The Handmaid’s Tale: “Offred” Recap


By: Karen Valenzuela (@VictoriaNoir89)

First thing’s first. If you watched the premiere episode of Hulu’s Original series The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the chilling 1986 novel by Margaret Atwood, come here into my arms and accept this super tight hug. Take some deep, calming breaths. And let me fix you your drink of choice.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in the Republic of Gilead, what once was the United States of America. The Republic of Gilead is a totalitarian Christian fundamentalist state in which a select few men have destroyed our democracy from top to bottom and consolidated power. In Gilead, they teach that environmental degradation, birth control, and smut in general has brought God’s wrath upon them when a mysterious wave of infertility greatly reduces the population. Select women who are still fertile are rounded up, torn from their families, their lives, and sent as Handmaids to the homes of Commanders and other high-powered men whose Wives are infertile. They bear a child for the couple, do the grocery shopping, and otherwise make like wallpaper in the household. For all intents and purposes, this anti-feminist state is brutal, vicious, and intense. It’s no wonder Atwood’s book is the cornerstone of so many feminist (Don’t click away!!) literature courses. It’s a chilling premise all on its own, but the relevance and timeliness of this dystopian series airing right now, in our current political and social climate, makes The Handmaid’s Tale downright frightening.

When the first episode opens, panic immediately sets in for the viewer. We’re immersed in an escape scene, our protagonist and her family being chased in their car by sirens. Her family is split up as they try to escape, her husband shot as she and her daughter keep running through the woods. It’s terrifying, stressful, painful…and when they’re finally caught and torn apart by mask-wearing men carrying semi-automatic rifles, it’s deeply heartbreaking.

We’re taken forward in time then. And we meet Offred (Elizabeth Moss) as she is now, sitting in the windowsill of her room. Not a mother or a wife. Not the woman we saw running through the woods. She’s a Handmaid now, wearing what looks very much like a nun’s habit, her hair covered in a white cap, her robe deep red in color. The show gives us Offred’s inner monologue, in which she tells us she had another name once, but it’s forbidden now.

Next we see a flashback in which she first meets the Commander’s wife (Yvonne Strahovski). Immediately, the woman is cold, impersonal, and she compares the last Handmaid to a dog. Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) walks in to a chilly response from his wife, meets Offred with an exchange of unsettlingly impersonal greetings, and leaves again. We get the impression this is not a welcoming environment, especially when the wife tells her she wants to see her as little as possible. Along with the warning: “If I get trouble, believe me, I will give trouble back.” So, in all, a very nice woman.

Back in present time, we meet Rita (Amanda Brugel), one of the Marthas. The Marthas cook the food for the household from scratch, Narrator Offred explains. It’s a return to tradition, what “they” (we assume those who founded Gilead) fought for. Again, there’s no warmth from Rita, no connection, nothing that says “we’re in this together”. Offred takes the grocery order from her and walks out to meet her fellow Handmaid and walking companion, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel). On the way out, Offred is stopped by the Commander’s driver Nick (Max Minghella) who interacts with her in a way that feels forbidden. She wonders if he’s an Eye; presumably these are clandestine spies who infiltrate Gilead society to find those individuals who aren’t following the rules.

On the way home, Offred and Ofglen go past the river where we see sinners hanging from the wall, dead, their heads covered in sacks that bear a symbol which represents what their crime was. Catholicism, abortion doctor, gay man…it’s a message. Anyone who upsets the balance of Gilead’s order, anyone who represents change or difference from status quo, is punished and made an example of.

We’re thrown into another flashback, to when Offred first arrives at the Red Center where Handmaids are trained (or intimidated, and mentally and sometimes physically brutalized into submission) before they’re sent to their households. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) is showing slides and movies of how terrible the world was before Gilead, how God punished them all with infertility, and how Gilead has restored order. We see how she deals with disorder when one of the new girls mouths off – a sickening and electrifying stab with a cattle prod to the neck. Aunt Lydia is Miss Trunchbull from Matilda but with the violence and intensity turned up a couple hundred notches. In the Red Center, Offred sees someone she recognizes from before Gilead, before she was taken, an old college friend of hers named Moira (Samira Wiley). They’re both in the same boat now, and at least, it seems, they have each other while they’re in the Red Center.

