When Hulu decided to adapt Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale a year ago, there was no way the streaming platform's executives (at least not the ones who expected Hillary Clinton to become president) could have known just how prescient the decision would turn out to be. But minutes into the first installation of this 10-episode season, the show, about a woman’s attempt to survive as a fertility slave in a dystopian society, starts to feel almost spookily relevant to the current political landscape. As Americans contemplate the state of our democracy, and whether it’s strong enough to hold up in the face of an extremist presidency, the show explores the question of how exactly a country becomes the kind of place where its women are enslaved for their reproductive qualities—and how its people will behave when it happens.
(Note: Yes, Hulu dropped the first three episodes at midnight, but given the bleakness and intensity of this show, we will be recapping each episode one day at a time. You can only take so much. Come back Thursday and Friday for episodes 2 and 3.)
For the show’s protagonist (Elisabeth Moss), the immediate answer to that second question, at least, feels familiar to those of us who may or may not have joked about fleeing the country in these bad political times: The show opens on a flashback of her attempted escape to Canada. There’s a car chase, sirens, gunshots—she’s too late, obviously. She’s separated from her daughter, and her husband is killed off-screen. The lesson feels relevant: If you want to move to Canada, you have to do it before the shit hits the fan. After being knocked unconscious by the authorities, the character is dragged out of the frame like a corpse.
The next time we see her, Moss is sitting perfectly still in a small, plain room, dressed in a wimple (“wings,” they’re called here) and an enormous red habit that would make a nun look slatternly by comparison. “Offred is my name now,” she says, in an inner monologue that reveals her to be both a slave and more than a little snarky.
Welcome to Gilead, the new world order, where an extremist Christian government has assumed power and, in reaction to an infertility plague, divided women into castes based on their ability to bear children. Offred is among the rare fertile women remaining, and as such has been made a handmaid—her role, along with the others in her class, is to have sex with her “commander” and bear him the child that his infertile wife can’t.
Offred, we learn, has only arrived at this new house recently. She’s introduced to her new commander, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), by his wife, who runs the household. Don’t get any ideas, she warns Offred. (Her state-given name is a combination of "of" and "Fred.")
As Offred moves through a series of daily tasks—going to the store, picking up some rations—we learn about her life and the people she spends her life with now: In addition to the commander, with whom she appears to have little interaction other than mandatory monthly sex (more on this in a minute); his wife, the cold and cruel Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski); Rita, the household “Martha,” a domestic maid (Amanda Brugel); Nick, the commander’s driver and Offred’s obvious future forbidden flame (Max Minghella); and Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), the woman with whom Offred has been paired to do most of her activities—but, not her friend, she informs us via her inner monologue. She’s a “a pious little shit with a broomstick up her ass,” Offred says of Ofglen, and plus, “there are no friends here.” “She’s my spy and I’m hers.”
The two women go to the grocery store together, and on the way home they pass a string of dead bodies hanging in the street. The world they live in is bleak and brutal, and the cinematography, with close-up still shots and muted colors, reflects that.
To explain how exactly this world and its characters ended up in such a state, the episode jumps back and forth between Offred’s present and various periods in the past: We see her at the “re-education center” (basically, Handmaid indoctrination school) where she was sent after her capture at the Canadian border, and with a longtime friend, Moira (Samira Wiley), back in a freer time when women could smoke and drink and have babies with whomever they wanted. (For awhile, the two reside in the same Gilead community.)
As Offred’s world unfurls itself in snippets—Offred and Moira at a college party years ago, then getting dinner a few years later, then together at the re-education center later still—we see that recent history doesn’t look too different from modern-day America. We also see how women are treated in Gilead: Lesbians have been reclassified as “unwomen”; women are blamed for their own rapes; open disrespect of the authorities can literally cost you an eye, or worse.
“This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time it will,” says Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), a teacher at the re-education center, of the world into which the handmaids are being enslaved. “This will become ordinary.” Warning words to all of us who, after the election, swore we’d never allow the radical acts of our president to feel “normal.”
As Offred walks home from the grocery store with Ofglen, we learn, via her inner monologue, that at some point in recent months Moira has disappeared.
Back at home, Offred prepares for her monthly “ceremony” with the commander. When summoned, she lays her head in the commander’s wife’s lap as the commander proceeds to have sex with her. (Surprise—the commander’s wife doesn’t seem especially thrilled about this setup. The commander, who keeps his clothes on the entire time, looks ill at ease.) “I want to know what I did to deserve this,” Offred muses to herself, as she prepares for the ceremony.
During “the ceremony” and afterward, Offred keeps her thoughts to herself—she remains awkwardly impassive as Commander Waterford has sex with her—but back in her room she starts to lose her grip. “I can feel the commander’s cum running out of me,” she thinks. “I can smell it.” Dressed only in her nightgown, Offred runs outside in a panic, in search of some air, some small escape—only to find Nick, the commander’s sultry-eyed driver, smoking. They stare at each other intensely before Offred snaps back to reality and returns to her room. She’s exposed herself; Nick saw her breaking the rules. Will he report her behavior to the authorities (known here as “eyes”)?
Offred can’t risk that, as we find out in the next flashback. Back in the re-education center, Janine (Madeline Brewer), the woman who got her eye gouged out because she suggested that her own gang rape might not have been her fault, is ranting and raving in the dorm room past curfew. Moira slaps her into submission, telling her what’ll happen to her if she doesn’t shut up—”you’ll die”—even as Offred offers sympathy. “She does this again and I’m not around you slap her, hard,” Moira warns Offred. “That shit is contagious. If you want to see your baby girl again then you need to keep your f---ing shit together.”
The need to find her daughter, we learn, is what keeps Offred sane. “Keep your f---ing shit together,” she reminds herself.
The next day, Offred is summoned to a “salvaging”—an event at which convicted criminals’ sentences are carried out. As she and Ofglen begin their trek she sees Nick outside the house, washing the car in extreme man-candy fashion. Offred realizes he hasn’t told anyone about the previous night. Does that mean he’s trustworthy? Or is he just biding his time?
When Offred and Ofglen arrive at the salvaging, they hear an upsetting rumor: According to Janine, who in the months since the re-education center has become both extremely pregnant and smugly pious, Moira is dead. Offred is stricken by this news but, as it turns out, has somewhere to project the rage and despair she feels: The handmaids, we discover, are the ones who carry out the sentences—in this case, death. The women demurely remove their wimples and then savagely beat a man to death.
On the way home, Oflgen reveals her true colors: She’s not the pious little shit Offred assumed she was. In Ofglen's “before” she liked sex and ice cream; she had a wife and a five-year-old son. And guess what? She thought Offred was a true believer, too. “They do that really well,” she tells Offred. “Make us distrust each other.” When she drops Offred off at her house, Ofglen leaves her with a warning: “There’s an eye in your house. Be careful.”
Back inside, Offred looks at her housemates with new eyes. Who is the eye? Who might betray her? “Someone is watching, here,” she says to herself. “Someone. Nothing can change. It all has to look the same.”
It has to look the same, but that doesn’t mean Offred intends to sit around and let herself be co-opted. For the first time in one of the bleakest hours of television since MSNBC’s Election Night broadcast, Handmaid’s Tale offers viewers an unexpected sliver of hope. All is not ordinary after all. Offred will keep up appearances, but she is awake and ready to fight. “I intend to survive,” she tells us, in the final words of the episode. “For her. Her name is Hannah. My husband was Luke. My name is June.”
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