Synopsis of 1×01-1×03: Offred is a handmaid, one of the women of society delegated as reproductive surrogates, forced to give birth to the children of the powerful men and their cold wives. She lives in a dark, dystopic America in which women have next to no rights, and the country is under a militant and totalitarian rule.
If The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t leave you infuriated, bitter, depressed, and a little nauseous, then we’re definitely not starting off on the same page.
Based off of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, to the casually uninformed, Hulu’s release of this disturbingly timely series might be heavy handed. The current political climate is no secret to anyone who is even mildly informed, and ignorance is not really a luxury that any of us can afford anymore. Whether you’re trying to remain blissfully unaware or you simply can’t keep up fast enough, basically all of digital media is here to remind you about it. But to simply do not care, they might view The Handmaid’s Tale with a sneer and an eye roll.
Another ultra-liberal, ultra-feminist piece of TV by those leftist nuts. Do they think this is what America will become? They’re overreacting. No one’s taking your money or your jobs or your kids anytime soon.
Except, that’s not really the point.
Beneath whatever political agenda you might think this series has is a story about oppression and a loss of power. It’s a timely story no matter what decade or time we’re in. It’s a dystopia in the truest form. No girls with bows and arrows, no sorting the teenagers into factions of unrealistic attributes, no alternate history where Hitler won the war. There’s hardly any romanticizing this story, and it benefits largely from it.
It’s telling a story that we can not only believe, but that terrifies us, and rightly so.
June, or Offred, as she is known in this new version of America, is a handmaid. She is the reproductive surrogate of Fred and Serena Joy Waterford. She lives in a totalitarian theocracy. In her world, religion has been redefined by whoever decided to take power. The history of how they got here from the “time before” is foggy, but we can assume that with the lowered fertility rates, the warmongering, and the martial law set down that shit hit the fan and now the capital of the country is in Anchorage and our flag only has two stars.
The story jumps back and forth between Offred’s current life as handmaid to the Waterfords and her interaction with the other handmaids like Ofglen and Janine, and then to scenes from the time before, where we see the systematic breakdown of the country. D.C. is put under martial law, women lose the right to own property and have jobs, they are treated as objects and shamed if they are anything but pious and buttoned-up. We first see her trying to cross the border into Canada through Maine with her husband Luke and her young daughter Hannah.
They are separated and Luke is shot. She and Hannah are caught and immediately separated, and for much of the story she is motivated in getting Hannah back. She is willing to do anything to get her back. The community of handmaids is one fraught with mixed loyalties and potential spies. Her shopping partner, Ofglen — flawlessly and heartbreakingly played by Alexis Bledel — befriends her and reveals herself to be a member of the resistance. She’s bold and kind to Offred when she gets to know her. Before all of this, she had a wife and a child and was a professor. We learn through her conversations with Offred that intellectuals were the first to be sent to die in The Colonies, an ecological wasteland where you die a slow, toxic death. Because of Ofglen’s fertility, she was instead sent to be a handmaid.
We also meet Nick, Fred’s chauffeur, and a character mired in mystery. While he seems to have shown an interest in Offred, we can never be sure of his loyalties. His ambiguity serves to emphasize the untrustworthiness of the world they live in. Although he seems to have good intentions, you can’t really trust anyone. The Eyes are everywhere, and they’re watching you.
Offred comes to Commander Fred Waterford as the second handmaid. She’s initially met by Serena Joy, Fred’s wife. She’s cold to Offred, quickly laying down the law of the household and laying claim over her husband. But despite her cold and frigid exterior, there is a frailty that Yvonne Strahovski adds to Serena Joy’s character that actually makes her sad and pitiable. Forced to engage in their fertility ritual, in which she watches and sits above Offred’s head while Fred has sex with her, she’s got a good reason for being resentful.
