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For the Book

  • Applicability: Gilead can be interpreted as satire of either the American right-wing or of Islamic fundamentalists.
  • Harsher in Hindsight:
    • The Handmaid's Tale was, of course, written as an incredibly Anvilicious social commentary on Christian fundamentalism. But the horrible thing is that there are real-life political figures of some influence who actually advocate things far too close to Gilead for comfort—as latterly proved by William S. Lind, advisor and speechwriter to presidential candidate Gary Hart, originator of the "Cultural Marxism" meme, and later a major "Alt-Right" figure who has been seen with Donald Trump. In 2014, he published Victoria, a manifesto-cum-survivalist novel which seems almost to be cribbing details of its plot right out of Atwood's story: from the entire US Government killed in a suspicious-looking terrorist attack and far-right militiamen taking over to liberal professors massacred, traditional dress codes enforced, women banned from the public sphere and feminists literally re-educated to become war brides and/or condemned to sexual slavery as punishment for their sins. Unlike Atwood, however, Lind considers the resulting society a desirable utopia, and consequently portrays the fundamentalist militiamen as unadulterated heroes, with their victims being vile villains who deserve all they get and more. It's even down to really specific details—he, like Gilead, supports death by hanging.
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    • Not to mention that, though Atwood focuses on Christian fundamentalism, the themes have already happened for women in some countries such as Iran, which regressed from its more liberal ideas decades ago when taken over by religious (Muslim) fundamentalists. See Nightmare Fuel.
    • Researchers have known for at least 20 years (e.g. British Medical Journal, 1992 "Evidence for decreasing quality of semen during past 50 years") that sperm counts are dropping. The issue has been intermittently in the public eye since then, with environmental pollutants named as a possible contributor (obesity and inactivity are known contributors).
    • On the flipside, women have recently started to cosplay as Handmaids as political protest.
    • Offred being separated from her daughter after making a failed run for the border when it was revealed that ICE was separating migrant families in 2018.
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  • Misaimed Fandom: Many believe this book is anti-religious, but Word of God (ironically) states that it is not anti-religious, and is only opposed to the ways religion oppresses women.
  • Padding: The repetition and lengthy atmospheric descriptions can seem like this, particularly to readers already familiar with the genre.
  • Scifi Ghetto: Margaret Atwood insists the book is Speculative Fiction, but not Science Fiction. "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen." The book won the first Arthur C. Clarke award in 1987.
    • There are signs that Atwood's mellowed since then and the book is taught in University literature courses at least in Canada, France and the Netherlands.
  • Some Anvils Need to Be Dropped: Religious fundamentalism can be just as oppressive as other forms of tyranny, and women deserve to be treated as equals.
  • Values Dissonance: If Luke cheated on his wife when he met June (as opposed to the two having separated and decided to divorce and him already moving on) while there's nothing odd in the 20th and 21st centuries about portraying a woman pursuing her own desires by sleeping with a married man as positive (though it is not without its own negative implications), it's not common for feminist works not to condemn a man who cheats on his wife or partner; as June is the narrator of the story, the text naturally has nothing negative to say about Luke's treatment of his first wife, thus portraying cheating on a woman as perfectly acceptable.
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For the Series

  • Alas, Poor Scrappy: Eden wasn't very well-liked at first, partially because she causes problems for Nick and June, and also because she's a pious follower of Gilead. (Though some viewers acknowledged that, unlike Serena, Eden is not malicious, and Gilead is all she's ever known, so it's not really fair to hate her for that.) The Squick of her marriage to Nick didn't help. But then came her execution. The sheer tragedy of the situation, along with Eden's dignity and bravery in the face of her own death, turned around many people's opinions. The reigning sentiment tends to be either, "Poor girl" or "We were too hard on her."
  • Alternate Character Interpretation: Is Ofglen really part of La Résistance, or is she just another Handmaid who cracked under the pressure and is acting out a spy fantasy to stay sane?
    • Luke. In the flashback where his ex-wife confronts June she comes across as rather reasonable despite clearly being desperate. Then when June walks in on him while he is leaving his ex a message his tone and words are very harsh maybe even downright abusive. Plus even though their marriage was over he didn’t wait until it was finalized to start his affair with June.