Back in the present, we witness Offred prepare for “The Ceremony.” A bell rings quietly and she walks down into the sitting room, kneeling on the floor as Rita and Nick come in to stand behind her. The Commander’s wife strolls in and lights a cigarette, ignoring the other occupants in the room like they are no more than furniture. The Commander comes in and reads to them a passage that parallels what happens next – we see Offred lying between the Commander’s wife’s legs on a bed while the Commander has sex with his Handmaid. It’s a frankly sickening scene in which we see every party involved removing themselves from it in every sense but the physical. The Commander leaves and his wife pulls away from Offred with anger and disgust, telling her to get out and lighting another cigarette. Offred leaves the room and the wife bites back tears – her shame, despair, and perhaps even the futility of everything is palpable.

Later that night, Offred breaks down and staggers outside in her underthings, but she’s spotted by Nick. She’s afraid of what he’ll do, but by the next morning no Eyes have come, no black vans, and she thinks either he won’t tell anyone, or he just hasn’t yet. She wonders why.

Three bells signal what Offred calls “The Salvaging.” She goes down to tell Rita she’s been called away and Nick meets them in the kitchen. He and Offred have yet another exchange that is markedly personal, a step further than anyone in the household should be going in their interactions with each other. (If you don’t have “Praise be” to say, don’t say anything at all.)

The Handmaids gathering for the Salvaging.

At the Salvaging, Offred spots one of the women she met in the Red Center in the group of Handmaids gathering. The whisper to each other, and Offred asks if she’s heard from anyone else. Her friend asks if she’s heard from Moira. Another Handmaid who overhears turns around and informs them that Moira is dead. She tried to escape, they caught her, and she was sent to the colonies – which is akin to a death sentence. The Salvaging turns out to be a punishment ceremony. An ex-Guard is brought in front of the Handmaids by Aunt Lydia, accused of raping a pregnant Handmaid and causing her to lose her baby. She asks the Handmaids to gather in a circle around the accused and the “particicution” begins when she blows her whistles. The Handmaids beat and tear apart the man, with a vengeful and upset Offred viciously partaking after hearing of her best friend’s fate. It’s violent, wild, animalistic, and seriously traumatic to watch. When Aunt Lydia blows her whistle again, they stop, and the Salvaging is over, the man dead.

As Offred leaves, walking beside her companion Ofglen, she flashbacks again to before Gilead, when she first told Moira she was pregnant. It’s a taste of the infertility issue that swept the country and started the government takeover. Moira reassures her that all of the miscarriages they were hearing about wouldn’t happen to her, that she and her husband Luke would be okay.

Back in the present, Ofglen finally reveals her true self. She says she’s sorry about Offred’s friend, and they stop in front of a shop on the way home which Ofglen says used to be an ice cream shop that had salted caramel. She says it was better than sex…”good sex”. A form of connection after months of being suspicious of one another, and Ofglen tells her about her wife and son who escaped to Canada. They stop at the Waterford residence and Ofglen whispers: “It was nice to finally meet you.” (Just wreck my soul, show.) But then, just as Offred shuts the gate, Ofglen tells her there’s an Eye inside her house, and that she needs to be careful. This colors the way Offred looks at everyone in the household. And the episode ends where the episode began, with Offred sitting in her window. “Someone is watching. Here. Someone is always watching. Nothing can change. It all has to look the same. Because I intend to survive. For her. Her name is Hannah. My husband was Luke. My name is June.”

