When I sat down to review Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought I would watch the first three episodes, take some notes, and come up with a few hundred words. What I found was a show too heavy (and often uncomfortable) to binge watch—something that that can be digested only one part at a time. So much happens in the first episode alone that I watched it, let it burrow into my head for a few days, watched it again, and found that I could write thousands of words about it alone. For now, I will be reviewing just the first episode; in the future, depending on how much I have to say, I may continue one-by-one or review multiple episodes at a time.
I plan to avoid dwelling on the similarities and differences between the adaptation and the book. Years have passed since I read Margaret Atwood’s novel, and in that time, I’ve lost track of most of its characters and all but the most basic plot beats. While I will spend some time later discussing the challenges of adapting a relatively short novel into a (now multiseason) television series, I will not be rereading the novel alongside the show. For now, I would like to judge the show on its own merits.
A fair warning: spoilers follow as the review begins in earnest below.
Elizabeth Moss, best known for her role as Peggy Olson in Mad Men, fits perfectly into her role as Offred in the Handmaid’s Tale. In Mad Men, we saw a strong-willed woman struggle against a male-dominated industry and society with poise and conviction and not a little anger. The Handmaid’s Tale follows many of these same themes, and she brings the same haunting and simmering expressions of depression and rage with her into the first episode, “Offred.” Later in the review, we’ll talk at length about how her powerful emoting and haunting expressions make this episode work. But for now, let’s look at another incredibly important woman on the show.
Perhaps more surprising is the casting of Yvonne Starhovski as Serena Joy, Commander Waterford’s wife. Starhovski is known for her divisive role in two of Dexter‘s worst seasons, an over-sexualized spy in Chuck, and an extremely over-sexualized crewmate in the video game Mass Effect 2. Given her track record of playing hyper-sexual characters, it surprised me to see her in a starring role in a feminist drama—but so far, she has pulled it off with posture and poise. She manages both the powerfully piercing stares necessary of a young, empowered matriarch, as well as the subtle vulnerability of a woman, however privileged, living in a world where women have no rights. Despite the power she has over Offred, Joy reads as a woman in private pain, another victim of a rampantly patriarchal society.
As a sharply political drama, the Handmaid’s Tale faces an onerous task: it must convince its viewers that the Republic of Gilead could be in the United State’s future. While the election of a president that bragged about grabbing women by the pussy does add an air of topicality, if not legitimacy, to the show’s dystopian setting, the thought that women in the Handmaid’s Tale are not just subjugated but outright bred does not go down easily. And indeed, while the first episode lays out much of the groundwork needed to justify this new world, it also asks us to take the premise on faith. “Girls,” says the wonderfully severe brainwasher Aunt Lydia early in the episode, “I know this must feel very strange.” She addresses a class of student handmaids in a conversion prison called the Red Center, but really, she is reaching out to the audience ourselves, affirming our doubts in the show’s premise while instructing us to wait for it to change our minds. “This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary.” Stay by me for a few episodes, she says to the audience, and I will show you that this fiction is not as unreal as it seems.
And boy, after hearing that line’s delivery, I am ready to be convinced. Ann Dowd performs her role as Aunt Lydia with an unusual vigor and enthusiasm, imbibing each of her lines with fire and brimstone. Her character, a larger-than-life religious zealot that teaches through force and fear the handmaidens’ role, delivers the harsh message of God’s will—according to how the government of Gilead interprets it. This God is the Christian God: unlike many other science fiction series, The Handmaid’s Tale does not shy away from the Christian religion. Though it does make a small effort here and there to distance itself from the modern American perceptions of Christianity (when Aunt Lydia spits out “blessed are the meek” before tasering one of the newly imprisoned, Offred bitingly narrates that they always leave out the part about the meek inheriting the Earth), the patriarchs and matriarchs of Gilead secure their power through biblical verse.
