This article contains spoilers about the first few episodes of Season 5 of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Four episodes into the fifth season of The Handmaid’s Tale, not much has changed. We still don’t really know how Gilead works. Approximately 15 percent of the show’s runtime remains devoted to closeups of Elisabeth Moss making intense faces. And I’m still watching.
But this season, I’ve been struck by something I should have noticed much earlier: There is next to no surveillance in Gilead.
It’s been particularly noticeable this season. When Serena Joy Waterford returns to Gilead for her husband’s funeral, she stays in a hotel. There, at one point, she has a quiet conversation with her American minder, Mark Tuello. My first reaction was to think: No! It’s like you’re in North Korea! Everything in that room will be bugged! Yet to avoid being overheard, all they have to do is whisper. In another scene, Tuello meets secretly with a Gilead commander in the woods. Where is the throwaway line about being careful about potential GPS trackers? Or street cameras equipped with license plate readers?
And that helped crystallize for me that surveillance has been missing all along. Technologically, it’s as though Gilead is stuck in 1985, when Margaret Atwood wrote the novel the show is based on—except the book does include a certain level of electronic communication, in the form of devices called Computalks. And even in 1985, the Soviet Union was bugging hotel rooms.
Yet in the show, the only communication we see takes place by radio and telephone. Gilead, we are told repeatedly, is a poor country, isolated economically by sanctions and still rebuilding from the overthrow of the U.S. government. But the idea of a 21st century authoritarian country with virtually no digital surveillance is a puzzle. Perhaps such a new fascist country might not have smartphones or the internet for use by everyday people, sure. You can see them making a religious argument against consumer use of technology, and telecommunications networks would have been severely damaged in the war. In a map of Gilead, Silicon Valley appears to be held by rebels.
Still, Gilead would have inherited at least some of the surveillance technologies that the U.S. government, law enforcement, and even corporations use today. And even if the government told citizens that using technology was religiously forbidden, the main thing we know about Gilead is that it is built on hypocrisy: As they preach sexual repression, the elite men are allowed to frequent a brothel. There’s no reason to think that the leadership wouldn’t have turned on what equipment remained or smuggled other devices in from overseas. Sure, putting them to use without existing infrastructure would be challenging. But while they may not be a majority, there’s no shortage of male tech workers with deeply misogynistic views who might have welcomed an opportunity to put their skills to use in Gilead. How could a regime that is obsessed with controlling people—especially women—resist the opportunity to eavesdrop on every whisper and track every step?
In fact, the only time we really see a discussion about surveillance in the show this season comes when Serena, returned to Canada, is told that the country doesn’t plan to keep her under surveillance. In return, she’s a little snarky about regaining her privacy. And later, when she’s concerned about her safety, her body guard and facilitator assures her that there are cameras at her residence to protect her.
Hopefully, this may change in The Testaments, the new Hulu show that will debut after The Handmaid’s Tale sixth and last season. In the novel The Testaments, which was published in 2019, there are brief mentions of technological eavesdropping.
Is it silly to expect realism from a dystopic show like The Handmaid’s Tale? For sure. But given how often people use the show as a warning about what a future without rights for women looks like, it’s worth remembering that in some ways, the reality of a Gilead would be even worse than it appears.
Here are some stories from the recent past of Future Tense:
Future Tense Fiction
September’s story was “Yellow,” by B. Pladek, and asks: What if every decision you made came with a risk score—and what if you and your family couldn’t agree on how to interpret those scores? In the response essay, Lorens Helmchen, an expert on health economics and predictive analytics, writes, “When risks like these suddenly become visible to us, we must ask: What do we each gain by tracking them?”
Wish We’d Published This
“Would You Ditch All This Chaos for a Country in the Cloud?” by Anthony Lydgate, Wired.
Future Tense Recommends
Let me be clear: I am a sucker who pays for way too many streaming services. But I’m thrilled that I decided to splurge on Peacock, because it brought me my favorite non-Yellowjackets show of the 2020s: The Resort. Starring William Jackson Harper (who played Chidi on The Good Place) and Cristin Milioti (who co-starred in Palm Springs, which was written by The Resort creator Andy Siara), the show is about a couple who head to Mexico to celebrate their 10th anniversary, despite a tragedy that haunts their marriage. When Milioti finds an old dumb cellphone, she pulls herself and her husband into the mysterious disappearances of two tourists in 2007. I can’t say much more without giving it away, but it’s a compelling, funny, suspenseful show—so good that it’s worth getting a free trial of Peacock to watch it.
What Next: TBD
On Friday’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast, guest host Mary C. Curtis talks to a Texas woman who was forced by a government program to move after her long-time community suffered major flooding damage in Hurricane Harvey. Last week, Lizzie O’Leary and Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern talked about the looming Supreme Court showdown over new social media laws from Florida and Texas. She also interviewed former Slatester Joshua Keating, now of Grid, about how European countries are rethinking their stance on nuclear energy. On Sunday’s episode, Lizzie will host a mini-debate between William MacAskill, author of the new book What We Owe the Future, and journalist Robert Wright about “longtermism” vs. “short-termism.”