Everything written on THE HANDMAID’S TALE praises the show for many things; the acting, the chilling direction, the expert adaptation of such an iconic piece of literature. The most often praised part of this show, though is its sheer timeliness. A gendered dystopia often seems like it’s just around the corner as more and more legislation is passed policing women’s bodies. The novel of The Handmaid’s Tale was so revolutionary in that it went above and beyond other dystopian works by showing that there is and will always be a gendered factor in oppression. It was true when Margaret Atwood published the novel in 1985, and it feels even truer today, as the current government continues to try to control women’s bodies. The immediacy of this adaptation, over three decades after the book came out speaks to Atwood’s original intent and speaks to the often unspoken fear that we are heading toward a world all too similar to the one inhabited by these characters.
It takes a lot of quality to inspire this kind of dread, so hats immediately off to the talent showcased in just the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, on and off camera. Every shot feels precises, calculating, which only adds to the chilling nature of the show as a whole. The show tells the story of Offred (Elizabeth Moss), a handmaid, one of the few fertile women in this future version of the United States. She is called Offred because she is “of Fred,” doesn’t even get to have her own name, just a reminder that she is nothing more than property. Handmaid’s exists as essentially that, to bear children for distinguished men, much to the chagrin of their wives. Everything in this world and this set up is based around the bible, a book so often cited when it comes to subjugating women. The haunting passage read over the “ceremony” of trying to impregnate Offred, stays with the viewers for a while, giving time for the nature of this act to sink in.
Through flashbacks and voiceovers we are told how the world got this way, how fertility rates dropped a police state took over, to capture and train this women. “Blessed are the meek” is a refrain repeated over and over again, as the women continually get their will squeezed out of them. The lives they had before are essentially erased, as shown in the first few moments of the episode, when Offred’s husband is shot and they rip her daughter away from her. It’s painful to watch, as it should be, and just as painful to watch Offred succumb to living in this world, and becoming a Handmaid.
Toward the end of the episode, seeds are planted for some sort of resilience. This is not a rebellion let’s-over-take-our-masters situation, at least not yet, but Offred’s first spark of resisting is in her own autonomy. It feels right that the sense of self that this society is desperately trying to steal from her and the other handmaids is the thing that will allow her to fight back. At the very close of the episode “Offred” sits in her room, saying the names of her husband and daughter, and then finally her own name, “June.” This utterance is powerful in itself, proving that they cannot strip her identity and self from her, no matter how hard they try.
In this bleak world created by Atwood and the creators of the show, every shred of hope feels monumental, a saving grace in this world that is so foreign, but so tangible. Another moment of hope comes when Offred finally has a conversation with Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), another handmaid who Offred previously referred to as a “pious bitch.” Finally, the two drop their masks of piety and talk about the loved ones they were torn from: for Ofglen, it was a wife and a son. The two of these women sharing a moment of connection and communication is opposite of insignificant. It shows that there are allies in hidden places, and there may be more to come.
This first episode introduces us to a tense, harrowing and all too real world. There is immediate intrigue and compassion for Offred and the other with the same fate, and a desperation implanted in the audience for them to succeed. As the case was when Atwood’s novel first came out, all too often the vision of the future doesn’t take into account the biases and gendered social standings that affect us today. The Handmaid’s Tale is not that way. It feeds of fears we have of how are bodies are simply seen as tools, and builds that into a vibrant real world. If that were all the show did, it would still be excellent, but providing that small amount of hope and resistance, makes for a truly gripping story.
Season 1, Episode 1 (S01E01)
The Handmaid’s Tale airs Wednesday at on Hulu.
Raina spends most of her time watching television and trying to find the perfect bagel and lox, because she likes being emotionally distraught.
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Raina Deerwater | Contributor