Welcome to Gilead, where ordinary is just what you're used to
“My name is Offred. I had another name, but it’s forbidden now. So many things are forbidden now.”
Are you ready for some dystopian horrors that feel just a little too real? Hope so, because we’ve just begun Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s chilling 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a story all too culturally relevant again today.
The series premiere shares a title with our central character: Offred (Elisabeth Moss). Like she tells us, she had a different name — June — in the time before the United States collapsed and was replaced by a totalitarian theocracy known as Gilead. Here, in the not-so-distant future, where pollution and radiation caused birth rates to plummet and women have been stripped of all their rights, the few fertile women who remain are used as “Handmaids,” forced to bear children for the Commanders and their wives. Even her new name is a symbol of her lack of agency in this new world: Offred literally means “Of Fred,” the name of the Commander she’s currently assigned to. She’s not a person — she’s a possession.
But how did Offred/June get here? In Atwood’s book, she remembers flashes of her pre-Gilead life with her husband, Luke, and young daughter, Hannah — a day at the beach, a trip to the aquarium, nights out with friends — and now we get to actually see them. Take the opening moments of this episode: June, her husband, and their young daughter are fleeing by car, trying to get to the Canadian border. When their car runs off the road, Luke tells them to run and stays behind — but June doesn’t get far before gunshots ring out behind them. You can see the anguish in Moss’ eyes and the quick decision that she can’t focus on it now, picking up the little girl and going forward. (Side note: Moss’ acting on this show, at least from the three episodes I’ve seen so far, is tremendous. There’s so much Offred can’t say out loud, and you can see it all in her expressions, or a clenched fist, and the way she speaks in voice-over.) Of course, they don’t make it to the border. Gilead officials catch them, forcibly separate mother and daughter, and take them back to the fundamentalist regime they were trying to escape.
Now, in present-day Gilead, she is Offred the Handmaid, sitting in her small room in Commander Waterford’s (Joseph Fiennes) home. She has a chair, a table, a lamp, and a window with white curtains — the glass is shatterproof, she explains in a voice-over, not to prevent the Handmaids from running away, but to prevent against those “other escapes — the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge, or a twisted sheet and a chandelier.”
We also meet the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy — who is played by Yvonne Strahovski here and is younger than I remember the character being described when I read Atwood’s book, but still just as cold and unkind to Offred — and Rita, one of the “Marthas,” a.k.a. domestic workers who cook and clean. (The women’s roles determine the clothes they wear: Marthas wear green, wives wear blue, and Handmaids, like Offred, wear red dresses with matching cloaks and white bonnets that obscure their faces when they’re out of their homes — and they’re all lucky, relatively speaking, compared to those deemed “unwomen” who are sent to the colonies to clean up toxic waste until they die.) And there’s also Nick (Max Minghella), the Commander’s driver, who lives above the detached garage on the property.
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Offred is sent out to do the day’s shopping — Rita gives her vouchers with pictures, as women are no longer allowed to read — and she sets off with another Handmaid, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel). Handmaids are always to travel in twos, Offred explains to us, not for their own protection but so the women can keep an eye on one another. At first she thinks Ofglen is, to use her words, a “pious little s—,” and their chitchat is limited to innocuous things like the weather and updates on an apparently ongoing war against the rebels. After the grocery store stop, they take a route home that takes them past a wall where people are hung for what are now deemed treasonous acts. Their heads are covered by bags that depict their crimes — there’s a priest, a doctor, and a gay man. (“I think I heard that joke once. This wasn’t the punchline,” Offred muses to herself, cuttingly.)
We also see another flashback that takes us inside the Rachel and Leah Center, a former high school where women are indoctrinated into their Handmaid roles. There, the “Aunts” — brown-clad older woman, so-called teachers — spin stories about how our previous society messed everything up (cue the slides of pollution, radiation, charts with plummeting birth rates) and the women of that time were “dirty,” and “sluts,” but as Handmaids they are “special,” carrying out a Biblical purpose. When a newly captured June/Offred enters, mid-lesson, she sees someone she knows: Moira (Orange Is the New Black’s Samira Wiley), a free-spirited pal she knew before Gilead. Moira shakes her head slowly, and the intent is clear: Don’t act like we know each other. When another student, Janine, talks back, Lydia (Ann Dowd) shocks her with a cattle prod and has her taken away, before offering a line straight from Atwood’s novel, which I’d say is the scariest quote of the entire episode:
“I know this must feel very strange. But ordinary is just what you’re used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary.”
Do you feel icky yet? I sure do. Because yes, right now she’s talking about a totalitarian regime in a fictional TV show based on a fictional book, but pick any bit of unsettling news you’ve read in the paper or seen on the news of late, and it feels just as true. At first it feels wrong, but if it happens enough, it becomes normalized. It’s just your everyday life.
At night in the center, as June and Moira are awake whispering, Janine is brought back crying, and we see what happens to those who disobey: one of her eyes is gone. (“We’re breeding stock, you don’t need eyes for that,” Moira mutters.) Even worse, another day’s “lesson” finds her telling the rest of her fellow Handmaids about being gang-raped. “Who led them on?” Aunt Lydia asks the group. “Who’s fault was it?” The women surrounding point their fingers at Janine: “Her fault.” When a stunned June doesn’t join in, she’s slapped by another Aunt — Margaret Atwood herself, in a cameo role. When Lydia poses the next question (“Why did it happen?”), June joins in the group shaming under the Aunts’ unforgiving stare: “Teach her a lesson.”
In the present, Offred takes part in another necessity of her new life: the Ceremony, when the Commander tries to impregnate a Handmaid as she lies in his wife’s lap. It’s joyless for all of them, and difficult to watch: The look in Offred’s eyes says it all, as does the contempt on Serena Joy’s face. After she’s dismissed and back in her room, Offred bolts out of bed and into the backyard, desperate for air — but that brief moment of release is halted when she realizes something potentially dangerous: Nick can see her.
The next morning, she doesn’t have much time to worry about why Nick hasn’t told anyone she was outside before she hears a series of bells signaling a Salvaging, another chilling ritual in this new world order. All the Handmaids gather in an open field, and a man is brought out in front of them – a man who, according to Aunt Lydia, raped a pregnant Handmaid and caused her to lose the baby. They’re told to stand around him, and once a whistle blows, they can do whatever they choose to him until the whistle blows again. It’s essentially The Purge, Gilead style, a way for the women to unleash the rage they must feel in their captivity. When the signal comes, Offred lands the first blow (in the book, interestingly, that’s Ofglen, and she has a specific reason for doing so), and then the women descend, screaming, grabbing, pulling, kicking — only Janine, clutching her now-pregnant belly, watches from a few feet away, twirling happily in the sun.
When it’s over, Offred and Ofglen take their walk home together and finally begin to see each other clearly. They talk about Moira, who Janine claimed was captured and sent to the colonies, and of a former ice cream shop where there was a salted caramel Ofglen remembers as being “better than sex,” how they both thought the other was a true believer (“They do that really well, make us distrust each other,” Offred remarks), about Offred’s husband and daughter and Ofglen’s wife and son, who were lucky enough to escape into Canada. They stop in front of the Commander’s home and remark how it was nice to finally “meet” each other. But the warmth is short lived: As Offred goes to close the gate, Ofglen leans in and whispers that there’s an Eye in her house. “Be careful,” she warns, before walking on, leaving Offred to walk into a home where anyone and everyone could be watching her.
Nevertheless, she plans to persist. “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,” she says, before declaring the names of her family, a totem and a battle cry. “Her name is Hannah. My husband was Luke. My name is June.”