    • Fred: Is he really a believer in Gilead? Or does he just enjoy his new power?
    • Eden’s Father: he sure seems like a true believer in Gilead and the fact that he turned his own daughter in is despicable to the audience. But was he simply making a sadistic choice to save his other daughter and probably his wife as well? Remember that Eden went back home which is the first place authorities in a society WITH due process are going to look. How long would it have taken Gileadean Eyes to find her? We know that children are removed from “unfit” homes and parents executed or sent to the colonies. We also know that even though Eden seemed like a true believer she did read. Was her father hoping that maybe she would get a lighter sentence if she confessed her sins? Was his groveling to the Waterfords a last desperate attempt to save the rest of his family?
    • The doctor who offered to impregnate June. Did he genuinely want to help in one of the safest ways for him that he could? Was he trying to use her and possibly other women's position as (a) sex slave(s) to try to score for himself? A combination? Or would he have reported her if she said yes? If he has successfully impregnated other women, has/will he attempt blackmail? His consistent amiability and lack of pressure when she says no doesn't give any true clues to what his motivation might have been.
  • Anvilicious: A lot of the criticism of the second season was that the writers seemed to go out of their way to show how oppressive Gilead is, with some critics calling it "Torture Porn".
  • Arc Fatigue: After all the promises that Season 3 would finally show the Handmaids rebelling and getting their righteous vengeance against Gilead, a lot of fans were quite put off that the season is really just more of the same, long after the point has been made and we'd like to move past the endless misogynist cruelty with no comeuppance.
  • Ass Pull: June staying in Gilead at the end of Season 2. Even several characters point out how little sense it makes, and many fans and critics called out that it seems the entire reason it happens is that the alternative would be a much bigger change to the show's setup than the crew were willing to make.
  • Award Snub: After performing incredibly well at the Emmys for its first season, the show was largely expected to have similar success for Season 2, especially after it earned 20 nominations (up from the 13 it had gotten the year before). Its performance at that year's Creative Arts Ceremony seemd to support this, as it won for Drama Guest Actress (Samira Wiley), Editing, and Production Design. However, at the main Emmy ceremony, many were surprised when it ended up getting completely shut out, with it largely being overshadowed by Game of Thrones (which had been absent the year before when The Handmaid's Tale had dominated), The Crown (2016), and the final season of The Americans. The most stunning loss for fans was in Supporting Actress, when Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd, and Alexis Bledel all lost to Thandie Newton for Westworld.
  • Awesome Music:
    • The remix of Heart of Glass by Blondie that plays during the protest scene early in the first season. It amps up the tension of the scene from unsettling to utterly terrifying, especially given the progression of that particular episode, which shows the gradual transformation of America into Gilead.
    • The ethereal cover of "For What It's Worth" in the Season 2 teaser.
    • The closing credits of "First Blood", after Lillie suicide bombs the whole Gilead government. Cue the X-Ray Spex.
    Some people think little girls should be seen and not 'eard, but I say - OH BONDAGE, UP YOURS! ONE TWO THREE FOUR!
  • Base-Breaking Character: Serena. While everyone agrees she's detestable for her role in bringing about Gilead and her treatment of June, the fanbase is split on whether she deserves any sympathy or not. Some see her humanizing moments and her own mistreatment by Gilead as proof that she's worthy of pity and maybe redemption, while others feel that she made her bed, and now she can lie in it.
    • Ofglen; partly because the writers rushed through her entire storyline in three episodes and the fact that she got repeated mulligans from authorities on the TV shows, while refusing to properly follow her characters arc (which has her kill herself rather than be taken alive and give up information on Mayday).
  • Catharsis Factor:
  • Crosses the Line Twice:
    • Emily ending her joyride by backing into a soldier and leaving him injured in the street: disturbing if still cathartic. Her then running over his prone body again and causing his head to explode like a ripe melon to everyone's disgust: hilarious.
