The Handmaid’s Tale: 1x01 Offred.
Ordinary is just what you’re used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after some time it will. This will become ordinary.
It is hard to pick a most horrible moments out of the many, many horrors that occur in the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian classic. As a series pilot, the episode introduces the main character of the series, and the world that she now inhabits. It shows the world that she used to live in, one that is very similar to the one the viewer may be used to, in flashbacks. The implication in the contrast, and in how A turns into B, is that The Handmaid’s Tale is a warning of sorts – but it wouldn’t be as effective, and as horrible, if the focus weren’t on Elisabeth Moss’ protagonist and her path through this episode.
In the beginning, a family – woman, man, child – are escaping in a car. They run through the woods. The woman with the child and the man separate, and when she hears gun shots, she hears conclusion. Eventually, the men catch up with her. They take the child away. They stun her, and take her away.
This is the past. It’s Offred’s past, and also not her past, because the name that she used to have as well as the name of her husband her child, are forbidden now. Many things about the world that she comes from are forbidden now. In the now, which is a transformation of the old, she is a Handmaiden, selected for her fertility to bear a heir for a man of the governing elite (a “Commander”, played by Joseph Fiennes) in a world that has left many women, including his wife (played as scarily highly-strung by Yvonne Strahovski, like a bomb waiting to go off) barren. The starting point here, as we will later find out, is environmental destruction, which has created a societal and cultural crisis that has provided a fertile ground for a kind of religious totalitarianism that would seem far-flung if it weren’t for the many moments throughout this first episode where it connects neatly to our current world.
For example – having been kidnapped by the regime that she attempted to escape from, the woman is sent to a re-education centre, referred to by its former inmates as the “Red Center”, to be indoctrinated in the ideological ways. As a fertile woman, she is a rare commodity, and the entire ideology of Gilead (previously The United States, now torn by a yet to be detailed civil conflict, perhaps a civil war) is built around justifying the complete commodification of her, as a woman. It is an entire society built around the idea that women serve the sole purpose of bearing heirs for the governing elite. The fact that these women are sentient beings, capable of their own wishes and thoughts, is a problem that the governing ideology addresses in many ways, most of them through violence. This violence is deeply and profoundly ritualistic, and ranges from the precise way in which the rape of Handmaidens by their assigned families is orchestrated (the way it demands cleanliness from the victim, the way it implicates the wives and positions them precisely to hate the Handmaidens even more, the first of many attempts to prevent women from rebelling against that which tortures them), to the way that executions of any elements that are undesirable have become a public spectacle. This first episode is an escalation of many things – for example, Offred and her assigned companion Ofglen pass men who have been executed, and now turned into a public exhibition of what happens to those who act up against the regime (through being priests, doctors, gay). Later, the church bells ring three times to call the Handmaidens to their other duty, which is communally executing a man who has committed rape against one of their own.
There is no real chronological way to write about this.
The re-education centre teaches the woman that the world has changed. She is already shell-shocked into it, but at the same time, the way the Aunts (the woman who re-educate, who monitor, who seem to be tasked with carrying the ideology forward, even though they lack the “gift” of fertility) talk about it connects so very smoothly to our present time. We learn that in the past, women were nasty, and sluts, for living their own lives, but now this has changed. We learn that a woman who was gang-raped by men she knew was to blame for her own rape, that it was her fault, that god was teaching her a lesson. Graphic and quick violence teaches each and every one of them what it means to disagree with any of this, or to refuse to become complicit in the shaming of other women. It effectively, and very quickly, creates a situation in which friendship, companionship and trust between these women seems to be impossible. The greatest fear of this regime, it appears, is women working together or forming any kind of true emotional bond that isn’t tainted by mistrust, my suspicion. The greatest fear is that all of this may end if women find a way to work together.
Outside of the well-guarded mansion, when she is sent out to do the shopping, Offred is always accompanied by Ofglen (Alexis Bledel). It is the eloquent consequence of their previous programming, of knowing that the other women in the room were quick to point fingers, to shout accusations, if faced with the consequence of possible violence. It means that Offred is spying on Ofglen, and Ofglen is spying on Offred, and it doesn’t matter if any actual informing is happening, because the horror of the suspicion is enough to make trust impossible. A Handmaiden in the supermarket makes a throwaway comment about being aware of the news, which is also forbidden now, and the others stare at her in horror, since she has given herself away, and any of them may be a spy. Perhaps each of them isn’t, but the brilliant way in which the regime has set them up means that they cannot meet each other with anything but mistrust. It’s a constant play for power – and the beautiful thing about the episode, maybe, is that it permits Offred’s internal dialogue, that we know how in spite of all of these sanctions, all of this brainwashing and the incredible violence, the sarcastic, self-preserving inner monologue, her voice, has not been muted. And since becoming an adult means realising that each of us possess such a voice, it means realising that all of these other quiet characters have just the same capacity, and looking at each other with the same amount of unsaid sentences and thoughts.
Further into the past, when things were different, which is something that nobody is permitted to think about, both for the preservation of the regime and the self-preservation of living in a world that abuses and kills in that way, the woman had a best friend. Her name was Moira (Samira Wiley), and they would support each other and be on each other’s side through everything and anything. They met in college. When the woman became pregnant with the child, Moira did everything in her power to soothe concerns about birth-defects and deaths, all those horrible things in the headlines .
