- Series Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
- Season: 1
- Episodes: 10
- Discs: 3 (Blu-Ray)
- Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Amanda Brugel, Ann Dowd, Max Minghella, Joseph Fiennes
- Original Network: Hulu
- Original Production Company: MGM
Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the 1985 novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood. The television series begins with June, her husband, Luke, and her daughter fleeing. They don’t get far. Gilead captures June, takes away her daughter, Hannah, and kills, she thinks, her husband. She is next seen as a Handmaid, known only as Offred (Of Fred), a sexual slave to Commander Waterford, there to provide him and his wife with a child. The opening episode concerns “The Ceremony” in which the household gathers, pious words are said, then Offred lies between the legs of Mrs. Waterford while Mr. Waterford, clinically and without passion or emotion forces himself on her – all to get her pregnant. This is life in Gilead, a Fundamentalist Christian society devoted to “family values” which has replaced the United States. Women are split into four groups, all of whom have their own uniforms: the wives (always dressed in blue dresses), the Handmaids – in red with white caps inside and white bonnets outside, the Marthas (always dressed in grey) domestic slaves who do the household work for the wives, and the Aunts (dressed in brown) who train Handmaids at the Red Centre and also administer discipline. There is one other group – which I will discuss in a bit. Anyone else is presumably killed unless they’ve managed to escape Gilead. There are mentions of “the colonies” throughout the series, which is used as a threat against misbehaving Handmaids and other women.
The cinematography of the series is fantastic. I really enjoyed that part of the show. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale looks fantastic, and the red and white of Handmaids uniforms are used to almost artistic effect, as we see lines of Handmaid’s walking, or forming a circle or kneeling in perfect unison. Within the Waterfords’ home – framing, extreme close-ups (especially of Offred and especially in the early episodes) and lighting that varies from golden and soft to gray are used to emphasize mood. Offred is often closed in by her surroundings – and even though the entire frame is widescreen, she will be confined to a small portion of it – showing how small and confined her world now is. Outdoor scenes are about color: red, white, and gray. There is no real color in Gilead.
The plot is presented in two tracks: June’s present as a Handmaid; and the flashbacks that establish both how Gilead came to be – and that track June’s journey from a young, professional woman, to Handmaid to the Waterfords. This journey is largely told out of order, but it eventually builds up a chilling story. Gilead was formed by a Christian Fundamentalist (the exact nature of Gilead’s religion is much more obvious it previous adaptions than this one) extremist group called “The Sons of Jacob” – Waterford and his wife were leaders of the group, and Nick, their driver, an early recruit. The Sons of Jacob organized a three-pronged attack, taking out Congress, the White House, and “the Court”, and then declare martial law. They claim martial law is temporary. Soon women are forbidden to work or own property and all property and money held by women is transferred to their husbands or “male next of kin”. Women are forbidden to drive or to read. One chilling episode shows in flashback June and her friend Moira from the Red Centre attempting to escape. Moira, dressed as an Aunt, makes it to a train – June, dressed as a Handmaid, is recaptured. But while they are walking to the station, they see Gilead troopers tearing down street signs, destroying all signs in the train station, and standing outside a university where they are burning books and art.
Books are memory – and Gilead cannot afford to have anyone remember a different and no doubt better life. A later episode featuring a meeting at the Waterford house with the Mexican trade delegation, a delegation led by a woman, has the woman mention to Mrs. Waterford that she “read her book” – and, “doesn’t it bother her that no one can now read it”. Mrs. Waterford’s book, A Woman’s Place, was an argument for “domestic feminism”. It’s a book we later see being thrown in the trash along with all of Mrs. Waterford’s clothes after their revolution.
The situation with her book is one aspect of this complex and masterful series that at times makes me feel sorry for Mrs. Waterford. During the Ceremony, she averts her eyes, as does Fred Waterford. When Offred doesn’t get her period on time in an early episode, she’s exceedingly nice, until Offred does get her period – then we can see her disappointment, and how much she desperately wants a child. She’s jealous of Mrs. Putnam, when Ofwarren (Janine) gets pregnant and has a child. And later, after finding out about Offred’s late-night scrabble sessions with her husband (and other things) she forces Offred to take a pregnancy test. When it’s positive, she is happy and lays off a bit. But Offred sees Mrs. Waterford as The Enemy. And Mrs. Waterford can be cruel. When Offred angers her – she is confined to her room, for weeks, not even allowed to do the shopping. When she finds out that Fred is having an affair outside of The Ceremony with Offred, Mrs. Waterford attacks and beats her. And, after that, Mrs. Waterford takes her on a long drive, confines her to the car, and talks, briefly to Hannah, who is dressed in pink at a strange house. June bangs on the car windows, begging to see her daughter, but Mrs. Waterford doesn’t allow her to. Later, Mrs. Waterford threatens her: “You take good care of my child, and no harm will come to your daughter.” No pressure. Offred reports this to Mr. Waterford.