    • Serena having an agonizingly awkward brunch with June where she brings over several other handmaids in a hideously misguided attempt to cheer June up. The absolute crowning moment is when Serena asks "So what do you talk about on your little walks?", not realizing that June's walking partner, Ofglen/Lillie, has had her tongue cut out.
    • Joseph Lawrence toes the edge for much of his screen time, finally leaping over as he seems to be delivering Emily to be executed while rocking out to "Walking on Broken Glass".
  • Dawson Casting: 20-year-old Sydney Sweeney plays 15-year-old Eden, who is by all accounts a true believer in Gilead's values. The character sees it as her duty to conceive a child with Nick, who she's married to in a mass wedding. When she voices her fear that Nick is a gender traitor because he won't have sex with her, June orders him to have sex with his teenaged bride so he doesn't end up executed. He does. It's already creepy as hell, and it would be pure Squick if this role wasn't Dawson Cast.
  • Ensemble Dark Horse:
    • Moira, Emily, and Janine are all very well-loved by the fandom. Especially impressive in Janine's case, since her original book incarnation wasn't very popular at all.
    • Joseph Lawrence very quickly got a lot of attention, with Bradley Whitford's fascinatingly weird performance heralded as being a welcome breakout from the show's usual one-note male characters, and providing a great person for Emily to bounce off of as the question grows of just whose side he's really on.
  • Happy Ending Override: "Happy" of course is a relative term. But at the end of season one the Handmaids defying Aunt Lydia by refusing to stone Janine is a somewhat triumphant scene. However Aunt Lydia promised there would be consequences, and sure enough season two episode one starts with the handmaids going through horrific punishment. The only saving grace is that Janine is still alive as of the end of season two.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Commander Pryce went from running a career center in America to being head of the Eyes in Gilead. This is implied with many other Commanders as well.
    • Not much is known about Aunt Lydia before Gilead, but this seems to apply to her as well.
  • Hilarious in Hindsight: By Season 3 Zoey Bartlett and Josh Lyman are more or less leading a rebellion against a Fascist regime, which probably has a lot of people saying “That seems about right.”
  • Love to Hate: Aunt Lydia is despicable, but absolutely owns every scene she's in. While it was satisfying to see Emily attack her at the end of season 2 it's hard not to hope she'll be back in season 3.
  • Memetic Loser: Despite never actually appearing onscreen, Commander Glen has spectacularly bad luck with his Handmaids: the first Ofglen is a resistance fighter and the second blows up the government.
  • Misaimed Marketing:
    • Of the downright bizarre variety: as Season 2 ended, Lot 18 introduced three wine brands named after characters from the show. Even worse, the names used for June and Emily's brands are Offred and Ofglen rather than their real names, just like if some tie-in product for Roots used the name "Toby." There was such a massive backlash that the line was cancelled literally one day later.
    • One company tried to market "sexy" Halloween costumes of the handmaid's robes.
  • Moral Event Horizon: Commander Waterford and Serena Joy crossed it, if not by participating in the uprising with Gilead, then through their brutal rape of June in The Handmaids Tale S 2 E 10 The Last Ceremony under the guise of inducing labor.
  • Narm:
    • Season 2 features several jarring close-ups of signs for Boston locations, giving the impression that for some reason the crew suddenly lost all confidence in our ability to believe the Canada-filmed show is set there, and are now on their hands and knees begging for it.
    • Also in Season 2, June's grunting in "Holly" when she is in labor. On the one hand, it is a powerful moment where she can hold her baby and not have it undergo the ritual of Birth Day, and a serious one, but Elisabeth Moss's grunting sounds more like she's trying to imitate a caveman than a woman in labor.
    • The steadily increasing number of scenes contrived around having a close-up of June giving a Death Glare directly to the camera. Quite a few fans suspect that Elizabeth Moss is using her executive producer status to make sure she’s always the center of attention even as the show’s scope keeps expanding beyond June’s story.
    • "Household" features several shots where June, and even Fred once, appear to be wearing the giant angel wing sculpture behind them. The shots are clearly set up to make this effect, but to no apparent purpose, and it just comes off like the director really loved a similar shot in the final episode of Game of Thrones and wanted to copy it somehow even if there was no reason for it.
