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Dystopian Set Design: The Handmaid’s Tale

Dystopian Set Design: The Handmaid’s Tale

Production designer for The Handmaid’s Tale, Julie Berghoff, said that she wanted the set to prompt a ‘heightened’ sense of reality in the viewer. The result has the singular effect of unfolding Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale in a setting that, as Berghoff envisioned it, is frighteningly familiar. The series has also been swept into the wide river of feminist reactions against parochial oppression under American President Donald Trump, pro-life conservatives, and the ‘religious right’, increasing the relevance of the tale that takes place in a world not unlike our own.

Women dressed up as handmaids protesting two bills that limit abortion options in Texas

Women dressed up as handmaids protesting two bills that limit abortion options in Texas

We explore some of the finer details, and lay out why I think it’s one of the best dystopian sets.

Verdant Set

Has anyone else noticed the central role that plants play, visually, in the Commander’s house? The dining room hosts what looks like a full size tree along one of its walls, apart from many, many other plants. Even the living room has a selection of palms, and Jezebel, Gilead’s equivalent of a gentleman’s club is plants galore. In a world that is suffering the consequences of human intervention in the natural world, paying with apocalyptic infertility, it seems only natural that there is a visible reaction to environmental deterioration- unlike the barren deserts of dystopian Mad Max, for instance, the events in The Handmaid’s Tale unfold in a world that is lush, and has an abundance of flora. On a deeper level, the abundance of green life offers an ironic contrast with humanity’s own, sudden barrenness. A poignant image from the book is the bit where Offred sees Serena Joy cutting off the tulip seed pods,effectively putting a stop to propagation, to make the next bloom better- a metaphor for her own infertility. Offred wishes she had the shears, hinting on an urge to shear off Serena’s beautiful self, to let the tulips pass their genes on.

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Rita lays a vase with flowers in front of Offred when the household suspects that she is pregnant

Rita lays a vase with flowers in front of Offred when the household suspects that she is pregnant

The Style

“I wanted viewers to remember that this isn’t the past or future, it’s now,” Berghoff said, speaking with Curbed. “It has to feel real, like it could happen to you.” Accordingly, the houses are done up in a collage of design styles, dating through Renaissance Europe (always a classic), 1950s America (the checkerboard tiles, the pastel upholstery), and, of course, modern 21st century elements. This, to me, is a glimpse into a world that seems realistically probable. No ultra-sleek hints of an advanced society, which poses hip technology  against imbalances of power as the irony of progress and perfection. Why it works? It is hard to imagine that whole heritages of design sensibilities and aesthetics given down since the beginning of the human civilization would simply be discarded for newer designs, and harder, still, to imagine that the process would be homogenous. As if a progressive update into the future would happen abruptly, in a sweeping motion that completely erases all signs of the past. This is interwoven into the story itself, what with the pious facade of the patriarchy. Ultimately, this also places emphasis on Gilead’s apparent rejection of technology in a strategic resurrection of good ol’ Puritan values, to create an unflinching internal logic of power in a parochial world of suppressed women and commodified female fertility.

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Puritan Imagery

The apocalypse that resulted in dystopian Gilead is not any other standard apocalypse by nuclear explosion, but the destruction of humanity itself.  In other words, it is the destruction of kindness, freedom and equality, all inalienable parts of the human nature. It is the forceful and violent subjugation of more than half the species. And, like several authoritarian regimes that exist today, it is done through appeal to a sacrosanct religious authority. A dormer window shapes the bright sunlight coming into Offred’s room, projecting it like the high windows of a cathedral, which marks the first architectural association between light and divinity. Actress Elisabeth Moss’ (who plays Offred) favorite part of the set, the room itself is a sparse, Puritan-style room. White upholstery drapes one simple metal frame bed, one chair, and, almost like a cruel joke, a study table that Offred will never get to use, since women are forbidden from reading and writing in Gilead.

Offred's Room

Offred’s Room

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The Commander’s Study

The Commander’s study is the room that completes the Puritan appearance- by offering a contrast. it is the opposite of Offred’s room, filled with art, magazines, books and abundant souvenirs of materiality. And this is the room where the Commander lures Offred, and other handmaidens into sins like Scrabble, right under his wife’s nose.

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The Marks of Control

While the ‘Puritan’ agenda was written into the story itself, it is but a front. An evocation of regimes of control and suppression that is the focus of the narrative. “I didn’t want it to be just Christian”, costume designer Ane Crabtree has said as she spoke about the diverse influences that flowed into the colour schemes that so efficiently bring the story to life. The dark, cold red that forms the handmaid’s standard uniform is comes from symbolic totalitarian associations in diverse periods of time, and from diverse parts of the world. That particular red was picked, also, to offer a compliment and simultaneous contrast to the blue of the wives’ uniforms, and stand out from the dull greens of the Marthas’ uniforms.  

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The wives’ and handmaids’ uniforms complement each other

Note, also, how the bakery and the gynecologist’s office, and other public spaces like the prison are blinding expanses of white- the white makes the red handmaids stand out against it, offering them up as subjects to be observed, and analysed, so that judgement can be passed on their usefulness to a higher authority.

At the Doctor's

At the Doctor’s

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Waiting to be examined

Bathroom in the prison

Bathroom in the prison

The Colour Red

When the Handmaids pour out of the supermarket and take to the streets in neat lines in their red robes, the effect is like blood flowing down the streets. Red, like blood, a symbol of life, the uterus, and the womb. But also, red, like the uniform of Soviet POVs who would stand out against the snow if they tried to escape, red, like the red of Nazi bands, red, like the scarlet letter, and red, like the glamorous lipstick of a sinful femme fatale. The red of the handmaid’s uniform makes them stand out, in a society where women are oppressed into inactivity, and kept out the public sphere. In Gilead, the colour red retains a sense of shame, marking these women- not only as valuable assets, but as slaves.

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The Supermarket

Actress Samira Wiley has called the grocery store the creepiest part of the set. Sticking with the dystopia of Gilead’s universe, there are no plastic bags or written labels here. And yet, these elements exist in a supermarket that looks perfectly normal, like the departmental store just down the lane from my house.

The Grocery Store

The Grocery Store

The wordless labels

The wordless labels

The Lighting

Perhaps my favorite part of the ‘hyperreal’ effect masterminded by set designer Berghoff, the scenes in Gilead are bathed, from beginning to end, in a cloud of light. Technically achieved through wide angle exposures with a vintage Canon  K35, along with significant help from 10k molebeams (which arguably offer up a deliciously diffuse glow in parallel beams, like bright but soft sunlight), the soft yet bright lighting transports you instantly into a Puritan world. A world where the sharp edges of reality are blurred away in instrumental piety. The flashbacks often use the narrative contrast of higher saturation, the true reality of a past world that did not hide behind a Puritan facade.

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Mrs. Putnam is bathed in an ethereal light as she pretends to give birth, mimicking a tame version of the reality of the handmaid's labor upstairs

Mrs. Putnam is bathed in an ethereal light as she pretends to give birth, mimicking a tame version of the reality of the handmaid’s labor upstairs

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 Faustina Johnson


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