The most deeply religious scene in the first episode is also its most disturbing. From very early in “Offred,” we hear about something called “the Ceremony.” By the time Offred prepares to undertake it, we understand that the Ceremony revolves around her rape. But as its title suggests, there’s something more to it: Gilead dresses the Ceremony in elaborate Christian ritual. Commander Waterford reads from the Bible as holy music plays in the background: “And when Rachel saw that she’d bear Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister and said unto Jacob, ‘Give me children, or else I die.'” The scene shifts to a close-up of Offred’s face. She opens her vacant eyes as the music surges. “And she said, behold, my maid, Bilhah. Go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees that I may also have children by her.” Offred, the titular handmaid, rests her head on Joy’s knees as Joy stares resentfully at Waterford, who thrusts awkwardly, slowly, hands on his hips, unwilling or unable to touch the woman he attempts to inseminate. All are fully clothed.
In my notes, I wrote that this is the most uncomfortable sex scene I have ever seen on television. It does not become more palatable on subsequent viewings. We must endure the suffering of three people: Waterford, who looks off to the side, ashamed and awkward, unable to make eye contact with either of the women he is engaging with; Joy, furious and powerless, seething over her infertility, her need to use a surrogate maid; and Offred herself, the victim of rape, dead-eyed and emotionless as her body allows the invasion. When it’s done, Waterford leaves, Offred remains in a trance, and Joy lights a cigarette, demanding that Offred leave. Religion is gone; God has given his gift to Offred and left the two women alone to sort out their differences.
In the context of today’s politics, I find it interesting that the Handmaid’s Tale portrays such an unabashedly Christian image of the patriarchy. Though Trump’s election (along with victories for nationalism across the globe) imply, at least to liberals, that the Gilead portrayed in the Handmaid’s Tale may be closer to reality than we thought before, his election also revealed that the United States’ religious right is more powerful and cohesive than we imagined. After my second viewing, I noticed that this episode has only a 3-star rating on Hulu–a far cry from not only the sterling critical review scores listed on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, but a significant shift from the average user ratings of 7.8 and 87% respectively as well, at time of writing. I wonder, then, how divisive this show is among Hulu’s own audience, and I wonder at the decision to produce such a political and potentially partisan show.
Which is to say, a discussion of the importance of this show and its viewership is warranted. Hulu is a burgeoning television network, still struggling to find footing with its first handful of shows. It has made several attempts over the years at original dramas, but few of these efforts portend the ambition and scope of the Handmaid’s Tale. The Confession hitched its horse to 7-minute episodes—which were not unusual for 2011, but still underwhelming compared to 45–60 minute network and cable dramas. East Los High aims younger, limiting its appeal to core viewing demographics. The Path, despite starring Aaron Paul, failed to pierce the collective unconscious of mainstream television viewers. The only drama Hulu has released thus far that has pierced public consciousness as much as other major network and cable dramas was last year’s 11.22.63, an eight-episode adaptation of a Stephen King novel of a similar, but differently-punctuated title.
In some ways, 11.22.63 can be seen as a prototype for the Handmaid’s Tale. Like the Handmaid’s Tale, 11.22.63 recruits a high-power cast to adapt a novel. But unlike the Handmaid’s Tale, 11.22.63 was conceived as a single, limited-run miniseries, something with a clear beginning and end. From the start of production, 11.22.63‘s showrunners and writers had only to concern themselves with how to fit a finite plot into eight episodes; the Handmaid’s Tale was written to fill an uncertain length. While 11.22.63 ended its one-season run at the end of Stephen King’s novel, the Handmaid’s Tale has no such luxury. It will not know until midway through a season’s airing whether that season will be its last; unlike Netflix, which often gives its flagpole series two-season orders, Hulu withheld its order for the Handmaid’s Tale‘s second season until the night its fourth episode aired. When planning out the season, the creative team on the Handmaid’s Tale could not have known whether their show would be renewed; would they wrap up the plot of the book by the season finale in case they did not get a chance to continue, or would they aim for a point earlier in the novel?