The women in this story are all victims of the world that they live in. Even those that stand at the highest echelon of their society, have no power. They’re barren and have no real worth to the men in their lives. They’re there to be mothers to the children of their handmaid’s. They must host their husband’s friends, but are never allowed in their offices. They have to take part in the ritual where they have to watch their husband have sex with a stranger because they have been deemed sterile — whether or not they actually are. Serena Joy, while cruel and unforgiving at times, is another example of the oppressed.
Through her first introduction to the Rachel and Leah Center — an ironic name for a society that grossly misinterpreted an allegorical text (but honestly, who is surprised?) — Offred meets Aunt Lydia, a tyrannical and toxic authority figure that spouts hate and propaganda while shaming the handmaids like Janine for her past rape and beating them if they step out of line. She also meets Janine, an initially defiant handmaid who is brought in with her, but is beaten into submission and has her eye gouged out in some sick power move that puts her into her place. Janine is later pregnant with a child, and her journey takes an even more depressive turn. Finally, she is reunited with her friend Moira, a lesbian who lost her partner when the government decided to get rid of “gender traitors”.
Moira, played in perfect tone by Samira Wiley of Orange is the New Black fame, is featured in many of Offred’s flashbacks. We see them running together, we see her there when June reveals she’s pregnant with Hannah, we see them rioting against the police together, we see them face the same oppression together. Moira quickly becomes a ghost when Janine tells Offred that Moira is dead, we see her only in flashbacks, which serves to make the gap between the past the present even more prevalent. As the episodes progress, Offred loses her allies left and right and is placed in progressively worse situations without much reprieve.
The pilot episode paints one of the starkest pictures of this new world. Aunt Lydia touts how lucky and privileged the women are to be handmaids, a dark and wry twist on the word that seems so opposite to their present condition. Stripped of their pride, their freedom, and their bodies, tagged with a red tag on their ear like cattle, the rule of the law is comply or die. The environmental contamination has drastically lowered the rate of fertility (I wonder who we blame for that one…) and these women are a necessity to society, though still regarded as whores at the same time.
We see the handmaids participate in ‘Salvaging Day’, in which they participate in ‘particicution’. At the sound of a whistle, they are allowed to let out all of their aggression and anger and pent up hate on a man that the government has deemed a rapist because he slept with another man’s handmaid. Whether or not the handmaid was actually pregnant, whether or not it was consensual, whether or not she actually lost the baby is inconsequential it seems. He touched another man’s property, and so he deserves to die.
The women can’t trust one another, and there’s a grim look at some girls being led in a row in similar bonnets and pink dresses, presumably preparing for the day that they will be young handmaid’s themselves. The pilot ends on a twist, in which we find out that there might be a mole or an Eye in the house that is spying on them.
What is unique with The Handmaid’s Tale is that it often feels like the main plot is actually the B plot. The world, vivid and haunting, is enough to draw you in as a tale of its own.
In “Birth Day”, we witness Janine giving birth. Although previously I wrote her off as the crazy one that eventually drank the kool-aid, she, like many of the other characters, has a depth that we have only begun to see as we progress further into the story. While Janine suffers through contractions upstairs on the bed, with Aunt Lydia and the other handmaids around her supporting her (of course, not a man in sight, surprise surprise), the wives are downstairs having their own birthing ritual. Without an actual pregnancy, the women seem desperate to live the experience themselves. After all, this is a society that only truly values women for their ability to give birth.
While there’s certainly humor in seeing a woman who actually isn’t pregnant pretend to go through contractions and give birth, all the while being supported by her friends who also buy into the bit, the scene turns dark when Janine actually gives birth. The baby girl, Angela, is taken straight from Janine’s womb and given to Naomi, the Commander’s wife and now Angela’s mother. Deprived of even touching her newborn, the handmaids gather in and embrace Janine in one of the most devastating moments on screen.
During the birthing process, the episode cuts between Janine and June giving birth to Hannah in the midst of the chaos of the city. After rushing to the hospital, she’s grateful to hear that her daughter has been born with ten fingers and ten toes and a clean bill of health. However, after falling asleep, she awakens to find that her baby has been stolen. She encounters the woman holding Hannah like her own, before watching security wrench her child from her hands and drag the woman away. It’s a compelling scene, sequeling a scene in which an empty maternity ward reveals just how dire the situation is in the country. The woman, while a villain by name, is pitiable, she looks starved as she clutches to Hannah. When the security finally gets a hold of her, they aren’t even able to hand her back to June immediately, they have to check their wristband.
