Hulu bought the rights to adapt The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, before the book was released. It was an easy choice for the streaming service, which is working on the fourth season of its hugely successful series based on Atwood’s novel about a future where the U.S. has become Gilead, a nation run by religious extremists who have forced fertile women into sexual slavery as Handmaids. But The Testaments could provide Hulu not just with a future series but also a roadmap for how to improve its current one.
The Testaments is set 15 years after the events of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and follows three women connected to that book’s narrator, Offred. Agnes is the daughter she had before the rise of Gilead, who was stolen from her and adopted by the wife of one of the new nation’s Commanders. The teenage Daisy learns that she is actually Nicole, a child Offred conceived as a Handmaid and spirited away to safety in Canada. The most fascinating among the three narrators is Aunt Lydia, the cruel leader of the Handmaid program who serves as a primary villain in both the original book and the Hulu series.
The show’s writers have often focused on examining the way Gilead harms and traps not just the Handmaids but also those ostensibly in power, often attempting to elicit sympathy for rapists, torturers, murderers, and those who condone and are complicit in such crimes. While this has sometimes been met with criticism and disdain in the series, here Atwood pulls that trick off masterfully by recasting Lydia as a figure of intrigue playing a long con to protect what women she can and eventually bring about Gilead’s destruction.
All of the best moments of The Testaments take place in Ardua Hall, a former college now occupied by the Aunts who rule over the female half of Gilead’s society. The book diverges from the pious backstory that the show developed for Lydia and instead shows her as an accomplished judge who’s ripped out of her life and tortured into submission by Gilead’s founders. She’s managed to eke out power for herself and her fellows by appeasing male egos and concocting subtle plots to gain allies and punish enemies. One of her biggest accomplishments was allowing young women who don’t fit in to the strict confines of Gilead to join the Aunts, where they serve as Pearl Girls, missionaries who also act as her spies and recruiters.
Lydia’s plot is so involved that the other protagonists can’t help but feel like flimsy accessories by comparison. Nicole helps provide an outsider’s perspective on Gilead and the Mayday movement devoted to helping the people trapped there, but she reads as a generic dystopian YA protagonist, while Agnes comes across as a character from a feminist fairy tale as she tries to defy her wicked stepmother’s wishes that she marry a powerful Commander whose brides have a history of dying young. While the characters are thin, Atwood breathes life into them with vibrant prose, as in this passage from Agnes’ perspective: “She really did believe that marriage would obliterate her. She would be crushed, she would be nullified, she would be melted like snow until nothing remained of her.”
Atwood expands on the fascinating world-building of The Handmaid’s Tale by examining how life is lived by the rest of the women of Gilead. She’s invented new morbid playground games that have replaced songs about plague with ones about executions. She also imagines new ways for girls to torment each other, with the number of servants, or Marthas, each family has becoming a public token of status. Atwood reveals that while the Commanders may claim responsibility for all the rules and rituals of Gilead, they have merely followed in the paths of so many men before them and coopted women’s work. The Testaments also addresses holes in The Handmaid’s Tale’s plot, like how Gilead would avoid incest if babies are rarely raised by their biological parents.
Hulu’s show has long relied upon portraits of female suffering, and those can certainly still be found in The Testaments. The Handmaid’s Tale has only felt more relevant in recent years, and The Testaments seems particularly keyed in to the #MeToo movement as it reveals that the oppression that the men of Gilead unleash on women is far from limited to official laws like requiring conservative dress and banning them from reading. Handmaids become convenient scapegoats in the schemes of Commanders and their wives, and sexual assault goes unpunished because girls are taught they are to blame for any unwanted advances. Atwood is able to explore these issues in a way that feels honest without being exploitative, making the show feel even more gratuitous by comparison.
Similarly, the show’s presumable mandate to keep the story going for as long as audiences will keep subscribing means that it’s had to constantly invent new setbacks for its characters to allow them to seem to have agency and then strip it away. The primary plot can slow to a crawl, overly padded by stories that only show how miserable things are in Gilead. While The Testaments starts slow, particularly as it builds up its young characters and gets them to the point when they can actively participate in Lydia’s schemes, the novel eventually delivers powerful drama that strips away the gray of moral relativism and lets its heroes shine through feats of courage, sacrifice, and cunning.
Both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments end on a hopeful note, something that’s desperately needed after so many pages filled with horror and despair. If The Handmaid’s Tale was about one woman desperately trying to reclaim some scrap of agency and largely relying on the mercy of others, The Testaments is a far more empowering story of three women working together to make a difference for themselves and the world. It’s the sort of story that readers and viewers could use more of at a time when Gilead seems closer than ever.