This is the third visual adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale which was originally released in 1985.
The United States is left in ruins after the government is overthrown by 1%ers under the guise of organized religion. Anchorage is the new Capitol and there are two remaining states. The nation as the viewer knows it no longer exists. The new regime has issued a new form of religious law and systemic oppression. Like cattle, fertile women are taken to the Red Center to be trained, beaten, sorted, and distributed to the elite to be mounted and bred. Yes. Bred. There is no kinder or gentler way to put it. Your choice in this world is to die or breed.
This review will cover the first three episodes, which were released on Hulu on April 26th. One episode per week will be released each Wednesday starting with episode 4 on May 3rd. We’ll be reviewing each episode on Fridays.
Offred – S1E1
Offred (Elizabeth Moss), one the few fertile women known as Handmaids in the oppressive Republic of Gilead, struggles to survive as a reproductive surrogate for a powerful Commander and his resentful wife. – IMDB
The audience is thrust into this dystopian universe through the eyes of our narrator, Offred. A woman, her husband, and child are involved in a high-speed chase on a series of country roads. After the vehicle is disabled, the family is split, and the woman and her child retreat to the woods. Shots fired in the distance, they continue to run and are soon captured and separated.
We officially meet Offred in what remains of Boston, at the home of her new commander, Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strohovski); it is the day of her ceremony, as she prepares, she gives us a glimpse of how she and a host of other women got to this point. In 2015, a plague swept the U.S. leaving many women with infertility issues; stillbirths and infants die shortly after being born. There is an attack on DC and the U.S. is under Marshall law. Women are stripped of their autonomy: the right to work, own property, or have any financial holdings. One morning you are going for your 7am run, the next you are being escorted from your job by armed guards. It’s abrupt, frightening, and feels much too close to a possible future reality.
After being torn from her family, Offred is shuttled to the Red Center, a new world nunnery of sorts. Future Handmaids are taken there to learn the ways of this world and begin indoctrination into their new religion and role as surrogates for the elite. Some women are more resistant than others, and all resistance comes at a cost.
“If my right eye offends thee, pluck it out.” – Moira (Samira Wiley)
Janine (Madeline Brewer) aka Ofwarren has her eye removed for speaking out of turn. During these Handmaid lessons the women are taught to only speak when spoken to, no physical contact, no eye-contact with your superiors, and to never trust other Handmaids. These lessons are reinforced with physical and psychological abuse at the hands of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). After you’re deemed suitable as a handmaid you are shipped off to the homes of wealthy men and their “barren” wives, because it is so much easier to blame your wife as the reason you do not have an heir than consider you, as a man, have the problem.
As Offred prepares for the ceremony, she thinks about her daughter, Hannah. I had no idea what to expect from the ceremony as everything lead up to this moment could have meant, additional torture, a showcase for the Commander’s associates; anything. It proved to be worse than I could have ever expected. This ceremony is the first sanctioned sexual assault of Offred. Hands pinned to the bed by Serena Joy, while the Commander recites a prayer over their union and humps away until he is spent. There is no sound, no eye contact, just three people going through the motions. I am disgusted and angry and not sure why I’m still watching.
Offred is looking broken and then the bells ring. Handmaids are called to a square for another ceremony. Here she finds out her friend from before and after the fall of the union is rumored to be dead. Another crushing blow on a hideous day. The Handmaids have been called exact street justice on a man accused of raping a pregnant Handmaid. At the sound of a whistle they are instructed to do what needs to be done. What happens is an all out curb stomping and hair pulling gang murder. The music, the deep seated anger, and violence are expressed in less than a minute. The second whistle blows, a man is dead and the Handmaids return to formation.
The entirety of this world is based on stripping women down to their base selves, to make them feel worthless. After episode one I am emotionally exhausted and want to retreat to a world of slumber, but I press on to episode 2.
Birth Day – S1E2
Offred and her fellow Handmaids assist with the delivery of Janine’s baby, prompting Offred to recall her own daughter’s birth. Offred draws closer to Ofglen while dreading a secret meeting with the Commander.– IMDB
The Handmaids travel in twos, supposedly for safety, but it feels more like a reason to keep them suspicious of one another. Offred’s shopping partner is Ofglen (Alexis Bledel). They have slowly built something that looks like friendship during their daily walks to and from the grocery store. This new world is comprised of things old and new. The old: style of dress, at times the manner of speaking, gender roles and caste system (sorta). The new: cars are still in use, electricity is available albeit sparsely, and the grocery store in which the Handmaids shop.
Offred recalls more of the beginning of the end of the modern world, as she knew it. The timeframe between when the plague hit and present day has not been firmly established. Based on the approximate age of her daughter at the time of kidnapping and Janine’s pregnancy, I’d say that 10 or so years have passed since everything began to crumble. And Offred has been a Handmaid for a little over a year.
The fall started with her card being declined at the local coffee shop, followed by an aloof barista who verbally abuses Offred and Moira.
“Come back when you have some money. Get out of here you fucking sluts.”
That was a record scratch moment. The patrons tuned in when they heard the abrasive language, but they did nothing. Offred and Moira left the shop without coffee or support from other patrons. The first “light” part of the show occurs when Moira and Offred’s husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), are sparring about the state of the Union. She blames him for being a man, he offers to cut off his junk; it’s a short scene that gives you a glimpse into the type of guy Luke was.
Janine’s pregnancy also brings to surface memories of when Offred was pregnant with Hannah. Due to the plague, her apprehension was more than usual, but in the end she birthed a healthy child in the midst of chaos that security was short-lived, and while in the hospital someone tried to kidnap Hannah.
