The Handmaid's Tale: Offred

"This will become ordinary."

In the warm darkness of the Maine wilderness, a car filled with very tense people veers off the road in isolated woodland. A man gets out, gets a woman and child – a young girl – to leave the car and tells them to run. In the woods where they're pursued by soldiers with guns, which they hear discharge. The man is likely dead, and we see a haunted dimness and desperation hit the eyes of the woman. The soldiers pursue, catch up, take the child. The woman is knocked unconscious as her child screams. The two are taken.

This is the highly cinematic visual opening for The Handmaid’s Tale, and in television form in this opening episode the story is as powerful as a book I dimly remember, one whose challenging message led me to more works by Atwood and Marge Piercy and take and ultimately minor in gender studies in college. It’s as powerful as the fear we feel today, in a country whose government has just banned the words vulnerable and diversity.

One might expect the episode to focus entirely on setting a very complex scene, and it does. A Christian cult has taken over the country thanks to fertility issues which arose from modern life. Progressivism is blamed. Women who can bear healthy children are marked to become handmaids and serve powerful men whose wives can no longer bear children. While, so far in the series, we haven’t seen much of the lives of men, they clearly move in a world of their own and still possess technology, whilst their Handmaids are kept in a primitive state, even frowned on for reading. And because of all this, horror. (That the men themselves might be infertile is not discussed and, I think, intentionally an ignored idea in this world, where women are blamed for their own rape even as they’re encouraged to rip criminals apart, like the Bacchante, the women of the frenzy...) We are introduced to the Commander who is now in charge of Offred, and to his infertile wife, Serena Joy. We learn so much about the horror as Offred tries to deal with the new world around her and build relationships with people she simply can't trust.

For all the complex world building, there is character development here also. We see our heroine evolve from the worried young mother to the deprived and tortured widow-victim to someone struggling to maintain her internal hope and determination. Essentially Offred (which came across as Offal to me, initially, or off-red, meaning she doesn’t fit in with the other handmaids, but actually means Of-Fred, just as Ofglen means Of-Glen) moves from a comfortable, safe place in an unsafe world (ours), with Luke and Moira – to an internment camp for impregnable women where, if you resist, they take your eye and watch as you run mad. (Breeding stock don’t need to see.) In this darkness she finds more about how much she has lost – poor Moira, a lesbian, is deemed an unwoman and sent to the colonies, presumed dead. By the end, Offred has a potential friendship in Ofglen, and the woman who accidentally read. And she has herself; in a powerful final scene she shows her strength in naming her husband, her daughter – and shares her real name, June.

Above the setting and character, though, this is an episode of cinematic punches to the gut. I think the worst for me was the mass execution. But even the final moment of the episode – where Offred watches Serena simply stands useless as the men leave her, then turns, sees Offred, and wields her tiny power to force Offred to go to her room – is a powerful, almost artistic moment. So much of this episode could be painted. And every time we see Offred's face it's like trying to read a very complex book. Elisabeth Moss clearly put her heart and soul into this character.

I've long felt The Handmaid's Tale should be required reading in book form. I find the series has been updated to be relevant to today in more than one way. Uber pops up, for example, but that's a superficial nod. More deeply, I think the way the women in this episode are characterized so far goes beyond the portrayal of women in Atwood’s original book. These are women of our generation, not the hesitantly forward feminists of the 70’s, who still defer to their husbands. We never find out the character’s name in the novel; it was a source of controversy in my class way back when. Here we learn she is called June and has, to me, a far more solid identity. In the book June/Offred came across as much more passive, while in this episode in flashbacks we see her being an extremely active personality. I’m sure there are other updates but purists ought to respect the way these are woven in with the language and ideal of the original text. A literal fidelity to an original text in a different era and situation is a misrepresentation of the spirit of that text, at least on a public level, and these changes make the story more relevant and real, instead of simply a focus for academic discourse.

Questions
  • What really happened to Luke and Moira?
  • And where, oh where is Offred's daughter?
  • What are the Colonies?
  • What is really happening with Serena Joy?
  • Who is the Eye within the house?
  • What's going on in the war in Florida? With other countries?
Overall

I love this first episode, and can't wait for the next. I'll be reading/watching/writing along with all of you for the first time, and this episode feels like a leap into well-created if painful watching. Five out of five mysteriously large wimples.

9 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Programming note: We're planning to post reviews of the first season of episodes every third day.

Billie Doux said...