We watch, tragically, as Janine bonds with her daughter while breastfeeding her. This is, we assume, the first time she’s ever held the baby. Initially, she remains distant and cold, but a mother’s instinct kicks in and we know we’re headed for more heartbreak as we watch the mother and daughter bond bittersweetly.
On top of Janine’s new arrival, comes a different side of Fred. The commander, previously distant and really just a penis with a face, asks to see Offred at night in his office. While Offred and Ofglen fear the worst, she soon discovers that he is merely interested in playing Scrabble. Could he simply be a cog in the machine of the society? Obviously not, but this added dimension to a monotonous, if not villainous character, is just one of the brilliant facets of Atwood’s writing. You find yourself unable to truly hate Fred, you might even forgive him for his transgressions.
He’s a man of his time and situation. Look, he’s even playing Scrabble with Offred! He’s kind to her, and doesn’t treat her like some object.
But that’s not the point.
The point is that she still had to come to him, and if he hadn’t been nice, if he had wanted a blowjob or something worse, Offred would have had to comply. Yeah, they played scrabble, but Offred still let him win, knowing that any other result would have upset him. He’s kind to her. Sure. For now. Next time, he could beat her. He could treat her like a piece of meat. He could throw her to the dogs. The point is that he does nothing, in a world where he is the only one who can do something.
The episode ends on another twist. Where an excited Offred goes to meet Ofglen for their daily shopping trip, to tell her the details about her night with the Commander, only to be faced with a new Ofglen.
So, while “Birth Day” and “Offred” certainly never shied away from the grim realities of the Gilead society, “Late” is perhaps one of the most impactful episodes that the three-episode premiere could end on. It starts gradually, another look into the before time. Except this time, it looks a little too much like Gilead. We learn about the slow transformation of the country, from the one we know to the dystopia we’re stuck with.
“In a gradually heated bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you know it,” Offred says, and it rings so loudly in your ear that you can’t hear anything else for a minute.
She details the dissolution of the congress, then of the constitution, and then of the day she lost her job and the ability to buy herself some coffee with her own hard-earned money. We watch her get called a slut by a douchebag barista, viewed as whore by a holier-than-thou passerby, and escorted out of her building by armed private militia with automatic weapons in the middle of the workday.
In the present day, we learn that she’s late to her period. Obviously, if you’re at all familiar with female anatomy you know this is a common indicator of pregnancy, but it’s also pretty common for women who aren’t regulated on something like birth control. But because of this, Martha treats her like a queen, making her an extravagant lunch, and Serena Joy shows a softer and kinder side to Offred, hopeful that there’s a child along the way.
She takes Offred to go see Janine and Angela. There we see Janine has fallen head over heels for her baby and for the Commander. She’s renamed the baby Charlotte and is convinced that the Commander is in love with her and wants to run away with her. The scene is brief, but anyone who has heard even the non-dystopian version of this conversation knows that it’s not a good sign.
However, Offred then has a scene with Serena Joy, and it’s one of Strahovski and Moss’s strongest scenes together. In that moment, in the Putnam home, they seem to both be very aware of the situation that they’re put in when Offred mentions that Janine is having some difficulty post-partum. Up until now, the wives have been portrayed as cruel, selfish, and exceedingly shallow. They treat the handmaidens like dogs while enjoying their lunches and coffee and macarons. But Serena demonstrates moments of clarity. She doesn’t hide behind any veils of false kindness and seems genuinely excited at the idea of Offred being pregnant. What starts out as a possibility, grows into a cold hard fact for her as the episode progresses.
What makes her interaction with Offred so impactful is the very fact that we know a relationship in which these two see each other as equals and maybe even companions is impossible. This ephemeral moment is a stolen one. They can drop their pretenses, even just a little, to reveal what empathy they’re allowed.
