When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I marveled at the mental acrobatics of the ruling class that allowed them to treat Offred and the other Handmaidens as they did. Now, watching Margaret Atwood’s novel come to life on Hulu, it feels ominously possible.
This first episode lays out the bones of this new society for the uninitiated. If you haven’t read the books, here is where you get the broad strokes of this bizarre Society. America is in a state of collapse after various political, chemical, and biological disasters. It isn’t the land of the free anymore. Everyone has a strict place in society complete with costumes and the constant fear of being abducted by the “Eyes” for some real or imaginary treachery.
Be warned: this show deals with some hardcore disturbing themes. Part of the fallout from the vaguely referenced environmental disasters – they’re not specific, other than mentioning that “the colonies” are so toxic being sent there is a death sentence – is a serious lack of fertility. Most women can’t even get pregnant, and those who do usually lose the babies. Those who are fertile have been forced into servitude as “Handmaidens” to bear children for those who can’t.
Part of this servitude is having their past identities stripped from them. During indoctrination, the Handmaidens are forced to ridicule each other to break down any sense of trust or self-worth. Watching those scenes is a little harrowing. Worse, they no longer have names of their own. Offred simply means “of Fred” – she’s literally tagged with this man’s name. When they move to a different household their names change.
Sound is one of the things that really pushes the repressive dystopian feel. There is next to no music. Voices are all low and measured except when they aren’t, and that’s always done for effect. You can hear the bells that signal various events everywhere in the town.
Instead of music, we get Offred narrating the story for us. Elizabeth Moss kills it with the painfully controlled voice she gives Offred. I think hearing horrors described in a flat, matter-of-fact way makes them that much worse. After “the Ceremony” (which, head’s up, is a joylessly ritualistic rape scene involving the Commander, Offred, and Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife) there’s a moment where Offred almost loses her head. She runs outside by herself – not okay, enough to get her taken who knows where by the Eye – and is seen by the Commander’s driver.
Driver Nick, played by Max Minghella, is a character you might remember from the book. I won’t say why in case you haven’t read it, but I found he struck exactly the right notes as in the book. Most of the cast does. Yvonne Strahovski makes me pity Serena Joy as much as I loathe her. It’s a rough role to play, and she sells it hard.
My main problem with this series so far is that it’s not a stretch to believe this could happen. It’s really difficult to watch with the political climate here in America what it is. I can see the roots of The Handmaiden’s Tale in our current problems: slut-shaming, religious fanaticism, governmental oppression, disregard for the environment and the restriction of personal freedom.
I laughed so hard reading those. It was a painful kind of laugh, mostly because I could see characters from the book frothing like this, but I still laughed.
The show gives me the same grim sort of amusement. It’s so dark, so gritty, so clinically exact that there’s no escaping the fact that everyone in charge knows what they’re doing is wrong and is doing it anyway. The leaders manipulate the Handmaidens with a masterful hand, even providing outlets for them to vent their rage in order to keep them docile.
I knew the Salvaging was coming and I still sucked in a shocked breath when the Handmaidens brutally beat the rapist to death. I couldn’t help but think of all the groups the current government tells us to mindlessly despise: Muslims, immigrants, drug addicts, scary transgender bathroom assailants… This is TOPICAL, people.
“Offred” is a brilliant start to a satisfyingly unsettling show. With a beginning like this, I can’t wait to see where it goes.
Have you seen “Offred” yet? What did you think? Share your opinions in the comments section below!
Khai is a writer, anthropologist, and games enthusiast. She is co-editor (alongside Alex DeCampi) of and contributor to “True War Stories”, a comic anthology published by Z2 Comics. When she’s not writing or creating games, Khai likes to run more tabletop RPGs than one person should reasonably juggle.
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