I’m not really a fan of the term “timely” when it comes to describing TV shows or movies. Especially when talking about a dystopian future. And even less so when the term is so apt.
Handmaid’s Tale starts at a run (literally) and immediately pulls the viewer along, slowly and inexorably building tension as the hour moves along. A family is on the run, they crash and the father sends his wife and daughter ahead without him. The two are trying to escape when we hear gunshots and soon after, they are caught and separated.
The tension is quiet, like the show itself. It’s dark and barren, much like most of the women in this time. We see the woman, Offred (Elizabeth Moss) sometime later, at her second “posting,” and living with the Waterfords. Commander Waterford is a big deal, and his wife seems to hate this arrangement almost as much as the Handmaid does. It’s a return to “Traditional Values” where women must travel in pairs (ostensibly for protection and companionship, but in reality to spy on each other). Offred’s companion is Ofglen, a “pious little shit” and it looks like we learn what happens next in Gilmore Girls when Rory has her baby: dystopia! Obviously this is not the case, but Ofglen is played by Alexis Bledel in her best performance to date. The two talk of the weather and State mandated greetings such as “Under His Eye” and “Blessed be the fruit.” They are not friends and say nothing in the few words they share while running their errand at a store.
Told mostly in voice overs and flashbacks, we learn about the world Offred once lived in and the one she now inhabits. She is suspicious of the Commander’s driver, and her thoughts are full of snark and rebellion, but the camera stays so close to Moss’ face that we can see the fear and determination in a quirk of the brow or a dart of the eye. Through these flashbacks, we see where Offred was brought after being caught. It’s a place called The Red Center, and it’s basically an indoctrination camp for fertile women, or Handmaids. Offred is brought to a classroom run by Aunt Lydia, who extols their good fortune in being fertile in this desolate time of Tinder and sluts. The environment was destroyed and a plague of infertility infected the women, so the fertile ones are used as walking incubators and livestock (those cattle prods aren’t just for show) for the wealthy leaders of the believers; chosen by God to bear them children. Punishment is swift and fierce here, as we learn when Janine, a fellow newbie, mouths off and gets a shock and is then carried away.
While in The Red Center, we meet Moira, Offred’s friend from “before” who fucking pinky swears (quietly in the dead of night) that they will find Offred’s daughter when all this craziness is over. We see flashbacks of them together smoking pot and living a very familiar looking life. And we learn about the “dyke purges” and colonies. We also see Janine return, minus one eye. Since these women are merely vessels, they don’t need to see, and plucking the eye that offends thee is a pretty damn convincing deterrent for any other rebelliousness. Later, if you look to see Offred getting smacked in the “shame circle” when Janine confesses to being gang-raped, that Aunt is none other than Margaret Atwood, the writer of this novel, herself. Needless to say Janine is losing her shit. This is confirmed when she is caught by the other Handmaids, stark naked, “taking food orders” and begging for her mom.
Back in the present, Offred and Ofglen stop by The Wall, and observe a priest, a doctor, and a gay man all hanging there as examples. You can literally feel the oppression in the dull colors of the time. When she gets home, Offred gets ready for “The Ceremony” and prays that her daughter remembers her. The Ceremony is nothing more than ritualistic rape. There is reading of The Scripture, trying to make what is done somehow God’s plan, and then Offred is laid between husband and wife, head in Mrs. Waterford’s lap, while the Commander ruts into her, completely detached. It’s fucking awful for literally everyone. The only contact aside from the obvious one is Mrs. Waterford holding Offred’s hands down. When he completes the act, Offred is dismissed and, other than a quick, panicked sneak out later on (witnessed by the driver) is confined to her room.
The next day the bells ring thrice, which signifies a Salvaging. All the Handmaids are brought to a park, and here we see a very pregnant and very crazy Janine again, who, while catching up, tells Offred that Moira is dead. She tried to escape and was sent to the colonies (to clean toxic waste until your skin peels off and you die). But socializing is not why we’re here. The gathering is one of duty. Aunt Lydia climbs onto a stage and brings with her a bound man. She tells the Handmaids that he was convicted of raping a Handmaid, and the act resulted in her losing her baby. I think by now you know that babies are pretty fucking rare in this world, so the loss is deeply felt by all. The penalty for rape is death, and the Handmaids are there to have a “Particicution.” They circle around the man and are told to do what they want between the whistles. They all become monsters when the whistle blows, and beat the man to death.
Afterward is like nothing happened and Ofglen and Offred go home, but this time they finally truly meet. Neither is the true believer the other thought they were. In this world it’s easy for them (and convenient for those in power) to distrust each other. We learn that Ofglen has a wife and son who managed to escape to Canada, and she warns Offred that there is an Eye in her house. She’s watched, always, and must be careful. It’s advice Offred doesn’t need. She fully intends to be careful and survive for her daughter, Hannah. Because Offred is not her name. Her name is June.
Hi, I’m Meg and I’ll be writing reviews for each episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, including the three released at once. Each episode will get its own time, since I think it’s warranted, and no one wants to read a recap that’s longer than the source material.
This was a really oppressive episode, and I’m so looking forward to reviewing and recapping more in the weeks to come. What strikes me most I think is how massive and drastic the changes to society were. All of these people remember a “before” and it will be interesting and terrifying to learn how such huge changes could happen so swiftly.
What do you think so far of The Handmaid’s Tale? Have you read the book? I confess it’s been so long that I barely remember it, which I guess means it’ll feel fresh and suspenseful the whole way through!
This cast is truly stellar. I’ve already mentioned Moss and Bledel, but Samira Wiley as Moira, Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy, Commander Waterford’s wife, and Joseph Fiennes as the Commander all deserve some serious kudos. I don’t know how, but I find myself pitying and hating Serena Joy all at once, and it’s a credit to Strahovski’s talent.
I’m caught between dread and excitement for this series and hope you all join me in watching!