The scrabble sessions lead to Commander Waterford taking June, dressed up in a short cocktail dress and makeup, to Jezebel’s – a bar and brothel. At Jezebel’s, June runs into Moira, who is forced to work at the club. Moira was captured, and given a choice: Jezebel’s or The Colonies, as she’s a “disruptive influence”. At Jezebel’s, the women have access to booze and drugs. They serve the elite men of Gilead in everything from conversation partners to, well, the purpose of prostitutes since the beginning of time. Needless to say, the wives do not know and aren’t to find out that their husbands are still sex-obsessed, even with their Ceremonial Handmaids at home. It’s finding out about Jezebel’s that sets Mrs. Waterford off on her rampage against Offred.
But also during the episode with the Mexican delegation, in front of everyone, Offred says and does as expected – but at the end of the episode, she tells the female trade official that she lied. She didn’t volunteer – she was captured. Handmaids are beaten with cattle prods, mutilated, Gilead took her daughter, and no, she isn’t happy. The woman says she cannot help, then leaves. Her male aide, offers to help, telling her Luke is alive. He asks her to write a note, which she does. There are a few the chilling scenes in the episode with the trade delegation. First, one of the other Handmaids tells June, as she asks for information, is that the trade deal isn’t about oranges – it’s about Red Tags – the only thing everyone else wants. This is confirmed when, after Offred has spoken up, the Mexican woman says she’s from a city the size of Boston – where there hasn’t been a live birth in six years. She remarks, “My country is dying.” Offred’s response, “My country is already dead.”
The next episode follows Luke, from him getting separated from June as they try to escape, to his getting June’s note in Canada. It’s an interesting episode, as Luke joins with a group of refugees trying to get out of Gilead (some die on the road). But throughout it – I found myself wondering what was happening to Offred.
In the last episode, the Handmaids attend a ceremony where they are to kill someone for a violation of the rules of Gilead. It’s a stoning. The woman being stoned, is Janine, and her “crime” is “endangering a child”. In the previous episode, she had stolen her child from the Putnams – as well as refused to go through with the Ceremony at her new posting. Although June is able to save the child, Janine jumps off a bridge into an icy river. She’s pulled out. During the stoning ceremony, one Handmaid objects that they “aren’t going to kill Janine”. She’s beaten down for her trouble. Offred steps forward, drops her stone, and says, “Sorry, Aunt Lydia”. All the other Handmaid’s in the circle – do the same. Later that night the Eyes and soldiers of Gilead come to the Waterfords’ house and take her. The season ends on a hopeful note, as Offred comments that she doesn’t know what will happen to her. (As she says goodbye to the household’s Martha, Rita, she whispers in her ear – “behind the tub”. This is where she hid the package of messages from Handmaids begging for help, or for news of the children taken from them.)
As dark as The Handmaid’s Tale is, it is also compelling television. The cinematography is remarkable. The acting is incredible. And the stories of all the characters are also amazing – as this is not a tale of clear-cut good and evil. Gilead is evil. Yes. But I felt oddly sympathetic for Serena Waterford – she was so desperate for a child, and she’s also remarkably naive, believing in her “New World Order”, even with what it has done to herself. The Aunts are brutal and quite possibly the most unsympathetic characters in the show – but they are also naive. The men, Waterford, his cronies (whom we barely see, but always in a bad light), Nick, have a created a world in their own image, a world where they are on top and control everything – from their wives to their live-in sex slaves. It’s even Waterford who comes up with the idea of “The Ceremony”, deciding they can’t call it “the Act” without upsetting the wives. Luke, on the other hand, is a good man – but when he gets June’s money his first response is to say that it will be good to “take care of her”.
Offred’s journey is that of survival. She becomes a member of the Resistance not by joining up, but by talking with other Handmaids, giving information where she can, and helping if she can. The Resistance is a silent, and careful group. But it provides some solace in a world that is paranoid, cold, isolating, and terrifying. The last episode ends, not on a note of fear as one might think, but on a note of hope – hope that Offred may escape.