Three episodes in, and other than flashbacks to a pre-theocratic dystopia, which just reminds us of the political unrest of today (sigh), we only ever see the stars of The Handmaid’s Tale in those floor-skimming red robes. The third episode, though, begins with a rare outfit change for Alexis Bledel’s Ofglen, though under unfortunate circumstances: she emerges from her disappearance in the last episode in an equally scarlet prison jumpsuit, her mouth covered in a sturdy piece of cloth that’s much more of a muzzle than a surgical mask.
“There was a black van, then footsteps on the stairs, then something quick and brutal that made her unable to scream,” Elisabeth Moss’s Offred says of how Ofglen ended up incarcerated—at least the version of it she heard from Rita, the housekeeper, as the Marthas apparently have their own secret networks, too. “She left nothing behind—no footprints, no breadcrumbs. I didn’t even know her name.”
There is already a replacement Ofglen, who keeps calm as the pair walk past men in pea coats and beanies carrying machine guns—which, post-Alexis Bledel disappearance, Offred realizes is a situation she got way too comfortable with too quickly. “When they slaughtered congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the constitution, we didn’t wake up then, either. They said it would be temporary. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it,” she says. “Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen.”
What did happen, exactly? We get a clearer picture of how things came to be in another flashback that bears a disconcerting resemblance to the present, where Offred and Moira are blasting Peaches (okay, not everything is the most current) on a jog which finds them decked out in workout apparel, not robes. They reach their destination, a sun-drenched café, only to find their regular orders—medium drip coffee with a shot and a small nonfat cap, please—out of their reach. Offred’s card has been declined, despite the fact that she deposited her paycheck a day ago, which she casually politely points out—a protest enough, apparently, to prompt the barista to call the pair of them “f—ing sluts” who need to “get the f— out.”
It’s an unsolicited attack that so many present-day women have heard, but it’s nonetheless jarring in such a public, sunny setting, especially when Moira is forced into that all-too-familiar reaction of a woman under threat: she attempts to make light of a clearly unprovoked and undeserved aggression, nearly even apologizing and making pleasantries, like asking the man’s name and whether it’s his first day. (Her initial “are you serious dude?” is a rare instance of a character reacting the way the audience does to the horrors shown onscreen.)
Clearly, though, something is underfoot, and the tension only escalates when Offred calls up her bank and is put hold due to an “unexpected call volume.” It’s a rote event that suddenly adopts a chilling significance, as women all over the country are attempting to do the same. “Sounds like they just froze any account with an ‘F’ on it instead of an ‘M,’” Moira later tells Offred.
Before she learns the $4,000 in her account has been handed over to her husband and that she can no longer own property, though, Offred, the then-assistant book editor, is beckoned back into the office with the rest of the staff—along with a line of men carrying machine guns. “Are they with building security or something?” she asks a friend. It’s one of her final moments of naiveté.
“Ladies, you should all know that I feel really sorry about this,” their boss, Roger, says. “I have to let you go.” Not fired, he attempts to clarify in vain, but let go, because “you can’t work here anymore—it’s the law now.”
“Roger, what law?” Offred asks her boss, also in vain. She eventually packs up the family photos on her desk and marches out with the rest of the women, each carrying a box—a sad reversal of one of Moss’s most empowering scenes as Peggy Olson on Mad Men—and still maintaining that ounce of decorum women are obligated to as she thanks the armed man who holds the building’s door open for her.
“Under his eye,” he responds, and we see Offred react the way we first did upon hearing a interaction conclude with the state-mandated intonation. “Excuse me?” she says, with a quizzical look.
Back in the present, Offred finds herself being treated surprisingly well: the housekeeper Rita stops her from picking up a bag of groceries, then even pulls out the seat for her at the dinner table to serve her lunch, which she then tops off with not only a dessert (which she had to barter for) but also a rose, eliciting yet another inner “f—” from Offred. (“A rose is a rose is a rose, except here. Here, it has to mean something.”)
The latter turns out to have been courtesy of Commander Fred’s Wife, Serena Joy, who then drops in to warmly wish Offred a “blessed day” and inquire if she enjoyed her walk. Obviously, this seems suspicious, but makes much more sense when she follows up by asking, “You’re not nauseous? Are your breasts tender at all?” Offred, it turns out, is a few days late with her period, which is everyone’s business in her household, especially one in which she has to ask permission to use pads. Even when Offred protests she feels normal, Serena Joy’s newfound optimism hardly flags: “You need to be in the clean plate club!” she pronounces, urging Offred finish her meal with painful enthusiasm.
Offred’s non-menstruation is cause enough for Serena Joy celebrate. She invites her along back to the lavish mansion that’s home to macarons, a newborn baby, and Offred’s one-eyed friend Janine. It’s here that Offred gets a chance to hold an infant, despite the protests of Serena Joy’s friends. “She’s done it before,” she insists, standing up for Offred while at the same time revealing she knows—and still probably never remotely cared about—Offred’s troubled past.
