Film & TV

Art for Politics’ Sake

The Handmaid’s Tale (George Kraychyk/Hulu)
The Americans and The Handmaid’s Tale show the difference between craft and propaganda.

Never mind their clubbiness, pretension, tawdriness, moral vanity, fetishization of ideology, and stone ignorance regarding how tens of millions of Americans live and think. The men and women who run Hollywood do occasionally get things right.

Take, for example, The Americans, the Cold War tragedy that finished a six-year run on FX last week. Despite the stated intentions of its creators (“We want you to root for the KGB”), The Americans consistently challenged the hard Left’s “memory” of an unthreatening and ultimately benevolent Soviet Union. Its depiction of the FBI (several major characters portrayed agents of the Bureau) was unsparing but mostly fair. Crucially, it made no effort to veil its chief (indeed inevitable) conclusion: that Communism demands endless sacrifices, rewards none of them, and spins the gold of its adherents’ constancy and love of country into the dross of self-loathing and ruin. In short, the show was art. Though imperfect, it offered a nuanced, idiosyncratic, and often thrilling take on a historical moment whose lessons we are already beginning to forget.

At the other end of the spectrum, alas, lies The Handmaid’s Tale, which would need marked improvement merely to rise to the level of propaganda.

As has been breathlessly discussed in every periodical from The New Yorker to Teen Vogue, The Handmaid’s Tale concerns the travails of Offred, a young wife and mother kidnapped by agents of a theocratized America for the purpose of ritualized rape and forced surrogacy. A critique of Islam that believes itself to be a critique of Christianity, The Handmaid’s Tale has all the subtlety of a Joy Reid blog post, sublimating its writers’ verboten sharia anxiety (stoning! child marriage! female genital mutilation!) into a ridiculous — but socially acceptable — anti-Evangelicalism.

Like The Americans, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of how its protagonists’ identities are subjugated into impersonal systems that elevate political ends (increasing the fertility rate, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat) above even rudimentary personal concerns. The difference is that while Offred is a captive in bleak, joyless “Gilead,” The Americans’ Philip and Elizabeth Jennings — Soviet agents working undercover in suburban Washington — chose their fate and choose it anew with every illicit act. The Handmaid’s Tale, in other words, is about victimization. The Americans is about the victimization of oneself. The latter approach leads to tension, intrigue, and drama. The former makes for a painful (and ultimately tedious) political cudgel.

The Handmaid’s Tale Elisabeth Moss lamented that the people of Gilead allowed themselves to be enslaved because they ‘didn’t have the truth being told to them,’ presumably by people like Elisabeth Moss.

In retrospect, it’s interesting, and perhaps not quite a coincidence, that the two shows shared more than a calendar year of run-time, with The Handmaid’s Tale premiering in the middle of The Americans’ penultimate season. Both programs are plainly intended for the literate, largely progressive audiences who seek out prestige television. Both make use of talented female leads: Keri Russell in the case of The Americans and Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale. Both rely on a strange 1980s anti-nostalgia (Margaret Atwood’s source novel was published in 1985), as well as the idea that that decade’s events and worries are newly relevant. But, again, one of the shows is a milestone of televised historical fiction, while the other is a pile of hot garbage.

Why is that?

The answer, I think, has much to do with the assumptions of the shows’ creators. Reading interviews with the cast of The Handmaid’s Tale, one can’t help but notice the recurring theme of public service — the notion that, in the age of Trump, progressives of goodwill simply can’t take for granted that we rubes will hold on to our most basic freedoms. Hence Elisabeth Moss’s un-ironic lament (to TVGuide.com of all places) that the people of Gilead allowed themselves to be enslaved because they ‘didn’t have the truth being told to them,’ presumably by people like Elisabeth Moss. Hence the characterization, by series regulars Yvonne Strahovski and Samira Wiley, in separate interviews, of The Handmaid’s Tale as “a warning sign.” Hence Margaret Atwood’s claim, in a widely read essay in the New York Times, that “anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances.” The hyper-literalists at Vanity Fair helpfully summarized the author’s thoughts under the headline “Margaret Atwood Says The Handmaid’s Tale Was a Warning for the Trump Era,” but, really, did they need to spell it out? With all the warnings flying about, I’m ready to burn a Bible every time I see a pregnant woman.

Here’s the thing, furthermore, about warnings: One doesn’t send them out unless one knows something, and knowing something — as opposed to investigating it, learning it, teasing it out one fine thread at a time — leads to terrible, unwatchable didacticism. To un-art. The makers of The Americans may have tossed reporters a bit of pro-Soviet silliness (though one wonders if that wasn’t a publicity stunt, given the fact that “we want you to root for the FBI” would secure exactly zero viewers). But the actual TV show they produced had audiences rooting for no one and everyone simultaneously. It didn’t always know what it meant — unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, which feels as if it’s keeping a moral scorecard on the guys in charge of changing Gilead’s lightbulbs — and that fact redounded to its great, great credit.

How the Right should proceed in this age of near-total progressive cultural hegemony is a question for better heads than mine, but one thing seems to me fairly certain. Art made by denizens of the Left can be engaging, complicated, and frequently surprising. Content produced in the specific service of the #Resistance is dreary as hell. Unless conservatives plan on seizing the engines of the entertainment industry tomorrow, we had better start appreciating those distinctions.

Graham Hillard — Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.

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