Though we’ve only just begun to settle into the world of Gilead, the dystopian, totalitarian remnants of America where Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale takes place, the town has already been painted red, from the bloody spatters of the regime’s various victims to the can’t-miss handmaid habits. The second episode, however, begins with a break from the monochrome programming: Instead, we see a swath of blue and hear Offred’s inner monologue offering her mostly mundane memories of things that are blue, like the car she and her since-murdered husband bought off Craigslist.
They’re distractions, clearly, from the scarlet terror at present, which Offred has no shortage of in her everyday existence as a handmaid. Right now, it’s stemming from something much closer at hand: When red fills back up the screen, framing Offred, it turns out she’s jostling steadily up and down because the Commander is performing his monthly “ceremony,” aka having sex with her limp body, which has been splayed across his wife’s lap. (We will never get over how awkward this is.)
“I wish he’d hurry the f— up,” Offred says to herself. Finally, Fred finishes.
And then we see Offred seated along the river—beneath the hanging corpses of a gay man, a priest, and a doctor, at this point swarming with flies—with her handmaid posse, before leaving them to “take the long way” home with Ofglen, her newfound allie. “Whatever, I’m going home,” one of the spurned handmaids says in a rare moment of casualness, almost storming off before remembering: “Under his eye.” (It’s fascinating to watch each actor try to outperform the others’ line readings, in terms of tortured burden, of these three short words.)
It’s on this solitary walk that we get to know a bit more about how things went down pre-theocracy, in Offred and Ofglen’s clumsy exchange of would-be pleasantries. “Do you work in the city—or did you?” Oflgen asks. As it turns out, Offred did: she was once an assistant book editor from Brookline, Massachusetts with a daughter, Hannah, whose name she clearly relishes saying aloud. Her job involved things like processing nine volumes on the history of falconry, which both book-starved women agree “kind of sound[s] amazing right now.” Dire.
Ofglen, for her part, had a wife and a son, and lectured on cellular biology—a science-y and therefore “sinful” past the authorities did not punish her for thanks to her “two good ovaries.” (“Lucky me,” Ofglen sighs.)
It’s all too clear, though, that that past is long gone: the pair soon pass by the shell of a church that turns out to be where Offred was baptized. “They took down St. Patrick’s in New York City. Blew it up and dumped everyone stone in the Hudson River,” Ofglen tells Offred, eliciting a rare look of true alarm. Offred, it turns out, is not really so taken aback by the news, but by how Ofglen could possibly get such intel in a society where women are no longer even allowed to read. “How do you know that, and how do you know there’s an eye in my house?” Offred asks. That’s when unmarked black vans show up and two men hop out, stuffing an unsuspecting male on the other side of the street into the back. They leave the duo unscathed.
“It’s okay to be relieved it wasn’t you,” Ofglen offers on the way home. “It was someone,” Offred responds. Her empathy seems to solidify Ofglen’s trust in her, even in a world where, as she points out later, trusting anyone is dangerous, and especially a “carpet-munching gender traitor” like herself. “There’s a way you can help them,” she tells Offred. “You can join us.”
“Us” turns out to be an underground network of resistors who’ve all banded together to “find out anything” about those in power—particularly those up there in the ranks like Offred’s commander, Commander Fred. With a harsh “don’t say a word” instead of the usual “under his eye,” Ofglen leaves Offred contemplating her move in the driveway as the sunny sky opens up to pouring rain.
It’s a dramatic enough scene that’s followed by even more drama, as Offred steps inside the house and is immediately warned by Nick, the commander’s hot driver, to stay away from Ofglen. But not before taking a long, lingering look at Offred’s calf, which she accidentally exposes as she removes her sopping wet clothes. This glimpse of bare skin is basically getting to second base in Gilead if you’re not a commander.
Nick then tells her that Commander Fred expects to see her in his office at 9 p.m. that night, which, as far as protocol goes, is definitely way off the books. Offred’s mind, of course, starts to race, but not before the next emergency: a siren announces the approach of the Birth Mobile, which Offred piles into with the rest of the local handmaids, and where she learns that Ofwarren—“one-eyed batshit-crazy Janine”—is in labor, and therefore needs their mandated support. In infertile Gilead, this is a pull-out-all-the-stops situation. The crew descends on a mansion even more lavish than Commander Fred’s, where the smell of real coffee, a tower of pastel macarons, and a woman playing the harp awaits.
Not that the handmaids are here to party. They’re whisked upstairs to a room Offred describes “primal”-smelling to join other handmaids chanting “breathe” and “exhale” to a bulging Janine, who’s writhing and sweating all over a pristine white canopied bed—a noisy enough cover for Ofglen to quietly inquire, on Offred’s behalf, whether the rest have ever been asked for a solo meeting with their commanders.