Handmaids are clearly unwelcome after the mansion-owner’s wife reveals “that girl, that ungrateful girl” Janine bit her while she was attempting to take away her baby, and Offred wanders upstairs to find her teething friend, who turns out to have a series of unsettling secrets, from asserting that she can do anything now that she’s had a healthy baby—even have ice cream—to her commander’s alleged promise that he loves her and plans to run away with her someday.
“I’m afraid she’s losing touch,” Offred tells Serena Joy as she descends downstairs, making for a rare moment in which we can actually imagine the two on a level playing field, just chatting in pre-totalitarian times—especially when Serena Joy joins in in breaking down the fourth wall. “You know, what you do and what we do together is so terrible. It’s terribly hard and we must remain strong,” she says with a nod. It’s almost encouraging until you remember her motivations.
Offred rides back home alone to the commander’s, meaning a solo hang with the hot driver Nick—a rare opportunity to flirt that soon turns to disaster when Offred’s careless prattle (“I love fat babies. Do you know Ofglen’s gone?”) is interrupted by Nick’s warning: “There’s no point trying to be brave,” he says sternly. “Everybody breaks. Everybody.”
He pulls into the driveway, which turns out to be occupied by both an anxiety-inducing unmarked van and Aunt Lydia, the stern guard who, back at the brainwashing Red Center, led Offred and a group of soon-to-be handmaids in a chant blaming Janine for her gang rape.
“Please god, I don’t want pain, I don’t want to be a doll hung on the wall, I want to keep living. I’ll do anything—resign my body freely to the uses of others. I will sacrifice, I will repent, I will abdicate.” These are Offred’s painfully pitiful internal offerings, which are soon interrupted by a stab from Aunt Lydia’s electroshock prod in the opulent sitting room; evidently, she’s under enough duress to even forget to mention her raison d’être at this point—her daugher, Hannah—in her adrenaline-filled laundry list of concerns.
With Offred still recovering from being electrocuted, the interrogation begins, and a series of questions about Ofglen soon transpire that leave Offred no chance. “Ofglen is quite a beautiful girl, isn’t she?” Aunt Lydia prods. “What part of her is so very pleasant? Did you ever do anything more than talking?”
It becomes clear that Ofglen’s sexuality is the focus; Offred is quickly delivered another shock for admitting she knew Ofglen previously had a wife and was therefore a “gender traitor”—a phrase Offred still stiffens at. “I knew she was gay,” Offred says in the usual parlance, earning herself another zap in the neck.
“That girl, that thing, was an offense to god. She was a disgusting beast,” Aunt Lydia fumes. Even more than her choice of descriptors, the way she wields the past tense is chilling. Eventually, Offred’s cheekiness is enough for Lydia to turn her electroshock baton into a night stick. The violence is brutal; Serena Joy, of all people, jumps in. “She’s pregnant!” she cries, stroking Offred’s face. In fact, we still don’t know whether she actually is.
Meanwhile, Ofglen is doing anything she can to escape her newest prison, even attempting to give one of the guards a hand job. One quick courtroom trial later, she and a Martha are found guilty of “gender treachery.” Ofglen, aka Handmaid 8967, is “sentenced to redemption.” The pair are carted off in yet another unmarked van, sobbing and grasping each other’s hands before the Martha is hanged before Ofglen’s very eyes. When she wakes up after passing out, what appears to be a sort of heaven turns out to be an eerily white and empty patient room. Ofglen doubles over in pain; redemption, it turns out, means female genital mutilation.
Back at the commander’s, a bruised-up Offred isn’t doing too well herself, especially when hot driver Nick steps inside her room to offer her ice and almost leans in for a kiss—a reminder, especially after Ofglen, that affairs are possible even in Gilead, despite the life-or-death risks. His attempt to help appears to leave Offred even more preoccupied than before. Nick seems just a little too casual about it, which recalls an earlier flashback where Offred’s husband, try as he might to help, just doesn’t get it. “Should I just go into the kitchen and cut my dick off?” he asks Offred and Moira angrily when they continue to fret over their frozen bank accounts, insisting, with good but extremely patronizing intentions, that he’ll make sure to “take care” of them.
“That’s where all this comes from,” Moira says when he refers to Offred as “my wife” right in front of her. “She doesn’t belong to you; she isn’t your property.” Soon, though, Moira’s forced to put an end to her protests: she needs him to walk her to the train station, since at this point, “it’s crazy out there.”
Indeed it is: we soon find Moira and Ofglen taking out their frustrations on the streets in a protest that bears an eerie resemblance to those that have been taking place across America since January, making it all the more hair-raising when the police begin to open fire on the crowd, sending even more blood flying with grenades.
As it turns out, there’s blood with terrifying consequences in the present, too: Offred discovers she’s had her period, which infuriates Serena Joy, who’s been busy outfitting Offred a new, sun-lit room when she hears the news. She physically drags, and then throws her, to her bedroom floor.
“Things can get worse for you,” she adds menacingly, slamming the door.
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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