Though I promised not to dwell on the relationship between the Handmaid’s Tale and its source material, the fact that the Handmaid’s Tale is an adaption does bring me some concern. The Handmaid’s Tale attempts to adapt a single, relatively short novel into an n-season drama. Consequently, the Handmaid’s Tale must move slowly to avoid running out of material before the series is done. We can see some symptoms of this obligation in the series’ first episode: flashbacks appear ubiquitously throughout the episode. Offred cannot spend five minutes in the present without recalling some event from her past.
I do not remember enough of the source material to say whether flashbacks so pervasively punctuated the novel as they do the show, but I fear that the Handmaid’s Tale writers are reaching into the narrative’s past in order to avoid progressing too quickly toward its future. Flashbacks provide a safe haven for adaptations; they can pad out a plot indefinitely without venturing beyond the end of the source material. In the Handmaid’s Tale, flashbacks layer upon flashbacks; in at least one instance, Offred jumps from one flashback to another, further back, then to the original flashback, and finally, after an absence longer than the scene before it, the present—a plodding, potentially circumlocutory plot structure perhaps more reminiscent of the anime Attack on Titan than most other shows on television today.
I cannot fault a first episode of a science fiction show for its worldbuilding, and the Handmaiden’s Tale certainly uses its flashbacks for worldbuilding. When developing a setting as broken and oppressive but otherwise realistic as Gilead, flashbacks are necessary to connect the present to the future, to bridge the gap between the America we know and the America we hope to never see. Not only that: flashbacks help us establish the personality and character of women who, in the show’s setting, are unable to speak freely to one another, who cannot under any circumstance demonstrate genuine and unbridled emotion. We would not understand Offred or her college friend and advocate Moira without flashback; no scene in the present could build their character as effectively as the past can. But as the series progresses, I worry that its format will force it to dwell in the past to avoid moving forward in the source material, undermining the plot’s forward momentum.
But those concerns are to be held to future installments of the series. I am concerned more about the idea of flashbacks than their execution in “Offred,” and on a technical level, I have very little to complain about in this episode. I believe in the authenticity of the flashbacks because they seem the exact memories to cross Offred’s mind in critical moments; I believe them because Moss makes so visible the fact that Offred escapes from her oppressive present by wandering through the past. No actor in the episode gives an unconvincing performance. Some—in particular, Commander Waterford’s Joseph Finneas and Nick’s Max Minghella—find too little screentime to leave a strong impression, but this lack is made up for by other minor characters; Samira Wiley as Moira is a particular highlight.
Of all the aspects of this episode, I am, perhaps most interested in its ending. From the first minutes of the episode, we learn about the Ceremony, and the events leading up to it unfold over an excruciating half hour of difficult, dystopian plot. The episode, if extended just a few more minutes, could have ended with Offred’s rape, but it does not; rather, the show presents us with something of a fourth act, a falling action that incorporates a climax of its own, unexpected, invigorating, and ultimately, a necessary mirror to the Ceremony. Had “Offred” ended on the Ceremony, viewers would have been treated to three quarters of an hour of flashback, worldbuilding, and depravity. Offred’s rape is single most important moment in the episode, as it cements the Handmaid’s Tale world of utter misogyny. But the Salvaging, another capital-letter ceremonial event involving the handmaidens and the Ceremony’s mirror, provides a wrinkle both cathartic and complex: a moment of power, however fleeting, for the women that we have seen disenfranchised again and again throughout the episode.
Here, every handmaid in Cambridge (at least, it appears), gathers in front of an isolated forest stage. Their guard is down; they speak among one another with a freedom unfelt in any of the episode’s other present-set scenes. At this event, Offred leaps almost immediately into conversation with her Red Center friend, Alma. “Hey,” Offred says, “where are you posted?” Conversation progresses without friction or fear; Offred dares to smirk when Alma tells her that her assigned commander can’t even keep up an erection. At the same time, Ofglen notices that Offred is not, in fact a pious, true believer—a development that allows her to open up to and reminisce with Offred in the final scenes of the episode. At last, we see women in the Handmaid’s Tale‘s present interacting with one another as humans do: lightly, openly, without power differential or fear of retribution. “They do that really well,” Ofglen says near the end of the episode. “Make us distrust one another.” Thankfully, for at least some of our characters, that distrust has been broken. The bond that begins to develop between Offred and Ofglen give me hope that as the season progresses, it will ground itself more in the plot of the present.
