Recently, both Starz’s American Gods and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale wrapped their debut seasons. Both shows have been acclaimed for their focus on relevant political issues, such as women’s rights, the spread of fascism, and the dangers of religious extremism. But what makes both shows pressingly important in 2017 is that they’re driven by a single focus: demonstrating the danger in the creeping normalization of a hostile ideology.
On their faces, both shows share some basic similarities. They’re both adaptations of classic speculative-fiction novels, and both explore the role religion plays in the United States. Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood has explained that her novel, in which a religious regime turns fertile women into sexual slaves called Handmaids, isn’t a dramatic leap from reality. As she conceived of its story, she incorporated historical statements and behavior. Meanwhile, American Gods explores the generational gap between traditional, mythological gods and the new generation, as the prayers of believers shift from one to the other. Essentially, both shows acknowledge unsettling futures, then set out to ask, “How did we get here? How did this become the status quo?”
American Gods opens with a dramatic scene as a group of Vikings journey to North America, where they’re isolated from their gods and surrounded by hostile natives. Later, immigrants headed to the New World bring their old gods, who follow their believers to the cultural melting pot of the United States. In the present day, those old gods (Czernobog, Bilquis, and others) face an existential crisis. Their worshipers have abandoned them for a new pantheon: Technical Boy, Media, and Mr. World. Wednesday (secretly Odin) has recognized this threat, and he hires a troubled convict to help him recruit other gods, many of whom haven’t realized the threat to their existence. Some have adapted to the new world. Vulcan finds new worshippers in the form of a factory town supporting an arms manufacturer. Easter points to America’s annual commercial celebration of her holiday as a way to sustain her. But few of the old gods grasp how perilous their existence is. They’re being broken down by the slow shift in humanity’s theology, and they must be convinced to fight for their own survival.
The Handmaid’s Tale addresses societal shifts and the dangers of creeping normalization just as directly. The show primarily follows a Handmaid known as Offred, using flashbacks to establish the rise of the authoritarian, theocratic regime known as the Republic of Gilead. The series demonstrates the everyday pre-theocracy interactions that erode women’s rights and dignity, from Offred and her friend Moira being demeaned as sluts to a person judging their skin-baring outfits while they’re exercising. These interactions build to more substantial measures: women’s bank accounts are frozen, they’re fired from their jobs, and those who are still able to bear children are rounded up and pressed into service as Handmaids. Aunt Lydia, a member of a class responsible for the Handmaids’ indoctrination, comments directly: “I know this must feel very strange,” she tells her trainees, “but ordinary is just what you’re used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now. But after a time, it will.”
Her prediction is repeated in the show’s sixth episode, “A Woman’s Place,” as Handmaids are cleaning a wall where the state left the corpses of executed prisoners. A Handmaid known as Ofwarren thinks the wall looks strange without the bodies: “I guess you get used to things being one way,” she observes, as blood washes off the concrete. Later, when Offred confronts a Mexican diplomat hoping to establish trade relations with Gilead, she lays out their situation: handmaids are have been imprisoned and raped, and are being reduced to a tradable commodity. The representative simply responds that her hometown hasn’t had a birth in six years.
While both shows were in production long before the election of President Trump in November 2016, their debut comes amid widespread criticism that the administration’sextremeviewsarebeing normalized and accepted. Journalists and historians have extensively compared the present administration’s behavior with the behavior of past genocidal regimes. The Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods fit with this messaging, each warning that Normal is never really a fixed state. The goalposts for what’s socially acceptable or politically expedient are continually moved, and it’s up to observers to keep providing reminders that they’ve shifted, and that “status quo” isn’t a moral imperative with any weight.
In both Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods, the world has reached a crisis point. In the latter show, it’s the declining state of the gods’ existence, threatened through the slow erosion of belief in anything but money and technology. In the former, it’s come through a genocidal, patriarchal government where the brutal treatment of women is explained away, first as a return to traditional religious values, and later, as a dire necessity for the health of the human race and the planet. In both instances, these dramatic changes come about in small increments. Hardliners push their views on society, taking advantage of the fear the populace feels about the changing world around them. Convenience, self-indulgence, and efficacy replace faith: it’s easier to fire up your television than to go to church every week, or to kill a bull mechanically, rather than manually. In both cases, people only try to enact change when they realize how far they’ve drifted from a past norm, and they quickly realize that it’s probably too late to go back in time.
Both The Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods ended their first seasons with the promise of further challenges ahead for the cast. Wednesday, aided by Easter, threatens all-out war against the new gods. Offred, taken by the authorities, is left at a crisis point and a cliffhanger for the new season. Both shows have teased out worlds that slowly drifted toward a critical crossroads, and they’ve both paused at a pregnant moment, where the characters have a chance to push back against those in power. As of this moment, they both feel like they’re hanging on the precipice. It remains to be seen whether they tilt backward toward normalcy, hope, and a positive path for the future, or just fall over the edge.
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