The morning after Donald Trump’s shock victory in the 2016 presidential election, Elisabeth Moss woke up and headed to Toronto’s Cinespace Film Studios. She was shooting the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of the dystopian Margaret Atwood novel about a group of Christian fundamentalists who, amid an environmental collapse that has caused birth rates to plummet, overthrow the U.S. government and force the few remaining fertile women to bear their children.
Suddenly, the scene on the schedule that day felt freighted with new meaning: “We only wanted to make the world better,” Joseph Fiennes’ Fred Waterford, a commander in the show’s fascist police state, tells Moss’ Offred, his state-assigned baby incubator. “Better?” she asks. He smiles. “Better never means better for everyone,” Commander Waterford explains. “It always means worse for some.”
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“Hearing that line the day of those election results was incredibly surreal,” Moss says today. But it would be only the first of many such moments over the next four years. By the time the series premiered in April 2017, Trump’s triumph, and the backlash and turmoil it begat, served as an accidental marketing stunt. Overnight, the fictional handmaids’ voluminous crimson robe and white bonnet, already a symbol of the threat to women’s rights, became ubiquitous at protests in America and around the world.
Handmaids materialized that year not just at South by Southwest, where they were paid by the streaming giant to promote its new series, but weeks later in a gallery of the Texas Senate, as lawmakers voted new abortion restrictions into law. They appeared outside the New Hampshire statehouse to protest a legislator’s comments about rape on a Redpill forum. They stood on the steps of a Belfast courthouse, marched outside the Palace of the Argentine National Congress in Buenos Aires, and trailed Donald Trump on trips abroad to Warsaw and London. By year’s end, Atwood’s novel, originally published in 1985, was Amazon’s most-sold book.
Supporters of Planned Parenthood protest a health-care bill outside the Capitol on June 27, 2017.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Back in 2017, the show felt at once like a warped, fun-house mirror reflection of the times and a soothing balm. The Trump administration was packed with religious zealots launching manifold attacks on women’s rights, but at least no one was being subjected to state-sanctioned rape, psychological torture, and conscripted child-bearing, as Moss’ Offred (real name: June) and her fellow handmaids were in the nation of Gilead. As Atwood puts it, “No matter how bad you’re feeling about what has happened, at least it’s not there.” Critics were effusive in their praise of the series, which went on to win Emmys that year for acting, writing, directing, and Outstanding Drama Series.
But as Trump’s time in office wore on, whatever subversive thrill there was in watching and quoting and cosplaying The Handmaid’s Tale held began to wear off. As the reality of living in a society where your rights were slowly being chipped away set in, watching June, trapped in an endless loop of thwarted escape attempts and torture became a painful grind — almost like a serialized, slightly higher-brow Saw film.
“We don’t do the ripped-from-the-headlines kind of thing,” Moss notes. “We tell these human stories.” But, she adds, “We have always focused on telling them honestly and, because of that, they’ve somehow mirrored what is going on in the real world.”
Trump’s America wasn’t quite Atwood’s Gilead, but the similarities were sometimes eerie. Trump officials wrote rules limiting insurance coverage for birth control and prohibiting doctors from discussing abortion with their patients. They erased mentions of contraception, abortion, and sex education from policy papers, narrowed the Justice Department definitions of domestic violence and sexual assault, and scrubbed pages devoted to lesbian and bisexual women’s issues from the government health sites.
At other times, reality was even more macabre than anything the writers room could come up with. Trump’s Office of Refugee Resettlement — the department charged with taking care of underage migrants apprehended at the Southern border — kept a spreadsheet tracking the gestation period of pregnant girls in its custody. When one teenage detainee began the two-pill process to abort her pregnancy, Trump officials intervened in an attempt to “reverse” her abortion.
By 2018, even the Handmaid’s Coalition, a self-described “network of groups focused on Handmaid’s Tale-themed political demonstrations” seemed exhausted by the sheer volume of outrages to protest. The moderator of the group’s Facebook page stopped posting the night Beto O’Rourke lost his Texas Senate race to Ted Cruz; the website is now defunct. Around the same time, TV critics began to sour on the show, whose second season extends beyond the events of Atwood’s book: June escapes but is captured; she watches as her friends are tortured and killed; she has the prospect of seeing her daughter dangled and yanked away again and again. One writer announced she was quitting The Handmaid’s Tale, declaring that “in an infuriating and grotesque reversal, Atwood’s feminist allegory has turned instead into a showcase of female abuse.”
Neither Atwood nor Moss have much use for those criticisms. “Female abuse is a gigantic part of the story, and I think it would be quite cowardly and two-faced to shy away from it,” Moss says. “It’s important to face those stories head-on, to give them a voice. It’s important to tell them honestly — and if that’s not for you? Totally fine. I don’t care.”
Atwood takes a similar view. “History is hard to watch,” she says. “The present moment is hard to watch, which is why a lot of people don’t watch it. What is happening to the Uighurs in China — all of these things are hard to watch, if you have a personality that includes empathy, which most people do. Unless they’re psychopaths.”
With Season Four debuting for the first time in a post-Trump world, The Handmaid’s Tale could finally be liberated from comparisons to his administration, free to be entertainment again. Trailers have strongly suggested that we will see June escape to Canada, and audiences, at least, seem hopeful: More than a million people streamed the premiere on April 28th, making it the most-watched episode ever of a Hulu original.
But as the episodes unfold, the twist remains the same as ever: No matter how far June makes it — to the war front in Chicago or beyond — she can never truly escape Gilead. “It’s not like you can just leave one place, go to a different [place], and everything’s going to be fine,” says Moss, who directed three episodes of the new season. “June has seen so much, has been through so much, that she can’t go back. Even though she has this freedom, quote-unquote, you can create a prison anywhere. You can be in a prison in your own home, you can be in a prison in your own family. That’s something that June, unfortunately, has to deal with.”
The Handmaid’s Tale has always served as a warning, even when real-world events hewed dangerously close to its fictional narrative. If there is a lesson in the fourth season, perhaps it’s that our escape from Trump and all he represents is just as fragile and illusory as June’s. The man may not occupy the White House anymore, but his shadow still looms large.
Atwood was often asked in the early days of the Trump administration how to identify if you were living in a country that had unexpectedly slipped into totalitarianism. Her answer was, you’ll know when they open fire on the protesters. It was supposed to be reassuring on some level: If there were still women’s marches, and protests at airports, and demonstrators in red robes and white bonnets, well, then it wasn’t as bad as it could be — yet.
But Atwood’s answer hits a little differently this year, as Republican lawmakers in states around the country are advancing measures that would protect drivers who hit demonstrators with their cars from criminal and even civil liability. This only a couple years after a 20-year-old neo-Nazi plowed his car into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing a young woman named Heather Heyer. Such attacks are on the rise: One researcher counted 72 instances of cars driving into protesters across 52 different cities in the last year alone.
Told of the new laws, which have already gone into effect in Oklahoma and Florida, even Atwood isn’t sure what to make of them: “So they’re legalizing murder? That’s the name for it: murder. You might as well just go out in the Night of the Long Knives, and knock on people’s doors and shoot them.”
“Well, that’s pretty horrific,” she adds, before searching, somewhat unconvincingly, for an upside. “I don’t think it will stand up to a Supreme Court challenge. Meanwhile, a lot of people are going to get run over by cars.”
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