But it obviously doesn’t last for long. On her way home, they spot the Eye at the Waterford home. They’ve come to interrogate Offred. Although she has no idea what it is about, Nick cautions her to tell them what they want to know, saying, “Everybody breaks.” It’s times like this that you make it really hard for us to read you, Nick.
She goes into the house where she is met by Aunt Lydia and one of the militia douchebags clad in black. They interrogate her about Ofglen and shock her with the taser to get her talking. Initially, they ask if the two of them ever had any sexual relations, and then reveal that Ofglen had a relationship with her Martha — the cooking ladies that live in the households. When Offred speaks out against Aunt Lydia, throwing back scripture in her face, Lydia beats Offred with the taser mercilessly. It’s only when Serena rushes in and intercedes with the knowledge that Offred is pregnant that the two interrogators leave, after being essentially thrown out by Serena.
Offred is comforted later by Nick, who brings her an ice pack. The two share a moment together but are hardly allowed more than a few minutes together. Whatever protective bubble that Offred might have been granted by being pregnant is popped when she gets her period. She tells Serena the next morning. Angry and bitter and frustrated, she drags Offred upstairs and locks her in her room, screaming angrily into her ear and turning on her. Whatever empathy, whatever connection the two of them shared, it’s gone now.
Even worse, the scene is spliced in with past scenes of June and Moira protesting and getting shot at by the militia in their riot gear, and then with the darkest storyline in which we find out what has happened to Ofglen after being revealed as a lesbian.
The image is about as painful and terrifying as it can get for any person watching, especially a woman. She and Martha are taken to court, though neither are offered what we’d call a fair trial or even the privilege of speaking. Their mouths are bound in the heaviest symbolism of a society that takes everything away from its women. A quick citing of a line from Romans sentences Martha to death and Ofglen to “redemption”.
Bledel plays the scene to eery perfection, without uttering a single word. We watch as she and her lover hold hands, being driven to Martha’s death, where she is painfully wretched from Ofglen’s hands and hung by a slow rising crane. All the while, surrounded by emotionless, faceless men who have decided their fate for them. There’s no condescension, they don’t even get that. They are cattle, and they must be dealt with.
We next see Ofglen, who we find out is named Emily, wake up in bed. Her mask is gone, but silently she stands up from a hospital bed in pain. Aunt Lydia comes into smugly tell her that they’ve taken away her desire to want, but don’t worry, she can still have babies. Emily lifts up her gown to reveal what we might have guessed, which is that she has undergone the painful surgery of a clitoridectomy. The episode cuts out with Emily screaming, furious, trapped, and butchered.
If you didn’t leave that three episode arc feeling horrible, do you feel horrible now?
Look at who has power in this situation. It is only those who sit at the very top. Everyone else suffers. Men like Nick, who aren’t powerful enough to have wives themselves are seen as servants, liable to be grabbed by the Eye if any suspicion falls on them, or beaten to death as rapists. Women are either there to be barren wives, fertile wombs, or cooking utensils. Intellectuals are sent off to die in chemical fields, homosexuals are gender traitors, dissenters are maimed, churches are bombed to rubble, and priests, doctors, and homosexuals are hung along the river.
The series paints the world written by Margaret Atwood to a perfect tee. With Atwood herself as a producer (and with a blurry cameo!), the oppressive world of Gilead is brought to vivid life in this series. Props to the entire cast, including the fabulous Elizabeth Moss are obviously given. While the series deviates a little from the novel, the semantics don’t change the essential message of the story. And while I’m not a fan of the music — it feels out of place at times and a little over the top — that isn’t going to stop me from giving this series a perfect score so far.
The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t leave you feeling empowered, it leaves you feeling raw, angry, and introspective. It immerses you in a world that might not be too far-fetched. Sure, the timing now makes us all more introspective, but this is a story that will always be relevant. You’re left pondering, looking inwardly at where you would fit in in this version of America, and most of us at right at the bottom.