The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s highly anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, is finally here, continuing the author’s near-future dystopian story about women forced into servitude under a religious autocracy that has taken over parts of the United States. The sequel, which picks up 15 years after the events of the first novel, was released on Sept. 10 by McClelland & Stewart and has already been optioned for a TV adaptation by Hulu, which is three seasons into an Emmy-winning adaptation of the original novel. So, what exactly is The Testaments about and how does it affect the existing Hulu series? ET breaks it all down.
What The Testaments Is About
While the first book was narrated by Offred, who was still assigned to a Commander and his wife, Serena Joy, her story ended when she’s ushered out of the house by Eyes. In the “Historical Notes” section, it’s revealed that the novel was a transcript of her recordings -- and that’s all that remains of her story and time in Gilead.
“Although I could not continue with the story of Offred, I could continue with three other people concerned in these events and tell the story of the beginning of the end, because we know from The Handmaid’s Tale that Gilead vanishes,” Atwood told Variety.
Jumping ahead in time, the new novel is told through the perspective of three characters -- two first-generation women, who have grown up on opposite sides of the Gilead-Canadian border, and an older, high-ranking female within the regime -- whose stories eventually converge at a crucial moment for the totalitarian society. According to the publisher, Atwood “opens up the innermost workings of Gilead as each woman is forced to come to terms with who she is, and how far she will go for what she believes.”
How The Testaments Connects to the Hulu Series
(Warning: Some spoilers for the novel below. Proceed with caution.)
Now that the book is out, it’s been revealed that the young women, Agnes and Daisy, are actually June’s two daughters, Hannah and Nichole. Hannah is the daughter she bore with Luke before Gilead took over. After June (Elisabeth Moss) was kidnapped, Hannah was renamed Agnes and is being raised by Commander MacKenzie and his wife. June’s other daughter, Nichole, who was conceived with Nick and thought to belong to Commander Waterford and Serena (Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski, respectively) under Gilead’s ritual, is the one June sent with Emily across the border to Canada. According to Vox, at the beginning of the novel, “All we know is that she’s somewhere in Canada, and that by now, she’s about 16 years old.” However, her “secret identity becomes clear to the reader.”
The third narrator is a much older version of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), whose chapters detail the origins of Gilead as well as her work as an Aunt, which was briefly touched on in the series. According to Vox, Lydia “is preparing to put the power she’s accumulated to some use. She’s close to death, and she has a decision to make: ‘Who to take down with me. I have made my list.’”
“To drop into that world with which I was so familiar, and to see the direction she took it, and who Lydia turns out to be, it was like being let in on a secret,” Dowd, who also narrates the audibook, tells Time of the journey Atwood wrote for her character. As an added bonus, listen to the actress discuss narrating the new book.
While the characters have direct connections to those in the show -- which were introduced to the franchise and not originally in the book -- Atwood says that the two universes aren’t perfectly aligned. “I was trying to make it so that there weren’t any glaring inconsistencies. They updated the timeline, so we leave a lot of things open,” she tells The New York Times, adding, “There’s a couple of things that are in the book that they didn’t entirely pick up, but you can see why they didn’t -- it’s a television show.”
What the Sequel Means for the Future of the Show
Ultimately, the new book expands The Handmaid’s Tale universe, offering years of potential storytelling as well as a possible endgame for the Hulu series, which was renewed for a fourth season.
Now that the show is beyond the content of the first book, fans have been curious how much longer it will continue. Creator Bruce Miller previously told ET that he has “possible endgames in sight, but when they're all going to coalesce into a finished episode and something you can put nicely in the show next to your copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, I don't know when that's going to happen.”
He added, “I’m gonna keep going with it until there's nothing more interesting and there's certainly a ton interesting in it now.”
Later, while speaking to The New York Times, Miller revealed that Atwood “offered me more restrictions, and I gave her more information. I had to be careful about where I was going and what I was doing. She controls the world.”
What audiences now know for sure is that June’s two daughters both survive, but Hannah never escapes despite her mother’s continued mission to set her free from Gilead while Nichole grows up in the free state of Canada. So June’s decision to stay behind yet again at the end of season three may all be for nothing. Although, her fate remains in the balance after she was shot by guards during Mayday operation to set a number of handmaids, Marthas and children free.
Additionally, Lydia remains a formidable force within Gilead despite having her place and power shaken by Emily’s brutal stabbing at the end of season two. All of season three, she spent time reasserting herself among the handmaids as well as within the eyes of the Commanders. The show briefly explored her past as a school teacher before the onset of Gilead. The same episode also showed more of the inner workings of the Aunts and how they operate within the regime, teasing much more story to come.
The biggest issue now for the series is the state of June, whose story in the first book ends unceremoniously, with her presumed dead. In the series, she continues to fight on, staying in Gilead and trying to affect change from within. However, some fans and critics alike have argued that her story may soon be over -- and that the series should end or continue on without her. (See Vulture for a convincing argument for the latter.)
On top of that, ET has confirmed that Hulu is developing The Testaments into a series. The network, the production company, MGM, and Miller are currently discussing “about how the upcoming novel can become an important extension to the immensely popular award-winning series The Handmaid’s Tale.”
What that looks like remains to be seen, but it could go one of two likely directions: the new book is folded into the existing series and provides a roadmap to an endgame -- potentially with flash-forwards like Lost -- or it is a spinoff led by Lydia, with Dowd continuing to portray the character alongside two new, young stars in the roles of June’s daughters.
Either way, Dowd would like to bring Lydia’s journey to life onscreen. “It would be thrilling to watch Lydia get the job done. I guess you and I are allowed to talk about it because we’ve read it,” she tells Time.