They met again, later, in the Red Center. Moira passed something on, before disappearing into a void that isn’t filled by bits and pieces of gossip and news spread between rebellious Handmaidens – she told the woman that the only way to survive this was to be strong, that she couldn’t let any of that crazy shit get to her if she wanted to see her daughter again. That surely, at some point in the future, things had to return to the way they were. So grabbing a machine gun and shouting and screaming at the supermarket isn’t possible, and neither are any of the other ways out that she mentions when she first observes all the ways in which the chamber in the Commander’s mansion has been made to prevent her suicide, which is the only way that is still open for her to not be an available commodity for this regime. She has to survive to see her daughter again.
There are moments of escalating violence in this episode (Janine losing an eye, and her mind, all the Handmaiden’s taking part in the vicious execution, like a purge of emotions that otherwise would be directed towards their freedom, the ritualised rape of Offred), but there are just as many moments where the cracks show. The Handmaiden’s who deviate in their small spaces of freedom into a language that lacks the inauthentic formality of scripture. The gossip that still inevitably spreads. The way that all those quiet moments of waiting, of boredom, of not being allowed any kind of distracting activities, breeds internal dialogue, and therefore self-reflection, and the capacity for rebellion. That completely beautiful progression of mistrust between Ofglen and Offred to their shared moment in the end.
Ofglen: They do that really well, make us distrust each other.
There is a flashback of Moira, promising that “And you got me. No matter what happens, I’ll be right. You and me. Just like always.” The horror of realising that Moira was sent to the colonies, and is very likely dead. The fact that Offred’s dissociation, her inability to keep her face after the emotional turmoil of realising her best friend in the world may have died, leads to Ofglen finally trusting her enough to reveal herself to be a person, with her own past, her own thoughts, her own identity. That it leads to these two women having a conversation about the past, and the people that they lost, is beautifully fitting. Moira reminded Offred not to lose herself, and the way that she is finding to keep herself sane is to carve out small niches of freedom, and collects the tools that she will need (like the vital information that Ofglen gives her, that there is a spy in her household) to see her daughter again.
June: 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 next few ones will be different from this one but it was extremely hard to find a tone for this, and the visuals of this first episode will stay with me for a long time.
I haven’t re-read the book yet but I will at some point during the season. For now, I have vague memories that we didn’t get as much of a backstory for Ofglen (or the first Ofglen) originally, and I’m glad we did here. I think it was necessary.
Which kind of leads to the next thing, which will be more or less present throughout the reviews: it is an undeniable fact that this story is about June, not about Moira (who is black and queer), or Ofglen (who had a wife, and a daughter). June is straight, and white. I think it’s important to remember that all the ways in which women are hurt in this episode, and all the ways in which this regime justifies that violence against women, are historic. They have existed in history. Some of them have existed in history and impacted on black and queer lives much more recently, and they still do. I think it would be very hard not to get something slightly different out of this first episode from that throwaway comment about the “Dyke purges”, or the fact that infertile gay women are sent to the colonies to die in a horrible way, or the fact that gay men are rounded up and executed straight away, and publicly exhibited as other, as undesirable, than someone who isn’t gay would. It happens in the background for the most part in this episode, and it paints a picture of a world that isn’t just hostile to women and the idea that women are people, but also of a world that has enshrined violent homophobia in a way that so many conservative and right-wing forces in the world are trying to do (and are currently successful at doing, in so many places around the world). It’s a whole different thing to approach this show as a warning of what could happen, if we let these forces prevail, than it is to see it as an accurate reflection of what the reality is for so many LGBTQI* around the world. This is where the show maybe fails a bit: it uses June to say, imagine if all of these things happened now, here, to you, but for other people that are in the background here – like Moira (and viewers whose lives resemble Moira’s, or even Ofglen’s, more than June’s) – the now, and here, have always been a much closer possibility.
And talking about how this show uses methods of past oppression and applies them to the present time – the idea that language would be stolen from these women in order to make it impossible to articulate their struggle is so horrifying, especially in contrast to what Underground has been doing in its two season run, where being able to read was such a vital key to freedom and yet at the same time a constant danger, as it was forbidden. The foods are labelled with pictured, and purchased with tokens that don’t have any written words on them, and reading the newspaper, is, of course, forbidden. This generation of women we are seeing now still remember the time before (and what a powerful moment is it when June prays to a God that she has somehow retained from this awful theocracy that her daughter remembers her), but the next one will have it this much harder, for not comprehending that a different world is possible and no way of reading about it.
And also how it affects the use of language - eyes for spies, wings for the headgear that keeps them modestly shielded but also hides so many emotions, and perhaps even bears the possibility of hidden resistance. The more obvious ones, like Handmaiden, which so elegantly conceals their true purpose, Marthas, the fact that their names are literally taken away from them and that they are made to bear the names of their rapists.
Elisabeth Moss is outstanding, quiet fury, introspective anger, then outbreaks communicated with nothing more than eyes and eyebrows, but a big shout-out to the supporting cast from Samira Wiley to her OITNB colleague Madeline Brewer (whose Janine is robbed of everything, including her sanity) to Alexis Bledel (stoic, and beautiful in her daring once she reveals herself) to Yvonne Strahovski’s perfectly portrayed quiet fury which just simmers so dangerously below the surface.
Church bells are used to ritualistically, not to tell time.