The bells chime and it’s time to round up the local Handmaids for the birth of Janine’s baby. They are picked up in a red van called the Birthmobile. About a dozen handmaids descend upon the house; they remove their headpieces called Wings and make their way to assist Janine. This new world has devolved into old world traditions such as homebirths that do not have a medically trained staff or doula as part of the process. As a matter of fact, Aunt Lydia is leading the charge on some bootleg Lamaze. The barren wife, Kayla, is lying on the floor of the living room also attempting her own version of Lamaze. This society is so warped that they have adopted faux pain-free labor as a part of the birthing process. Janine endures a drug free labor and gives birth on an antique birthing chair. The newborn child is torn from her almost immediately while the Stepford Wives coo over Kayla’s hard work during the delivery. The Elite wives refer to the Handmaids as whores; I guess any way to dehumanize a person who is a prisoner in this system.
Part of being a Handmaid involves having no relationship with the man of the house except for when he attempts to plant his seed once a month. Commander Waterford breaks with tradition and requests a private meeting with Offred. She is fearful of Serena Joy finding out, Nick (Max Minghella) the driver telling the Eyes (a networks of spies in place to keep order), or Commander Waterford stating his displeasure with her service. The meeting is none of those things. He wants to play a game, Scrabble, and he wants it to be a regular occurrence. Offred sees this as the key to her way out. It’s a small glimmer of hope in a hopeless place.
This hope is short-lived when she goes to meet Ofglen for their daily walk to the market and she is greeted by a new face, who is the new Ofglen.
So much of what transpires in these first two episodes feels so real and possible; it’s very difficult not to draw direct parallels to our current political climate. Stripping women of their autonomy, calling Marshall law as a result of suspected terror attacks, the very rich overthrowing the government and taking advantage of the poor and doing it all under the guise of organized religion. This may be considered drama, but it is considerably more terrifying than any horror movie I have watched in very long time.
Episode 2 ends and I need chocolate cake and hug. I settle for sleep. Nightmare fueled sleep.
Late – S1E3
Offred visits Janine’s baby with Serena Joy and remembers the early days of the revolution, before Gilead. Ofglen faces a difficult challenge.- IMDB
Offred reflects on how painfully aware she is that she and the rest of the citizens had been sleepwalking through their lives before the uprising. She wasn’t truly awake, or woke as the kids call it. The issues that affected others did not impact her, she trusted her government to do the right thing, probably voted her conscious in the last election, considered herself an ally, etc… It wasn’t until her life and livelihood were in jeopardy that she realized how much was at stake. In her new life she has to find a way to resist.
Offred is being treated well by everyone in the house and she is rightfully suspicious. All things and actions have a purpose. The house Martha, Rita, mentions that Offred has not asked for her napkins (feminine napkins) and Serena Joy is hopeful Offred is pregnant. Offred is ambivalent. During a visit to Kayla and Janine, the Stepford Wives are completely vile and disgusting in regards to the Handmaids and Janine is not living in reality. The man of the house has fallen in love with her and they are going to be together. Offred gives her the, “oh girl,” look and lets Janine enjoy her postpartum ice cream.
Ofglen was kidnapped and taken before a council to be charged and convicted of her crime as a gender traitor. She was charged with being transgender and gay, along with a female partner. Her partner was sentenced to death while Ofglen was sentenced to rehabilitation due to her fertility. They are transported together and spend their final moments holding hands. Ofglen has to watch her lover hanged and it’s terrible.
Offred is paid a visit by Aunt Lydia and a minion; they have questions about her relationship with Ofglen. They insinuate she may have had a sexual relationship with Ofglen and when she doesn’t relent, she is tazed. This entire interrogation is taking place while Serena Joy is out of the home. In the midst of this interview, Serena Joy arrives as a small bit of salvation for Offred. They stop beating and tazing her long enough for Serena Joy to tell them Offred is pregnant and to get out of her house. It’s a hint of softness we haven’t seen from Serena Joy; it’s also temporary. Offred gets her period and has to break the news to the lady of the house. She is banished to her room for her troubles.
Ofglen’s rehabilitation isn’t quite what she thinks; she wakes in a sterile white room having undergone some form of genital mutilation. Aunt Lydia assures her, you won’t miss what you don’t have.
This is my first time committing to a Hulu original series. I’ve watched a few episodes of The Path but it did not stick with me. Maybe it’s the quality of the source material, but I am more than impressed with the series so far. It’s also been one of the more difficult shows for me to watch.
The casting of Elizabeth Moss as Offred was perfect in so many ways. There are touches of her performance as Peggy Olson from Mad Men; the subtly in her facial expressions and eyes really bring depth to the character. Anne Dowd has had limited screen time in the first three episodes but it’s as if she played Patti in The Leftovers in preparation for this role. Alexis Bledel, Samira Riley, and Yvonne Stahoviski round out this cast in the best of ways. I truly cannot imagine anyone else in these roles. Reed Marano directed the first three episodes. I am not familiar with her work as a director, but she did work on the cinematography on Beyoncé’s exceptional Lemonade, which I have watched countless times. The non-linear back filling of the story through Offred’s eyes is at time funny and heartbreaking. I don’t know where the series is headed, but I am happy to be along for the ride.
The Handmaid's Tale S1E1-S1E3
Starring: Elizabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Samira Riley, Yvonne Stahoviski, Joseph Fiennes, Ann Dowd, O-T Fagbenle, Max Minghella, Madeline Brewer