(Warning: Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments, and the second and third seasons of the TV show follow.)
Aunt Lydia, a high-ranking official in the fictional theocratic Republic of Gilead, is remade as a statue at the outset of the The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s much-anticipated 400-page sequel to her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale.
“Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive,” Aunt Lydia said. “Already I am petrified.”
She’s right to be afraid. As readers of The Handmaid’s Tale well know, it doesn’t take much in Gilead to end up ripped apart by 70 women’s hands in an execution, or hanged and placed on a public wall to rot.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood adeptly told the story of Offred, one of many women captured and forced to be a handmaid, or a sexual slave, in Gilead for male commanders of a group called the Sons of Jacob, who overthrew the United States government and in its place built a misogynist dystopian theocracy.
The first novel ends with Offred—also known as June—getting into a black van that will lead to her execution or escape, depending on the reader.
Except, during the 34-year break between novels, the Hulu original TV-adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, created by Bruce Miller and starring Elisabeth Moss as June, became a hit. As it turned out, June neither escaped nor was executed, but we’ll get to that later.
The plot of The Testaments takes place give-or-take 15 years after the first novel (and television series), when a mole inside Gilead’s regime hatches a plan to take it down from the inside. The sequel was already named to the Booker Prize shortlist last week.
The fast-paced story features three female narrators: Aunt Lydia, a cunning and vengeful founder of Gilead who rose to the top of the new society by collecting and deploying state secrets; June’s daughter Nicole, a 16-year-old living under a false identity who was smuggled to Canada as a baby; and June’s older daughter Agnes Jemima, known in the TV show as Hannah, who was ripped from her mother’s arms at the age of 5 and given to a powerful, childless couple in Gilead.
All three figures have been featured prominently in the television series, where Aunt Lydia is pitch-perfectly portrayed by Ann Dowd.
“Ordinary is what you are used to,” Aunt Lydia tells Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. “This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.”
In Offred’s story, the violence and torture in Gilead become everyday occurrences.
“In a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it,” she muses.
But the sequel has the opposite effect on her daughter, Agnes, who begins The Testaments by chronicling the day-to-day normalcy of her life as a Gileadean child and then grows to question the lies she’s been fed by parents, teachers, and politicians.
Agnes barely remembers her life before Gilead, or the day when she was taken from her birth mother and given to an official called Commander Kyle and his wife, Tabitha. Eventually, though, she realizes that the Bible stories she grew up hearing were edited and manipulated by corrupt leaders to justify their actions.
Not for nothing, it takes nearly 300 pages before a character looks around at a ceremony in Gilead and says: “This place is weird as fuck.”
“You don't believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.”—Aunt Lydia
Though Aunt Lydia was a true villain in The Handmaid’s Tale, she may be the most complex and sympathetic character in The Testaments.
The former school teacher, then judge, saved herself in the early days of Gilead, after she was subjected to both psychological and physical torture. She became an architect of women’s various subservient roles within the regime, and she rose quickly in the political ranks.
“Aunt Lydia’s always been a climber, so she climbed up,” Atwood has said of the character. “She realizes the power of having dirt on people that you don’t reveal publicly.”
But the most exciting moments of the novel occur in the sort of spy-thriller story line about a mysterious mole who is sending secrets to the Mayday resistance in a bid to crush the regime.
“It’s a contrived and heavily stage-managed premise—but contrived in a Dickensian sort of way with coincidences that reverberate with philosophical significance,” wrote Michiko Kakutani, in her New York Times review.
Atwood has said The Testaments is, in part, an attempt to explore what causes totalitarian regimes to fall apart. Like in The Handmaid’s Tale, she uses history to inform her novel, taking real stories from the Nazis’ Lebensborn program and public executions in North Korea to build a genuinely believable Gilead. That’s what makes it so terrifying.
Readers were also privy to more information about international politics this time around, thanks to the diversity of narrators. After the United States fell, the Republic of Texas, for example, “fought Gilead to a standstill, but they don’t want to be invaded” and have since been “avoiding provocations.” Fifteen years after the founding of Gilead, wars were still raging all over North America.
Atwood said she and the show’s creator, Bruce Miller, worked together to make sure that plot and character developments in the series didn’t create “glaring inconsistencies” with the book, but there are a few moments in the story when things don’t quite add up.
For example, in the show, baby Nicole escaped to Canada in the arms of June’s friend Emily, who appeared to be traveling alone when she arrived across the border with the crying infant. In The Testaments, Nicole is told that she was drugged and carried in a backpack by a woman named Ada traveling in a group. If you squint your eyes, maybe they could both have happened.
“We’re stretched thin, all of us; we vibrate; we quiver, we’re always on the alert. Reign of Terror, they used to say, but terror does not exactly reign. Instead it paralyzes. Hence the unnatural quiet.”—Aunt Lydia
The show, which premiered in 2017, had a beautiful and successful first season translating the novel to the screen, and it inspired protesters to use the iconic red cloaks and white bonnets while demonstrating all over the country for women’s reproductive rights.
“When I see those women wearing handmaid costumes and marching and protesting in them, I’m even more proud to put it on,” Moss, who is also an executive producer on the series, has said. “I know what that costume stands for and what it means, and that’s inspiring.”
Once the show became a pop culture phenomenon, it was perhaps inevitable that Kylie Jenner would throw a handmaid-themed party.
But the second and third seasons have been bumpier, and the latter was widely criticized for a slew of problems, including dramatically changing June’s character. She was once an ordinary woman who just wanted to escape a totalitarian regime with her daughter. By the third season, she is a murderer and seemingly fearless resistance leader working to evacuate dozens of refugee children to Canada.
Maybe some of us would have bravely made the transition to badass hero under the circumstances, but would we survive it? Because June has grown some seriously heavy plot armor.
“It’s either a police state or it’s not,” wrote Sophie Gilbert, in The Atlantic. “It can’t be both a brutally efficient disciplinary environment and a world in which June has the freedom to enter any room she pleases, smoke conspiratorial cigarettes with Serena, and kiss her baby’s father, bare-headed, outside the home of an impossibly powerful (and well-guarded) leader of Gilead.”
Even Atwood agreed, in an interview with The New York Times, that it’s “a bit of a problem for people that know about real totalitarianism that some of these characters have survived for as long as they did.”
“Surely they would have been shot by now,” she added. “Quite a few too many people know what June has been up to.”
But the biggest sin perpetrated by the television show is repetition. Again and again, June tries to escape with her daughter(s) and is thwarted. Fingers are cut off, eyes are gouged out, someone is stabbed. Nearly every gruesome episode ends with the same extreme close-up on Elisabeth Moss’s impressively indignant face.
As Kakutani put it, the writers have forced Offred into “a wearisome Groundhog Day loop of tribulations, including several failed escape attempts, repetitious, soap-opera confrontations with Serena and Aunt Lydia and more and more preposterous situations calling for bad-ass heroics.”
But for those still on board with the grisly TV adaptation, viewers may get a fresh start with the silver screen version of The Testaments, which is already in the works.
For now, it’s available as an audiobook narrated by a full cast, including Ann Dowd, Bryce Dallas Howard, Mae Whitman, Derek Jacobi, Tantoo Cardinal, and the author herself.