya (Dascha Polanco) gets a hold of a particularly sadistic guard's gun, the Latinas become the prison's most powerful ethnic group, and Ruiz is the most militant revolutionary among them. Ever adaptable, she switches tactics and releases a group of hostages toward the end of the season, in hopes that she'll be rewarded with a chance to see her baby daughter. (She is, but only for a moment.)
The Handmaid's Tale, meanwhile, gives us Nick (Max Minghella), a lost soul who's recruited before the revolution and becomes a member of Gilead's secret police force, the Eyes. As a spy in the Commander's home, he may look like a servant, but he holds great power over everyone in the household. What he and Ruiz share is their desperation. While she's just had five years added to her sentence before the riot breaks out, he's an angry, unemployed loser in pre-Gilead America. Both have more to gain from regime change than most.
Those who merely seek to survive in a radically restructured society have something in common with Nick and Ruiz: a keen self-preservation instinct. Instead of picking a side, though, they simply endeavor to preserve as much of their old standard of living as possible. For Moira (Wiley) in The Handmaid's Tale, that means running away from the Red Center, abandoning her best friend Offred (Elisabeth Moss), and then, when she's caught, deciding to become a prostitute—an option that at least allows her good food, strong drugs, and a modicum of autonomy. By the finale, she's escaped from Jezebels, the nightclub where she works, and reached a refugee center in Canada. Of course, Litchfield's resident survivalist, Frieda (Dale Soules), makes it to the end of the riot unscathed. She's holed up with some friends in the comfortable bunker she's spent decades constructing where the prison's pool used to be.
The fates of characters who are incapable of looking out for their own best interests tend to be much darker. One of Orange's mentally ill inmates, Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), starts to spiral when the social order of Litchfield breaks down. She nearly dies after Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) attempts to calm her down by giving her the wrong psychiatric medication. In Gilead, the fragile Janine (Madeline Brewer) attempts suicide when her baby is taken away from her and then narrowly escapes being stoned to death by a circle of her fellow handmaids.
The most tragic characters are the ones whose stubborn moral compasses force them to act against their own best interests. That's Taystee again: Her Season 5 storyline is so emotional and frustrating because she comes so close to securing the reforms Litchfield desperately needs—like better healthcare and new guards—only to reject the deal when she learns that CO Bayley may not be prosecuted. But it's also Gloria (Selenis Leyva), who spends too long pondering the ethics of selling out her fellow prisoners and misses her chance to free the hostages and visit her critically injured son in the hospital. In a fairer society, she and Taystee would be rewarded for their senses of justice. As it turns out, neither the dehumanizing American prison-industrial complex nor the Lord of the Flies–style hierarchy the inmates create when left to their own devices places much value on doing the right thing.
Offred, the heroine of The Handmaid's Tale, doesn't fit neatly into any of these categories—and that's what makes her such a compelling character. "I intend to survive," she vows in the series premiere, but she's almost always torn between survival and righteousness. She cozies up to the Commander in hopes of receiving better treatment and furthering her work in the Mayday resistance group. But in the finale, Offred drops the rock she's been given and stops the other handmaids from stoning Janine. The episode ends with her arrest.
In a society where you have to be pious, selfish and conniving to thrive, nothing short of a counter-revolution—like the one Litchfield's inmates incited, but couldn't resolve—can give Offred a shot at living a happy life. We won't know until next season, or later, whether she possesses the strength of purpose to lead such an uprising.
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