• Elisabeth Moss as Offred in 'The Handmaid’s Tale'. (SBS)Source: SBS
Everything you need to know before watching the adaptation of Margaret Atwood's classic novel.
Laura Hudson

5 Jul 2017 - 12:11 PM  UPDATED 18 Apr 2018 - 3:34 PM

As it grows ever harder to distinguish between dystopian fiction and reality, the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — one of the great works of unsettling near-future fiction — is back for season 2 at SBS.

Originally published in 1985, Atwood’s novel imagined a United States where democracy has been overthrown by a totalitarian military theocracy. Now called the Republic of Gilead, this new fundamentalist Christian government imposes an extreme interpretation of the Bible on society, one that violently curtails human rights in general and women’s rights in particular.

Watch the first episode of The Handmaid's Tale here:

There’s a lot of biblical reference and world-specific jargon — Handmaids! Angels! Eyes! — so if you want to hit the ground running when the series premieres, here’s a quick primer on the the world and vocabulary of The Handmaid’s Tale.

The story is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, though it isn’t called that anymore, and our protagonist is Offred, who has been assigned as Handmaid to a high-ranking official known as the Commander. Per the new laws of Gilead, women are considered the property of men and are not permitted to vote, possess money of their own or read. As the coup was fairly recent, all the women we encounter in The Handmaid’s Tale — including Offred — grew up in an America like our own, and thus have to be brutally indoctrinated into their new status as possessions, servants and walking baby incubators.

One of the major factors behind the societal shift is a dramatic decline in the birth rate, said to be caused by pollution and radiation. Pregnancies are rare, and even when they do occur, there’s always a significant risk it might be what they call an Unbaby — a child badly or fatally afflicted with birth defects. That makes women who have had healthy babies incredibly valuable commodities and indeed that is how they are treated.

Although all women are considered subordinate to men, they are afforded different levels of privilege or hardship depending on their social status, marital status, age, skills and fertility. Every woman is assigned a function — because what are women in this world except what they can do for men — and must dress in the assigned colours of their station.

Wives are the highest category a woman can hope to achieve, a role that permits them a level of social standing and humanity. Wives of the ruling class dress in blue, a colour associated with the Virgin Mary, while working-class wives — sometimes called Econowives — wear both blue and green to signify their lower status. Green is also the colour worn by Marthas, women who work as domestic servants. (Their name is taken from a New Testament story about a woman named Martha who ran around doing all the work while her sister, Mary, got to sit and chill with Jesus.)

Aunts are older, unmarried women who have fully drunk the Kool-Aid about Gilead and the joys of female subordination, and aren’t opposed to a little sadism in the name of God’s glory. They’re the female enforcers tasked with reeducating and controlling the Handmaids, sometimes with the use of cattle prods and mutilation. They also assist with births, so their responsibilities really run the gamut. Their special colour is brown.

Then there are the Handmaids, who are neither prostitutes nor wives, but in some ways experience the worst of both worlds. Typically, they are women who have violated a social law or committed a “gender crime” but are saved from their supposed sins by their fertility. They are given an opportunity to “redeem” themselves by becoming breeders for ruling-class men whose wives cannot bear children. While this might seem odd in the context of Gilead’s excruciating piety about sexuality and marriage, its leaders claim this role is scripturally inspired by the biblical story of Jacob and his wife, Rachel. Even their names are signifiers of ownership — Offred is currently a possession “of Fred”, a sobriquet that changes at each assignment.

The Handmaids wear red — the colour of blood and shame and being real sexy — along with white blinders that restrict their peripheral vision and shield their faces. They are impregnated in a ritual known as the Ceremony, where a Handmaid sits in the Wife’s lap while the husband has sex with her. It’s as creepy and upsetting as it sounds.

Handmaids who have healthy children are assigned to new men, but they are also saved from the fate of being labelled as an Unwoman, something you very much want to avoid in a society where gender roles are policed with lethal force. Indeed, this is the very worst thing you can be, as it means that you have failed at your only purpose — making babies and being submissive — and thus you are shipped off to the labour camps in an ominously-named region called the Colonies, where you clean up toxic waste until you die. (Unwomen are not to be confused with “gender traitors”, aka queer people, whose lives are also forfeited.)

So who’s behind this brave new world of ritualised rape and colour-coded outfits? We’re told the Republic of Gilead began as a far-right fundamentalist movement called Sons of Jacob — a reference, again, to Jacob and Rachel — who staged an attack that killed the president and much of Congress. They blamed the massacre on terrorists, then used the resulting panic to consolidate their power with minimal resistance by suspending the Constitution, and providing safety and security against an invented threat.

The frontline soldiers of Gilead are referred to as Angels or Guardians of the Faith, but most terrifying of all are the Eyes, who are essentially the KGB of Gilead. They’re known for appearing in black vans and snatching people off the street for interrogation, arrest and execution. The Eyes also work as spies who insert themselves into everyday positions to surveil the populace. In theory, anyone you meet could be an Eye, which means you can’t trust anyone.

Although Atwood’s novel was first adapted into a film in 1990, the series delves deeper into the life of Offred, played in the series by Elisabeth Moss, both before and after the horrors of Gilead started to descend.


The Handmaid’s Tale 2 airs on SBS and SBS On Demand 8.30pm, from Thursday April 26. #HandmaidsTale

Catch up on The Handmaid’s Tale and binge season one on SBS On Demand now!

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This article originally appeared on Vulture ©2017 All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.