On resistance and fiction


We just wrapped up watching The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel.  The show is gripping, stressful to watch, and full of great performances (none more so than Elizabeth Moss as Offred/June).  The early episodes in particular are just brutal.

[Spoiler alert, by the way, for anyone who hasn’t watched the show or read the book.]

I’ve never read Atwood’s novel, though I’ve read up on it since watching the show.  So my thoughts on the show aren’t shaped by any expectation of what Atwood was trying to do with the source material.  Something nagged at me over the last few episodes of the series, though, some gap between what I wanted or expected from the show and what it delivered.  Mostly, what the show delivered was fine.  But something felt lost between the early episodes (brutal, repressive and bleak) and the later episodes (brutal, repressive, bleak, but also hopeful).

There’s a scene in the next to last episode, where crazy (and abused) Janine stands on a bridge threatening to jump to her death with her baby.  Abbe and I, watching together, tried to figure out where the scene was going.  Not just where it was going but where it should go, how it would serve the show in the best possible way.  My guess was that the baby wasn’t going to die, but that Janine would jump to her death.  That would feel “safe” on this show, a way to bring Janine’s arc to an end, reinforce the grimness of the situation, but keep the plotting tidy–because a dead baby would disrupt the plot more than a dead Handmaid.  But I hoped she’d jump with the baby.  I hoped she’d throw the baby in some ways, although that wouldn’t make much sense.

So why did I hope for those things?  I don’t like seeing characters suffer.  And I don’t want to see shocking things happen for their own sake.  But the show has done such a great job of showing how things that were previously unfathomable can become ordinary.   A dead baby would feel like a more appropriate and true consequence of the show’s world than a live baby and a live Janine.

There’s something else, though.  Those early episodes were relentless in how oppressive they felt.  That’s difficult to sustain.  The arc of the show, now, has been bending toward a theme of resistance.  The Handmaids are banding together, and that resistance will probably shape the future of the show.  And that could be inspiring and powerful.  It will certainly please a lot of fans who want to see something good happen to these mistreated characters.

But I’ll miss what the show seemed to be in those early episodes, even if it wasn’t sustainable.   Resistance is great in a real life, and I want June/Offred and the others to win back their freedom, but I also feel as if the potency of the show’s world will diminish as the focus shifts to its demise.   I don’t really want a show full of supergirls who join the revolution.  That would be emotionally satisfying–there’s nothing I want more right now than to see Lydia, Serena Joy, the Commander and their countless analogs get what’s coming to them–but it will also feel a little cheap.  Instead of a show about gender oppression and the advancing authoritarian state, it’ll be a show about female empowerment.  And maybe that will be a great thing, but it reminds me of something like Inglorious Basterds–an entertaining revenge fantasy to make people feel as if justice triumphed in the end.   I’ll still watch, and I may love it, but something is lost, too.

The small symbols of resistance in The Handmaid’s Tale are powerful exactly because they are just symbols.  The little gestures of solidarity are reminders of how solidarity is being crushed, and also of why it’s being crushed.  So when you move past all that, in the service of a narrative that can play out over multiple seasons, something has to be sacrificed, too.  Ofglen/Emily’s resistance (running over that guy and, apparently, like decapitating him or something) felt incredibly liberating and strange, but it also worked because we understood that she wasn’t a superhero, that this was ultimately an act that was going to (likely) put an end to her character.  It was gut-wrenching defiance, but it was important within the show that she not get away with it, that all the weight comes crashing down on her as it does.

I don’t know what direction I’d really want the show to take.  I don’t want relentless grimness.   And I want to know where things are going.  But I also don’t want to just be cheering the characters on, and getting farther away from what made it such an original and disturbing show from the beginning.

Do we need shows about resistance (especially now) in order to feel empowered?  Do we need everything to work out in the end?   How unforgettable would The Handmaid’s Tale have been if it ended now–with a single season–with the understanding that June/Offred is going off to her death?   That would be unlike any ending we’ve ever seen…

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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