An excellent review, Joseph. This is such a difficult series for me to watch. In fact, the first time, I was so creeped out that I couldn't make myself watch more than this episode.

What jumped out at me in this episode was the emphasis on fresh eggs (no symbolism there) and on eyes -- the unfortunate Janine's eye, "Under His Eye" and the mention of Eyes as spies.

I hate how they turned women against each other. And how all these victims of society-enforced rape were forced to kill a rapist. Shuddery.

lisa menaster said...

Why was this not reviewed earlier?

Billie Doux said...

lisa menaster asked, "Why was this not reviewed earlier?" The answer is that we were all busy reviewing other stuff. Too many shows, not enough time. Or writers.

Raya said...

I'm so glad you guys are reviewing this show! It's by far my favorite of the year. I absolutely loved it (and it totally freaked me out), but the experience wasn't complete without the Agents of Doux's reviews, so I'm really looking forward to reading your thoughts.

This review was very well written, Joseph. Thanks for the good work!

To me, the whole show is basically an illustation of what Simone de Beauvoir warned us about:
"N'oubliez jamais qu'il suffira d'une crise politique, économique ou religieuse pour que les droits des femmes soient remis en question. Ces droits ne sont jamais acquis. Vous devrez rester vigilantes votre vie durant."
("Never forget that all it would take is a political, economic or religious crisis for women's rights to be called into question. These rights will never be vested. You have to stay vigilant your whole life.")

Phyllis Strickland said...

This creeped me out so bad, I did not even get through the first episode. The takeover of our government - and the GOP in particular - by the religious far right it scary enough without watching a TV show that is too much like what the future could hold if we don't get things back on track.

Lamounier said...

Wonderful review, Joseph. I particularly liked your thoughts on how the book and the series differ.

One thing from the book that surprised me was Offred saying that what they did to her wasn't rape because she had a choice (being a handmaid or being sent to the colonies). It's such an off statement, because elsewhere Offred clearly perceives everything that happens to women as abuse. I'm glad the show portrayed it as rape. I wonder if Atwood would write that bit differently if she were writing the book today.

I liked that the series wasn't just an adaptation of the book, it was an expansion of its world too. As a result, characters that are not that relevant in the book got some terrific arcs on the show, specially Ofglen and Janine. And may I say, I had no idea, NO IDEA, that Alexis Bledel could act, her Rory was so bland on the later seasons of Gilmore Girls. But, boy, she knocked it out of the park here. Just terrific work. And no praise is enough to Elisabeth Moss' performance. Ann Dowd is also brilliant.

This first episode is terrific and, yes, extremely difficult to watch. I almost wish they hadn't included the particicution here, because it was just too much misery stuffed in one hour. That scene was brilliant, though. The people pulling the strings on Gilead know just what to do. The abused women need to blow off some major steam, and the particicution gives them the opportunity to do that in a horrific way. Jesus, this society is beyond twisted.

I loved that Offred and Ofglen bonded quickly. In fact, my favorite part of the series was how the handmaids developed a complicity among them.

There are a couple of changes from the book that I didn't like so much, and one of them is the Commander and Serena Joy being younger. This was probably the case of the producers wanting pretty and young people on the roles (what is the age equivalent of whitewashing?). Just by watching a couple of scenes from the 1990 film on YouTube, I liked the takes of Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway on the characters better, even though (1) the TV show is infinitely better and (2) I love Yvonne Strahovski, who actually does a very good job with the role.

Raya, loved that quote, it's The Handmaid's Tale in a nutshell.

Another meaning to "Offred": offered.

WhyMe said...

Very nice review JRS.

I have never read the book making your comparison to the 70's very interesting. I wonder what would have been different if this show was made in the 50's, since, well, every era considers itself as moral. Makes you wonder what they would say about us.

The first episode grabbed me so fast. Especially it was the contrast of her old vs new life; I imagined more than once what if it would have happened now, and how an atheist/"scientist" like me would never be able to live in that world.

Moss was amazing.

Lisianpeia said...

@Lamounier
I was a bit worried when the Commander and Serena Joy were cast, especially because Joseph Fiennes is, well, handsome (at least I think so) and I was super worried how the audience would perceive this. Like, is the rape *less* worse somehow because he is good looking? Just writing this sentence gives me the creeps.

But I think the show manage brilliantly not to do this. The ceremony is still completely nauseating and bizarre. And, for me, they being younger puts more weight on the question: why can't they conceive? Also, I loved what they did with Serena Joy's story arc.

PS: Alexis Bledel was incredible!