HANDMAID’S TALE Review: Episodes One Through Three
Hulu released the first three full episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale today, so we have a whole lot of ground to cover. Two caveats: there are spoilers ahead. And, I haven’t actually read the Margaret Atwood book (I know, don’t revoke my English degree), so I’ll just be analyzing the show itself, not the way it’s been adapted.
The dystopian world of The Handmaid’s Tale seems completely unfamiliar, so it’s a little shocking to realize that these changes took place in the span of a few years – or less. We see a beautiful family ripped apart in the opening two minutes – a husband is killed (well, offscreen, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he resurfaced) and a daughter is taken.
Our protagonist is referred to as Offred – literally, “of Fred,” the name of the Commander she’s been assigned to. It feels wrong to call her that, though, especially since she reveals her true name to us at the end of the first episode: June.
There are three main categories for women in the world of this dystopia: handmaids, wives, and Marthas. All are subservient to men, without any real agency. Handmaids, capable of bearing children, are assigned to households to do just that. Marthas (after the New Testament Martha) are servants. The wives are, frankly, still a category I’m confused about, even after three episodes. They run the households; they gossip with other wives; they hold down handmaids while watching their husbands rape them. They even take the handmaids’ children as their own in a kind of forced surrogacy. It’s the cushiest of positions for a woman in this world, and being able to look down on the other two classes instills a sense of superiority that supports the system. But I don’t quite understand why a society that values childbearing above all other things would assign women to these roles – why have wives at all? How do they decide who gets assigned where? I hope we’ll continue to get more world-building in later episodes, especially upon the disturbing realization I had around episode two: where are the old people?
June’s main household roles are shopping and trying to get pregnant, and her internal monologue provides a great contrast to the submissive front she puts up. She curses, she’s sarcastic, and she speaks her mind, but only to the audience. “I don’t need oranges. I need to scream. I need to grab the nearest machine gun,” she thinks. I don’t usually like voice overs (I’m looking at you, melodramatic X-Files openings), but these really work. They allow us a chance to see into June’s head when her every movement, and every word, is legislated.
The ‘success’ of the dystopia is rooted in fear and paranoia. It’s a panopticon of forced isolation – everyone watches each other and is encouraged to report on one another. June wonders if she can trust Ofglen, her seemingly pious shopping partner, or Nick, the driver she’s got some sexual tension with.
June’s best friend from college, Moira, was with her during the indoctrination phase; her girlfriend has been rounded up in a purge, and the two comfort one another, determined to survive. At a designated gathering, another handmaiden, Janine, tells her Moira is dead, sent to “the colonies.”
In the wake of this, Ofglen and June finally open up to one another. Ofglen used to be a professor with a wife and a son, and she tells June that there’s a network among the handmaids. “I don’t know, I’m not that kind of person,” she says. “No one is until they have to be,” says Ofglen.
The second episode centers around the birth of a healthy child by one of the handmaids, Janine; the child is immediately taken by the assigned wife, who pantomimes labor above the handmaid and takes credit for the birth (which sure feels like a metaphor for white feminism). It also features a scene with a creepy Joseph Fiennes when the commander orders June to his chamber. The sense of dread she feels all episode dissipates when he asks if she wants to play a game and, instead of forcing her to cut off her own foot, produces an honest to God Scrabble board.
In episode three, June’s period is late, and the household is overjoyed; the Martha treats her well, and so does the wife. Also, right when Ofglen and June open up to one another, Ofglen vanishes. June is questioned, and tazed, by the government in conjunction with Ofglen. We realize that Ofglen hasn’t been taken for her network, but for being gay – what they call a “gender traitor.” She’s subjected to a “trial” where she is not allowed to speak; her girlfriend, a Martha, is killed, and she wakes up and realizes they’ve mutilated her genitals.
The sect quotes often from select sections of scripture, but priests are killed (along with doctors and gay men), churches demolished, and real scripture not allowed to be spoken. “Blessed are the meek,” the handmaids are told; “they always left out the part about inheriting the earth,” thinks June.
The show’s use of flashbacks is also successful. It can be easy to distance yourself from the dystopia, but the early flashbacks depict a world that’s identical to ours, with one difference: infertility has skyrocketed, hence the obsession with childbirth. When June has her own daughter, the maternity ward is full of empty cribs.
It turns out that it was easy for the religious sect to take power: they slaughtered Congress, blamed terrorists, and suspended the Constitution. Moira and June are confused to find June’s credit card declined; when they get to work, all the women have been fired. Everyone is shaken, and protests are organized.
The protest scene might be the one that scared me the most (although, let’s be honest, this entire show is any woman’s waking nightmare). Moira and June are protesting alongside thousands of people. There’s a line of police, but it’s a scene that’s familiar, a scene I’ve witnessed. But suddenly, the militarized soldiers just start shooting into the crowd. It’s sickening – everything is different. The unspoken contract of protest is broken in the worst possible way. It hit a little too close to current proposals to criminalize protesters, to make it legal to run over protesters who block traffic. Even the repeated “this can’t last”s and “they can’t do this” make my blood run a little cold. “They can,” says Moira.
The show is well-shot – nothing revolutionary about the cinematography, but the world has been so carefully created and designed. There are a lot of close-ups on Elisabeth Moss and Alexis Bledel that showcase their acting. And the acting, from everyone, is incredible. There aren’t any weak links, from main cast to supporting, and it immerses you entirely in the universe of the show. I’ve always known how good Elisabeth Moss is, from Mad Men to Top of the Lake, but this is Alexis Bledel’s strongest role yet. Samira Wiley is also, as usual, a joy to watch in the flashbacks – I’m holding out hope that she’s alive, too (off-screen deaths don’t count!). The show’s sense of pacing is top-notch, too, grounding you in the backstory while still pushing the action along.
Finally: this is an unquestionably feminist show. It just is. You can’t have lines like “we’re two-legged wombs” and scenes like the flashback to indoctrination where the handmaids are forced to sit in a circle around Janine and blame her for her rape without assigning a deeper political meaning. Moira and June even talk about it with June’s husband, Luke – Moira digs into patronizing and gendered language. It’s bizzare and baffling to hear the cast avoid calling it “feminist” when it deals so openly with women’s rights – or lack thereof. Showrunner Bruce Miller said he doesn’t “feel like it’s a male or female story. It’s a survival story,” but that’s just not true. June is our protagonist, and she’s being used for her body. It’s a female story, and I’m glad it’s a female story. We need it.
And of course it’s a survival story – women are, historically, endurers and survivors. I think June is going to make it; I cannot wait to see how she does.