  • Narm Charm: The slow-motion walk of Offred and the other Handmaids at the end of "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum" as Offred internally declares, "We are handmaids". Self-affirming while also cheesy.
  • One-Scene Wonder:
    • Marisa Tomei as Mrs. O'Conner, a Wife who was sent to the Colonies for having an affair and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Emily, at least until it turns out Emily was actually setting her up for a long, painful death.
    • Oprah Winfrey, possibly playing herself, appears on a radio broadcast from the real America assuring the world it still exists and is fighting back, making June newly energized to fight herself.
    • Canada's Associate Minister of Immigration stood out for blatantly informing the Waterfords he was gay and showing them how the Canadians really felt about Gilead.
  • She Really Can Act: Even die hard Gilmore Girls fans have been critical of Alexis Bledel's portrayal of Rory Gilmore and her acting in general. Her performance as Ofglen in The Handmaids Tale however has been universally praised.
  • Some Anvils Need to Be Dropped:
    • When oppressors like Aunt Lydia, Serena Joy, and even Commander Waterford show semblance of empathy or kindness, it's hollow in the long-run.
    • The consequences of misogyny owe a lot to men and the Female Misogynists that perpetuate it. Women who participate in the men's world of oppression, like Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy, end up hurting themselves along with the women who didn't participate in the oppression in the first place.
    • Patriarchy and fundamentalist extremism hurt men as well. As we see with the man who tries to help June escape, male life is pretty cheap and slight infractions of the rules seem to be punishable by mutilation, shooting or hanging. In addition to this, they create thorny power imbalances. Even if Fred Waterford is unhappy, he still has the power to exploit Offred and has less repercussion for his actions. Also, no matter how much Nick is hurt by Gilead and might be a good guy, Offred calls out on his obliviousness of his power as an Eye, thus why it's depicted as hollow when he reveals his full name to Offred because at least he's allowed to keep a significant part of his identity, unlike a handmaid.
    • Tyranny doesn't happen all at once. It happens by those in power introducing small changes that people accept as normal until it's too late, or slowly boiling the proverbial frog.
    • No one has to fit a narrow definition of the perfect survivor or victim. This is demonstrated best by how beaten Janine, Ofglen, the second Ofglen and Moira are broken by their experience and have their own way of coping. Gets heavily emphasized by June's complete surrender to her Offred identity.
    • Even if many of the Wives don't agree with the more extremist aspects of Gilead and they're lower on the caste system than Commanders, their "moderate" visions of Gilead are still dangerous ingredients.
  • Special Effect Failure: In the Season 3 premiere, it's hilariously obvious that Emily is carrying a doll when she emerges from the river into Canada.
  • Squick:
    • Some of what the Commanders partake in can enter this territory, like when we see a fellow in an elevator, licking a Handmaid's hand stump. Rule 34, indeed.
    • Season 2 actually lets us see the much talked about Colonies, where prisoners are subjected to dangerous radiation levels. This includes a closeup of a woman tearing off her diseased fingernail.
  • They Wasted a Perfectly Good Plot: Several of them
    • Moira: in the book, Moira completely breaks and embraces the hedonistic life at Jezabels and rather than adapt this to give an exploration of this aspect of Gilead, the show has Moira 100% defiant and escapes after only a couple of episodes and end up in Canada.
    • Ofglen II: the idea of someone with a horrible life finding being a Handmaiden an upgrade could have led to some major storyline fodder especially with her and Offred. The plot doesn't get followed up on and the character rendered mute/killed off in season two.
    • Ofglen I for that matter: she's promptly caught at the end of the second episode then caught again two episodes later. We never see the extent of her ties to Mayday or her killing a Guardian at a Salvaging that may have been a double agent for Mayday. Nor her suicide as she decides to take her life than risk being captured by the Eyes.
    • The post-racial society aspect of Gilead also doesn't get explored on the show, as the producers opted to purge the racist element of Gilead to address the novel's plot hole of viable, fertile women of color being shunned by a dictatorship born off of the desire to increase the rate of births.

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