Aunt Lydia appears at the Salvaging as well. Having educated the several dozen handmaids gathered by the stage, she now provides them an opportunity to release their pent up rage. She explains, without irony, that the bound man before them has raped a handmaid. The punishment for this crime is “particicution,” the word the Handmaid’s Tale uses to describe mass killings. At the blow of Aunt Lydia’s whistle, the gathered handmaids descend upon the man, beating him to death. Too easily, the Handmaid’s Tale could have placed Offred on the outside of the circle, as disturbed and distressed as she was during the Ceremony and in the Red Center. But she does not stand on the outside. Having just learned of Moira’s death (off-screen, by the way, and gleefully announced by an untrustworthy character; we shall see whether Moira has really left us), Offred charges into the fray, landing the first bloody, cathartic blow.
So much of this episode’s success rests on Elisabeth Moss’s indelible ability to emote. The camera lingers on her face over and over again, allowing her brilliant expressions to ingrain themselves in the viewer’s mind. During the Salvaging, the camera spends as much time on Offred as it does on the executed; we are taken in by her rage, her catharsis, and, when she narrates the episode’s ending, rejecting suicide with an emboldened voice, we understand that the Salvaging was a necessary release. The Salvaging holds a mirror up to the Ceremony, just as structured, just as rule-driven, but emotionally antithetical and empowering. Although the Salvaging does not pull punches with its blood and violence, it is much easier to watch than the Ceremony. It invites viewers to bond with the handmaids, and finally to breathe.
Let’s return for a moment to Offred’s facial expressions—or, more specifically, her face. None of the handmaids in the Handmaid’s Tale wear makeup. Their outfits are designed to protect their modesty; while they are meant to be bred, they are not meant to be lusted for. And the lack of makeup, especially during those long, simmering shots of Offred’s face, is startling to see on screen. It shoudn’t be—women do not wear makeup 24/7. We should be used to seeing women without makeup in the theaters and on our television screen—but we aren’t. Women simply do not appear on television and in movies without makeup on, whether it makes sense for their characters to be wearing makeup or not. The Handmaid’s Tale bucks this trend, and the absence of makeup becomes a central part of the show’s visual language.
There are many aspects of the episode that I have not had an opportunity to talk about in this review: Offred, on her way to the Ceremony, asking what she did to deserve this, and then flashing back to a scene in the Red Center in which the girls point and shame one another for being victims of rape; Martha complimenting Offred once and only once, just before the Ceremony; the subtle waffling foreshadowing of whether Nick or Martha or someone else entirely is the Eye; the way the handmaids’ “wings” act as blinders, concealing them from one another; the decision to end the episode titled “Offred” with “June,” Offred’s real name—I could go on for thousands of words delineating every small wonderful thing that this episode achieves, having barely scratched the surface of my notes. “Offred” is so rich in detail and world that every aspect of every scene invites discussion and analysis.
I stand at the end of “Offred” stunned, disturbed, and stimulated. The Handmaid’s Tale presents a dystopian future built around misogyny and fascism, and asks us to trust that such a future will begin to seem ordinary. In the process, it creates a cast of compelling characters, most of whom are sympathetic. (I’ve not spent enough time in this review gushing about the complexity of Starhovski’s acting—her ability to cast sympathy on a character who takes almost no sympathetic actions in the episode—but I’m sure I’ll have ample opportunity to return to her in my reviews of further episodes.) Wrap that cast and world up with a stark, engrossing visual style and you have a highly-compelling science fiction drama. Hulu has outdone itself, creating a show that—given its subsequent episodes live up to its premiere—stands head and shoulders above the network’s previous efforts.
“Offred,” the first episode of the Handmaid’s Tale, premiered (along with episodes two and three) on Hulu’s streaming service April 26, 2017. New episodes are released Wednesdays.