Since The Handmaid's Tale premiered in April, it's sparked a firestorm of real-world parallels: the systemic dismissal of sexual assault, the seizure of women's rights and bodies, the growing fear of governmental autocracy. But amidst the sea of disquieting scenes that have already come and passed, one of the most unnerving arrives in the show's eighth episode, "Jezebels."
Roughly 20 minutes in, we see a flashback to the first inklings of Gilead's rise, when male evangelists were just beginning to establish the ideals that would later define their patriarchal coup. They operate under the epithet of "Sons of Jacob," an insurgency committed to converting America into a theocratic holy land. Early on, three of its founders — all men — gather for a backseat conference to decide the fate of fertile women — their only hope for keeping mankind alive amid the country's decaying environment.
"It's not rocket science. All remaining fertile women should be collected and impregnated," offers Commander Guthrie, reducing the women to property before throwing in a telling aside: "Those of superior status, of course."
Andrew Pryce, their most devout member, initially balks, but soon resigns to the idea, seemingly assuaging himself by noting there's "scriptural precedence." Commander Waterford, another official, points out that their wives will never accept it as is, and suggests they do some rebranding: their reproductive slaves will be called "handmaids," and their rape, a ritual "ceremony." Guthrie concurs.
"Sounds good," he says. "Nice and godly. The wives would eat that sh*t up."
For fans of The Handmaid's Tale, this moment is critical. It does away with Gilead's religious guise and gives in to male power, at last admitting that it's control, not creed, that drives their oppressive regime.
But it should also resonate with non-viewers, as it recalls another, more immediate image in which a circle of high-ranking men convened to sign away the rights of women. In January, mere days after being sworn into official office, President Donald Trump reinstated the Global Gag Rule, an international policy that strips overseas organizations of their funding for even uttering the word "abortion." It's been implemented by every Republican president since Ronald Reagan in 1984, and every Democratic one since has rescinded it, but Trump's decision attracted added attention for the viral picture that accompanied it: a photo of him signing the executive order as seven men stand by, not a woman in sight.
Against that backdrop, The Handmaid's Tale plays less like a TV show and more like a resounding warning. In modern society, pro-life supporters often tout morality and religion as a rationale for their opposition to abortion, wielding faith and philosophy as reason to set personal beliefs to law. But many see those arguments as an extension of the patriarchal values also present in the Bible — Gilead just pushes those values to an extreme.
And for those who might dismiss such an analogy as propaganda, there is, indeed, "scriptural precedence." In Genesis 30, both Rachel and Leah, unable to conceive, consigned their maidservants to their husbands as stand-in concubines so that they may bear children. If radicals were to interpret that literally, too, Gilead wouldn't be as far-fetched as conservatives have contested —and crucially, women, like the wives in Handmaid's Tale, would be complicit.
In both real-world politics and the fictional dystopia of Handmaid's Tale, there exists a faction of people working to suppress female autonomy, and unfortunately, those people often turn to religion as pretext. America may be a far cry from the archaic authoritarianism of Gilead, but Trump's repeated failure to include women in legislation that infringes on their rights and bodies is too chilling a parallel to ignore. And if that sounds too scary or hysterical or dire, it's meant to — we need something to keep us awake.