(Spoilers for Handmaid’s Tale Season 2, episodes 1-10)
Religion is the backbone of the horrifying dystopia that is Gilead in the Handmaid’s Tale. Christianity, in particular, is used as justification for the most heinous of crimes and acts of subjugation. (As it has been, so tragically, in our own world lately.)
So why, then, after watching episodes from season 2, am I left feeling strangely closer to a semi-religious faith than I have been in years? The key, I think, is that as with all great art the Handmaid’s Tale does not tell, it shows. It deftly, subtly, shows juxtapositions of faith used terribly and faith used beautifully.
One way it does this is through prayer. In the second episode, “Unwomen,” we see the perverted prayer we’ve come to expect in this world. The prayers are puppeted words saturated with Orwellian hypocrisy – for example, when women dying in the nuclear wasteland are forced to kneel and pray.
But then we see June, coping with her devastating discovery that her hide-out, the Boston Globe building, was the site of a massacre. What eventually helps her start to heal is setting up a shrine with candles and the deceased reporters’ belongings. We even hear her say in complete sincerity, “God, by whose mercy the faithful departed, please send Your Holy Angel to watch over this place.” The contrast between the prayers couldn’t be more stark. And it’s so effective and effecting, it’s earth shattering. It knocks your cynical socks off.
And then there are the weddings the fifth episode, “Seeds.” In it we see a chilling group marriage ceremony. Brides clad and covered in pure white parade in front of grooms deemed worthy of a woman. When they take off the veils, we see they are actually child brides. It’s chilling and deeply disturbing – just what you’d expect from your dystopia.
But then later in the episode we see a makeshift wedding performed in the nuclear wasteland Colonies. Two women have found love in that horrific life and the mad but sincere Jeannine plots to bring them together. With a few wildflowers and a caring female rabbi, the two share a tender, touching commitment ceremony – right before one dies the next morning (this is the Handmaid’s Tale, after all).
And then there’s the episode I most recently watched, episode 10. Oh, episode 10. What a gut punch. Again, horrifying, horrifying acts are committed, and this time quotes from the Bible are said at the same time. It makes you sick to think of even being in church.
But then, there’s June’s rebuttal to Serena Joy’s vapid utterances that their taking June’s baby is part of God’s will. In a moment of rebellion, June replies, “No one knows the things of God.” When I first heard it, I just thought it was an apt and astute rebuttal – and a pretty good sum-up of my rather agnostic philosophies. But then I googled it – and lo and behold, the quote actually is from the Bible, from Corinthians.
Somehow, the tired old scripture I’ve known so long managed to surprise me – wisdom and insight springing back at me from the mouth of our beloved, wise heroine. This was no sermon that tells and tells the same things again and again – this is a form of art that simply and perfectly shows bad faith and good faith, and why you want the latter.
We’ll see where it all goes, but somehow this theocratic religious dystopia has left me feeling a bit warmer towards religion – or at least, towards faith, faith in the sense of a thoughtful, determined, humble hope. That hope finds strength and direction in kindness, in comfort, in respect, in diversity and in understanding.
Edit: The last episodes only reaffirmed the pro-faith bent… the juxtaposition of Eden’s death sentence by Exodus, followed by her stubborn clinging to “Love is patient, love is kind”… and the crosses in the pool! And in the end, the women’ fight to read the bible for themselves.
And if that hope and faith exists in Gilead, if June can maintain it in her battered, bruised heart – then maybe we can hold it in our hearts too. For that reason, as much as it beats you down, the Handmaid’s Tale might actually lift you up a bit more. Perhaps – though I shudder to even say it – there is a balm in Gilead.