Offred, for her part, sneaks downstairs and encounters Commander Fred’s wife for the first time outside of her husband’s domain. She quickly pulls Offred into the dining room with more of the wives, who demand to know “what’s going on up there.” “Aw, isn’t she well behaved?” one of them says as Offred accepts her reward from the commander’s wife, offered with as much contempt as she can muster into the phrase “Offred, would you like a cookie?” One of the wives sees this sugary indulgence as cause to call Offred a “little whore”; Offred leaves her chewed-up cookie perched on the edge of the sink in silent protest.
Everyone rushes upstairs so that Janine’s commander’s wife can take a seat behind her and mimic her moans and contractions, her face contorted in concentration and pain, at the moment Janine delivers the baby. “A fine and healthy girl,” Aunt Lydia declares, unknowingly echoing the words said to Offred when her daughter Hannah was born. Here, we get a glimpse at just how serious the plague of infertility, and just how warranted the cause for celebration, is. Chances for a healthy birth are one-in-five, if the woman can even get pregnant at all; in the flashback, Offred pulls up to the hospital as if she’s a celebrity, greeted by a raucous crowd openly praying hers would be a healthy baby.
It is, at least for a time. Offred wakes up later in the night to discover Hannah has disappeared, the alarm has gone off, and the hospital’s staff has gone running. She joins the throng and soon comes upon a lifeless attendant, sprawled across the linoleum floor in a pool of their own blood; a little further down the hall, a young, wide-eyed woman glances worriedly back at Offred over her shoulder, whose polite “excuse me” turns to shock and horror as she realizes the woman is holding her child—and referring to her as her own. “Don’t take my baby!” she screams before being tackled to the ground and handcuffed by a police officer, before Hannah is handed back to Offred.
Janine doesn’t get to have that joy of recovering her child, who’s quickly handed off to her Commander’s Wife. Meanwhile, back in the Birth Mobile, Offred learns Ofglen didn’t find out any intel about her commander, but tells her not to worry. “He probably just wants a blow job,” she says with a sad hint of a smile.
Eventually, the clock strikes nine, and Offred makes her way down to his office—a place all women, including his wife, are forbidden—while contemplating her potential imminent demise. “I can’t stop thinking about the girl in the horror movie who goes down into the basement when the light is out, the girl who thinks her boyfriend with the perfect hair is just playing a sexy prank,” Offred thinks. “That girl’s a f—ing moron,” she continues, knocking on the door. “Please don’t let me be a f—ing moron,” she adds as she steps inside.
The commander is waiting beside the fireplace in his dimly lit study, filled with row after row of books forbidden to Offred. “You can look at me,” he tells her when they take a seat at his desk. “In here, we might be able to bend the rules—just a bit.” The two greet each other again, this time with eye contact—“hi” and “hello there,” tentatively. The commander makes it clear he’s also nervous. “I want—this will sound silly. I’d like to play a game with you,” he stumbles, before taking a Scrabble board out of his drawer and setting it up on a table between two luxurious leather love seats. Offred’s hard cot upstairs seems a world away.
What follows is a close call of a match filled with words like “larynx” and “zygote.” Offred tells herself she let the commander win. “I’m rusty,” she offers when he announces his victory by three points, eliciting a promise of a rematch—and therefore another risky, clandestine meeting. “I’ll check my schedule,” she says, and the commander smiles, then turns their handshake into a hand-holding. It’s a very long goodbye, and Offred sneaks back to her room to both laugh and cry.
The next morning, Offred prances her way past a glaring Nick on her way to meet Ofglen, clearly amused at his imagination running wild at their “illicit journey into triple word scores,” to the tune of “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” by Simple Minds—a synth-y reminder that Margaret Atwood wrote the series’s novel in 1984. Of course, the light moment doesn’t last for long (it never does in The Handmaid’s Tale)—she unlocks the gate, eager to tell Ofglen about her unexpected evening and her intel on the commander’s trip to D.C., when her face falls.
“Has Ofglen been transferred to a new post so soon?” Offred asks the handmaid, who’s definitely not Alexis Bledel, waiting for her outside after some hesitation.
“I am Ofglen,” the woman responds. “F—,” Offred says to herself.
Margaret Atwood, Elisabeth Moss, and the Women of The Handmaid’s Tale
From left: Margaret Atwood, Elisabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Samira Wiley, Ann Dowd, Madeline Brewer, and Yvonne Strahovski.
Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and consulting producer of its Hulu series.
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