This week, the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale were released for US audiences on Hulu. The remaining seven episodes will be released weekly on Wednesdays. This Hulu original adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel is directed by Reed Morano with a screenplay written by Bruce Miller, and stars Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, Alexis Bledel, and Samira Wiley, among others.
I’ll be providing synopses each week, with some commentary. Note that I won’t be drawing any comparisons to the novel, as I haven’t read it (though, just to defend my credibility, I must add that I’ve read several other novels by Atwood). Thus, I’m approaching this as a newcomer to the Handmaid universe.
Episode 1: Offred
In Episode 1 of Hulu’s adaptation, we are introduced to a not-too-distant future where the pious are in charge and take a skewed-but-literal approach to scripture, an interpretation that includes killing gays and enslaving fertile women to serve as vessels for the offspring of infertile couples. Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is introduced—she had a normal life “before,” as they say, but was captured, her husband killed, and her daughter taken from her, and now serves as a handmaid (vessel) in the home of a Commander (Joseph Fiennes). We see her capture and training; Her old college friend Moira (Samira Wiley) is also captured, and at the handmaid training facility encourages Offred to keep her head down, convinced that this insanity cannot last. We see the cost of challenging the status quo, as another handmaid-in-training is tased and has her right eye plucked out for insubordination. Therefore, Offred adheres to the strict code of piety and behavior—including stomach-turning “ceremonies”—in order to survive and one day see her daughter again. As handmaid, her duties include submitting to rape by her assigned Commander while she is held down by his Wife (Yvonne Strahovski), as well as handling the shopping for the household “Martha” (housekeeper). She does her shopping with her assigned partner and fellow handmaid, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), whom Offred refers to as a “pious little shit.” As the episode reaches its end, Offred’s resolve is tested by some bad news about Moira—Janine claims she is dead—but from that brief moment of weakness she finds a new friend, someone she can trust in a world full of Eyes. Ofglen realizes that Offred can be trusted when she sees her real grief at the loss of a friend, and their mutual revelation that the other is not a pious little shit but in fact another normal woman trying to survive seems like the start of a true partnership. The episode ends with hope—hope that there is a network resisting a regime that enslaves women and survives on distrust.
Episode 2: Birth Day
In episode 2, Offred attends a birth ceremony with her Commander’s wife. While the handmaids gather around their laboring comrade (Janine, the handmaid who lost her eye in episode 1), encouraging her with chants of “breathe, breathe,” the Wives take part in a strange mimicry of the same scene. The Wife whose Handmaid is giving birth (and whose husband fathered the child) is surrounded by other Wives in a different part of the house. She appears to be in labor—breathing through contractions, sweating—but is clearly not pregnant. When Janine gives birth to the child, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) takes the child and hands her to the Wife, who has been transferred to a large bed, ostensibly to recover. Then, as Jeanine cries in the arms of her fellow handmaids, the child is christened “Angela.” Following the birth, Offred receives an unusual request: the Commander wants to see her. Alone. She wrestles with this, as it is a violation of her strict training to be alone with the Commander, but it is also a violation to disobey him. In the end, she goes to his office when he has asked. It turns out, he wants to play a game of Scrabble. They play, and Offred nearly wins. During the game, she learns that the Commander will be going to Washington. She makes a mental note of this to tell Ofglen, but when she goes to meet her for shopping the next day, a different handmaid is waiting for her. Offred asks where Ofglen is, and the new handmaid replies that she is Ofglen. So much for hope.
Episode 3: Late
In this episode, Offred experiences unusually kind treatment from her Commander’s Wife, the household Martha, and others, because the household suspects that she might be pregnant. Offred is invited by the Commander’s Wife to go visit baby Angela. During this visit, she learns that Janine believes that her commander is in love with her, and they have plans to run away. Offred is clearly concerned that Janine’s reckless behavior will lead to something worse than just being a handmaid, and tries to counsel her. Upon returning home from the visit, Offred is met by Aunt Lydia and an Eye, and is interrogated about her relationship with Ofglen. We learn that Ofglen and a Martha had a relationship. Offred is asked whether Oflgen ever tried to touch her, and whether she knew about Ofglen’s preferences. When Offred says she knew Ofglen was gay, she is tased and beaten—”gay” is not a term allowed. It is too permissive and accepting of the deviant behavior. Offred’s mistress and the household driver come to her rescue, however, and Offred is permitted to return to her room. Elsewhere, Ofglen and her Martha are put on trial and convicted. Because she is fertile, Ofglen is allowed to live. Her partner, however, is hanged in front of her. To discourage Ofglen from further relationships, she is maimed. Interspersed throughout this episodes are scenes from “before,” showing escalating injustices and violence against women. First, women are prohibited from working. Then, women’s bank accounts are frozen and funds transferred to their husbands or closest male relative. Finally, women are fired upon at a protest. At the end of the episode, Offred gets her period, and when she informs her mistress, she is dragged by her ear to her room, where she is thrown on the floor, punished for not being pregnant.
Reaction (so far):
The Handmaid’s Tale gives nobody the benefit of the doubt in taking moral extremism in the face of vague threats of terrorism to its logical conclusion. At first, it seems heavy-handed (I mean, naming women “Of Fred…Offred” or “Of Glen…Ofglen” seems implausible in the 21st Century), but once it’s clear that this is not “this is what I think will happen” but rather “this is what would happen if we took the rights protected by our Constitution for granted” then the world makes sense. It’s clear that complacency on the part of the majority has led to a minority hijacking the United States—a minority that rules through fear and ensuring the ignorance of the populace. Elisabeth Moss gives a solid performance as Offred (whose real name we learn is June). Samira Wiley is a welcome presence; She proved her acting skill in Orange is the New Black, so I’m excited to see her more as the season progresses. If I had to complain about something—and there’s little to complain about—it’s that the sound design is lacking creativity. The same echoing, groaning sounds present in other dystopian films is used in this show. It’s effective in lending a sense of ominousness, but it’s certainly not subtle.
Featured Image: Hulu