In 1985, author Margaret Atwood published her own horrifying vision of the future with "The Handmaid's Tale." To this day the book haunts the minds of readers with possibilities that seem all too real, and we now have a television series as disturbing as it is beautifully cinematic.
Following decades of pollution and lax FDA guidelines, The United States (and possibly the world) has fallen into a fertility crisis, and what was once a country filled with restaurants, bookstores, and ice cream parlors becomes the autocratic Republic of Gilead, where freedom and ice cream are childish relics of the past. Women are divided into classes based on their breeding abilities, with fertile women becoming "Handmaids" and serving the male leaders of Gilead by bearing their children, and the rest forced into non-fertile servitude one way or another. "The Handmaid's Tale" centers on Offred (nee June), a woman forced to become a Handmaid after her attempt to escape Gilead with her husband and child is tragically cut short.
Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale" focuses on Offred (played with stunning depth by Elisabeth Moss of "Mad Men" fame), a woman trapped in Gilead, haunted by memories of independent thought and salty caramel ice cream. The show's acting, the cinematography, and the direction are of the highest caliber. It is visceral viewing. It is critical viewing. And this is only Episode 1.
"The Handmaid's Tale" opens with a station wagon flying down a gray country road as sirens blare. The man driving either doesn't believe in speeding tickets or is attempting to flee an extremely dangerous situation with his wife and toddler in the backseat. Given that the car crashes and he immediately insists that the two continue on foot without him to safety, the impending threat feels much more grave than a misdemeanor. The woman and child dash through the woods as the sirens continue relentlessly. Suddenly, gunfire breaks out in the distance — two loud shots and no screams. The woman knows who has been hit.
She picks up her daughter and carries her as far as she can, before they duck below a stone ledge. For a few moments of tense silence, there is nothing but their breath in the cold air, and then, the feet of men carrying sniper rifles appear above. The men scan the area, but seeing nothing, walk away from the ledge, at which point the woman deems it safe. Spoiler Alert: It is never safe! The patrolmen rip the screaming child from her mother's arms as the woman screams and fights their grasps before being beaten over the head with a rod. She goes unconscious, and the patrolmen haul her limp body into a van that shuts with a decisive clang.
The scene cuts to a dimly lit room; in the windowsill sits Offred, who is (surprise!) the woman from the first scene! You really didn't see that one coming, did you? Recapper: 1. Reader: Also probably 1. Anyway, Offred sits in the ghastly uniform of the Handmaid, a deep red smock-frock-burlap-sack and a cuffed white bonnet that is very 1600s chic. Offred's inner thoughts play as a voiceover, steely and void of emotion, as she considers her bare surroundings and the different ways that a Handmaid might kill herself. Normally, she doesn't like to think of such things, but it's a Ceremony Day, and — as you'll see — those days are horrible enough to consider alternative options. Offred did have another name, but "it is forbidden now." So, all in all, seems like a fun place in time to be alive.
We are given glimpses into Offred's recent past as a Handmaid, starting with her introduction to the household she currently serves, the wealthy Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). She first meets his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), who hopes Offred is easier to manage than the last Handmaid they had, who was "like a dog but not a very smart one." Alas. Good breeding vessels are so hard to find these days. Offred replies, "Yes, M'ame" and Serena turns cold. "Don't call me M'ame," she sneers. "You're not a Martha." Gilead Lingo Lesson: A Martha is a non-fertile woman forced into labor for others! Hooray!
Commander Waterford enters the room, and this is critical for two reasons. One: He is a creepy, lurking emblem of the patriarchy, who addresses Offred with "Blessed be the fruit," to which she automatically responds "May the Lord Open." Notably, when the Commander leaves, offering a "nice to meet you," she responds with an off-the-cuff "you too," and it is very clear from Serena's enraged expression that such behavior is unacceptable.
The second reason his entrance is so critical is because it is the first time you can get a good view of Offred's formal head covering, called her "Wing." Imagine someone took a lampshade and bent it around your head so that you couldn't see. Or you accidentally stumbled upon the world's largest Pringle and decided to wear it as a hat. That is what Offred is forced to wear — a shield that keeps the outside from looking in, and vice versa. Along with her cloak, which masks any body shape, she is rendered, in a way, invisible.
Following the introduction, we jump back to the present day, where Offred must go to market before The Ceremony. We meet Rita (Amanda Brugel), a Martha in the Commander's kitchen. Though they are both women, class roles have separated them to the point of derision — a recurring theme throughout the show. Offred is on her way to meet her (required) traveling companion and fellow Handmaid, when she is met by the Commander's chauffeur, Nick (Max Minghella), a low class man who, in the words of Offred "hasn't even been issued a woman." The scamp. Nick appears kind, though, and they have a little banter about the day's freshest, non-mercury laden produce. Perhaps love can survive, no matter how hideous your hat is.
Ofglen, Offred's companion (played by Alexis Bledel), is waiting at the gate. Offred previously described her as a "pious little [bleep] with a broomstick up her [bleep]". Offred thinks of her not as a true friend, but as a potential spy, and believes Ofglen to feel the same. On their way to market, they pass a school where Offred sees a little girl wearing a My First Handmaid Smock, and she reminisces about her time at the beach with her husband and daughter. Ofglen pulls her from her reverie and insists they keep moving to the market, which is just like every other modern-day supermarket — except everyone shopping is a Handmaid or a Martha, and there are armed guards at the bagging stations.
