There is a strange disconnect in seeing your city as the backdrop of a dystopia. It is the Toronto that I see every day, the tan cement slabs I walk on with my worn sneakers that Offred–once known as June, once a free woman–walks in Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Against familiar skylines does Margaret Atwood’s modern classic novel unfold, a new layer to add to the chilling reality that audiences are now tuning in for every week. It’s home, and yet not.
Unlike most TV shows that shoot their episodes on the streets of Toronto, it’s not as easy to see the Six in The Handmaid’s Tale. For all intents and purposes, the things that make Toronto recognizable have been buffed away, smoothed into sepia during June’s flashbacks. The production is careful to shield the CN Tower from view, at least within the first four episodes–time will tell if it makes an appearance later on. But there are still moments that beckon to those of us who call Toronto home, little nudges that elicit uneasy recognition of what is, what could be.
As June (Elisabeth Moss) and Moira (Samira Wiley) run under a bridge in Leslieville, they are met with a glare from another woman. She eyes the sweat running down their exposed necklines, and her face contorts in disgust. It’s not an impossibility, not an instance of complete strangeness, not yet. The rude barista in the coffee shop is much more noticeable, their unbelievable–or at least it was once–interaction with him burning more of a memory in June and Moira’s minds. That’s how it starts, the show seems to say: with the moments we pass off as a fleeting madness in the middle of a city alive.
Toronto isn’t a calm or gentle city, not in the same way as the disguise it wears on The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s loud–even now I hear sirens and the never ending sounds of cranes on concrete as I write this. It’s boisterous and bright. We are a loud city, a city that cheers for basketball games and baseball games and hosts comic conventions, a city that moves on trains, inside subways, planes rattling the ground of the Island as they take off from Billy Bishop Airport.
June’s city was loud once.
Silences were uncommon, but not out of the question. There was a hum to the city that June knew before Gilead, a hum I hear even in the soft blue light of Ripley’s Aquarium as June watches her daughter. Hannah (Jordana Blake) is young still, a child preoccupied by the glow of jellyfish and the leashed danger of a shark behind glass. Luke (O-T Fagbenle) is a steady presence, his little family circling around him.
When June thinks of this memory, she thinks of it in the bath, in the silence she claims as her own. The aquarium has never been silent to me. When I think of it, as June does, it’s the laughter I remember. Hearing children laugh as they point out the strange fish in their sight, hearing their excited cries as teachers herd them, two by two into the tunnel of water and glass to gawk at the ocean under their fingertips. It’s the sight of the CN Tower behind the polygonal white corners of the aquarium that I see, the banners of the Blue Jays waving in the wind. We lose a playoff series, we speak of “next year,” of “getting better every time we get closer.”
I think of possibilities. June prays–her only prayer–for them.
She doesn’t pray when the worst comes, you see.
It comes to pass too quickly, too like the roll of snow squalls against the lake in February. The Harbourfront goes pale, wears its coat of flakes in awkward, unfamiliar shapes. So too does June find herself unemployed, unprofessional, unable to purchase a simple coffee, undone. There is a gentle shellshock to her face when it happens, her initial confusion and outrage coalescing all too quickly into disbelief, as the afternoon sun fades behind the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
Her office could be any other office, the kitchen white and just the kind of messy that belies an impromptu afternoon escape for coffee and pecking at fruits from a morning meeting. It could be any other office, in any other city, but it is Toronto I see as June follows her co-workers out of the elevator and into the lobby and out into the sunshine.
They are streets I know, streets I have walked with other women, my friends and I as we make our way to conventions, to movie theatres, to one of four Starbucks along the same stretch of road. Did June eat at that Sunset Grill across the street when she was craving breakfast for lunch? Did she find herself annoyed when the escalators broke down, and the pharmacy required a long walk around the courtyard? Silly questions, perhaps, but questions that helped me find a way into this series that both invites and revolts me.
In every other show I have seen that has unabashedly featured Toronto, I have felt that spark of recognition. “This is your home,” they seem to say, even if my streets are dressed as New York or Washington D.C. or London or Hong Kong. Margaret Atwood moves in Toronto as I do–I have passed her on the street and in office building lobbies much like the one June leaves on that fateful final day of freedom. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Toronto is revised and redone as Gilead, and it is harder to hear the call of home. Hard not because it is strange, but because it isn’t, not so much, not really. It is all too easy to find Gilead in the spaces we leave unexplored.