The intermingling of flashbacks mimics the set-up in Atwood’s novel – telling the story in broken up chunks that were very easy to follow. And the flashbacks were visually stunning. Scenes in which we see Offred before, spending time with her daughter, the beauty of what we see as normalcy. An aquarium, playing in a lake. The flashbacks of the Red Center and what the Handmaids went through as they were prepped for their roles; abuse that is emotional, mental, and physical. One of the Handmaids, Janine (Madeline Brewer), tells the rest of them the story of when she was gang-raped; it ends with Aunt Lydia commanding the others to chant that it’s her fault, that God brought that suffering upon her to teach her a lesson. It’s a frightening parallel to the victim blaming we see in our own society now when women accuse men of rape.

In fact, many of the moments in this first episode were especially terrifying warnings of what an anti-feminist society would look like – when a society is built on stripping 50% of the population’s freedom and making them into brainless wombs with no identity, when crimes that receive the harshest punishment are directly linked to the process of childbearing and childbirth, expanding the population. It’s a reminder to stay awake, be alert, and not to allow indignities to become “ordinary.”

The show’s visuals are completely visceral, every gesture and every look has an importance and a depth that’s simply stunning. We see the small things Offred does to feel something in this wickedly strict society that has stripped women of their rights, all the way down to being able to have feelings. She strokes the wood of the banister, and you know that feeling as you watch, you can imagine it against your fingertips. The way she looks at things from under the wings Handmaids wear. The way her face twists in fury, or in heartbreak, and sometimes a combination of the two. The episode had some freaky tableaus of just how screwed up Gilead is, like the innocent sight of a Martha standing at the edge of the river feeding ducks while a Guard sinisterly sits above her with his rifle.

Yvonne Strahovski is intimidating and chilling, all the way down to the sound of her footsteps. Her face is constantly cast in steel, even as she sits on the bed and holds Offred down while her own husband invades this woman’s body. Throughout the episode, she seems hollow and bitter. She snarks at her husband, almost as if begging him to react, but he ignores it and you wonder if this doesn’t further her shame. She smokes her cigarettes in heightened bitterness, almost like they add to her life’s indignity by not giving her the pleasure or connection she apparently no longer receives from her husband. And after the Ceremony, the antagonism we see in the Commander’s wife through the whole of the episode crumbles and we see a woman who’s broken in every. single. way. She’s been stripped of everything and locked out of meetings that used to include her. She, also, has been relegated to a useless position in society and you can see how deeply it affects her. This is absolutely stunning work from Strahovski, to make a woman who’s this intimidating and so blatantly cruel to our protagonist elicit sympathy from us.

Even in the inner monologue, Elizabeth Moss is breathtakingly powerful as Offred, her voice sometimes hollow and matter-of-fact, other times dripping with biting sarcasm (she had me at “pious little shit”). The suppressed emotion in her face builds and builds even as her body remains motionless, until she finally lets it out. It’s heart shattering when she does, and I personally felt rage for her, almost a violent rage. The fact that they manage to get their viewers to feel this powerfully for a character in just the first hour of a show is frankly impressive.

If the first episode is indicative of what we should expect from the rest of the series, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale will certainly be the most compelling and, honestly, panic-inducing show in 2017. It may in fact drive me to drink…more.

Catch the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu now! Look out for recaps of episodes two and three before the fourth episode is released next Wednesday, and let us know in the comments what you thought of episode one!

    One Comment

  1. AnnmarieApril 29th, 2017 at 8:44 am

    An outstanding review of an incredibly well-done adaptation of one the most influential books of the 20th century. Karen’s analysis of the themes, nuance and emotional intellect of this frighteningly relevant story is spot on and I cannot wait to see her thoughts on the subsequent episodes.

    And for all you Chuck nerds out there, do not miss Yvonne Strahovski’s game-changing role. She absolutely slays in every scene she is in, from the quietest moment of pain to the loudest moment of rage, she owns this incredibly challenging character.

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