Two critical moments happen within these fluorescent-blasted walls: First, Offred and Ofglen encounter other Handmaids and remark that the store has oranges today, so "the fighting in Florida must be going well." (Which, come on, have you ever been to Florida? Between gators and mosquitoes it would be Gilead's Stalingrad.) More importantly, one of the Handmaids blurts out that she heard about Commander Waterford's importance in the news, and the other Handmaids look at her aghast. The Handmaid blanches and says: "I didn't read it. I swear." Let us add female literacy to the list of forbidden things in this fine republic.
The second important moment is Offred's inner monologue in the produce section: "I don't need oranges. I need to scream. I need to grab the nearest machine gun." Beneath all of these hooded hats and downy red cloth bags are women trapped and forced to say things like "praise his bounty" — when oranges are on sale!
Walking home the scenic route by the river, Offred and Ofglen pass three hanged men, strung up for crimes that are inscribed in bags pulled over their faces. A priest, a doctor, and a gay man — sinners of the republic. As Offred stares at them, we are taken back to the place where she learned how to distinguish such sinners, in a training ground called The Red Centre.
Lead by Aunt Lydia (a terrifying Ann Dowd), The Red Centre is an indoctrination camp where Handmaids learn the world's history and how to function as women. Think of it as Girl Scouts but with badges in Misogyny. As Offred, fresh from capture, is forced into a seat, Aunt Lydia rails against the polluters of the world, who dumped toxic waste into the water supply and chemicals into the air, rendering most of the population infertile. Which, you might be thinking, sounds like a reasonable lesson on climate change! But then Auntie Lydia makes the illogical jump that defines The Republic: It was the women's fault for this infertility, because of the presence of birth control. Women who were "sluts" wanted to have "orgies" through Tinder, leading to the great downfall of mankind and the need for obedient Handmaids.
While most of the class stares silently ahead and absorbs the information, one new recruit (we can tell because, like Offred, she is not in a Handmaid uniform) named Janine (Madeline Brewer) scoffs at the absurdity of the lesson. Aunt Lydia Tasers her under the arm, and Janine is dragged out of the room. Offred looks on in horror, but at least she is not alone — her best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) has also been captured and sent to the Centre. We see the two together in a flashback at a summer barbecue, drinking and talking about term papers, while Moira flirts with a girl she's met. It's the nightmare world Aunt Lydia has been decrying, where women are unchained and having a beer between classes.
The old reality fades back to their new life in the Centre, where night has fallen and Moira and Offred tearfully share their stories. Moira promises to help Offred find her daughter, Hannah, no matter the cost. Armed patrolmen appear in the dormitory, carrying a wailing woman with bandages over her eyes. Janine has been returned, sans one critical body part: Moira reminds Offred of the scripture "if my right eye offends thee, pluck it out." If that weren't punishment enough, Janine is later subjected to a shaming circle, in which her Handmaid peers point at her and shout that losing her eye was entirely her fault. Once again, the women are encouraged to turn on one another, for the sake of dogmatic consistency.
In the present, the time has finally come for The Ceremony. Offred must bathe, "like a prize pig," and is then summoned to the bedroom of Commander Waterford. She is joined by Serena Joy, Rita, and Nick, all of whom wait for The Commander, and, in perhaps my favorite moment of the episode, Serena jokingly remarks to Offred that guys are never on time. MEN, AMIRITE, SISTER?
Offred is then forced to endure The Ceremony, in which The Commander unlocks the family bible and recites the story of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. In brief, Jacob and Rachel are married, but Rachel is barren. She urges Jacob to take her servant Leah to wife and to "lay" with her, so that Jacob might still have a lineage. Commander Waterford's retelling of the story plays hauntingly over the ritual itself, a scene that will not soon leave my mind. The Commander has sex with Offred, who is laying between the legs of Serena Joy. She holds Offred down until The Commander has finished, and once done, Serena orders her out of the room, her own eyes full of tears. Offred attempts to sleep but she feels so disgusted, she runs out the house — a forbidden act witnessed only by Nick, who is reading by moonlight on top of the garage. Swoon. Offred is terrified that he might rat her out, but he does not.
The next day, three bells ring in the town square, and Local Handmaid Chapter 363 dutifully walks to a ceremony called a Salvaging. Offred and a friend whisper with actual camaraderie, which is so nice to see in this bleak, trustless place — until Offred asks about Moira. A very pregnant Janine turns around from the next row up and cheerily announces that Moira is dead, having been sent to The Colonies for waste elimination. Before Offred can process this news completely, Aunt Lydia appears on stage, accompanied by hooded patrolmen and a captive. Aunt Lydia announces that this man raped a Handmaid who was pregnant and subsequently lost the baby. As punishment, the Handmaids form a circle around him, and when Aunt Lydia's whistle blows, they are encouraged to attack as savagely as they wish. Offred uses this time to channel some of her rage, and soon she is at the front of the pack kicking the man's ribs and sending blood spattering.
Ofglen, notably, is revealed to be standing outside of the circle, refusing to participate, despite her previously shown commitment to the role she plays. As she walks Offred home, though, Ofglen reveals that she is not 100 percent committed to Team Gilead. "My wife and I had a son named Oliver," she confesses. They escaped into Canada with passports, but poor Ofglen was caught at the airport. Canada — even in this fictional dystopia you are still the most sensible Plan B. Despite their tragedies, or perhaps because of them, Offred now has an ally, who cryptically warns her that there is an Eye in the Waterford house spying on her.
The episode's end mirrors the beginning: Offred sits in the window sill of her bare bedroom, but now there is a determination in her voice and the previous position of resignation has given way to a look of laying in wait.
"Her name is Hannah. My husband's name was Luke. My name is June," she says. And with that small declaration, the façade of Gilead cracks a centimeter, the waters behind that much closer to bursting.