The Handmaids Tale S01E01 “Offred” REVIEW
Airing on Channel 4, Sunday at 9pm
Writer: Bruce Miller
Director: Reed Morano
Essential Plots Points:
- A family flee from the police but their car skids out. They get out and, comforting their young daughter as best they can, split up. Luke, the husband, stays behind to ‘hold them off’. June, takes their daughter and tries to get to the Canadian border but they’re captured. June is clubbed unconscious, her daughter is taken away and she’s arrested.
- Welcome to Gilead.
- We see June, now called Offred, as a Handmaid. In Gilead, women have no rights and Handmaids are used as breeding vessels by the senior members of the theocracy now ruling the country. Gilead used to be America. Institutionalized rape, in the name of a theocratic government, wasn’t always the norm. Offred clings to that fact.
- We see her meet Ofglen, her ‘friend’ and fellow handmaid. It becomes clear, via a wonderfully sarcastic narration from Offred, that Handmaids are kept in pairs so they can spy on one another. They go shopping and on the way home pass a wall where three men have been hung; a priest, a doctor and a gay man.
- In flashbacks, we see Offred being indoctrinated along with other women including her best friend Moira. The indoctrination is carried out by Aunt Lydia, an older woman working for the theocracy. Janine, one of the others, speaks out and is taken away.
- The next night, Janine is returned to the dormitories. She’s had an eye removed.
- In the present, Commander Fred Waterford, Offred’s ‘master’, rapes her while his wife holds her down. The hope is she’ll become pregnant and give the Waterfords a son. Fred’s wife, Serena Joy, doesn’t know who to be angry or disgusted at more; her husband, Offred, or herself.
- That night, Offred stumbles outside, overcome with horror and rage. She sees Fred’s chauffeur looking at her and they pass a silent moment of solidarity.
- The next day, the handmaids are gathered in an open field by Aunt Lydia. Offred meets Janine again, who cheerfully tells her Moira has been killed. Aunt Lydia brings a man on stage and explains that he was found guilty of raping a handmaid. She tells the women she will blow a whistle and after that whatever they do is up to them until she blows the whistle again.
- The whistle blows.
- Offred and the others beat the man to death, their anger weaponised by the very state that has brutalised them. Janine watches.
- On the way home, Ofglen levels with Offred. She tells her she had a wife and son, warns her there’s a member of the Eye, Gilead’s secret police, in her house and gives her the tiniest sliver of hope. As the episode ends, Offred’s narration speaks her true name and she vows to find her daughter.
It’s rare to see a TV adaptation of a book truly work. It’s almost impossible to see one that’s transcendently good. This is.
Margaret Attwood’s classic has made it to the screen absolutely intact even as it’s been rebuilt for a modern era. One rather closer to the tone and life of Gilead than anyone would like to admit. The rage that permeates every line of the book is absolutely here, but it’s shot through with a subtle and very smart directorial choice. Gilead is still recognisably modern America. There are the same cars, the same houses. Empty shops that weren’t deemed worthy still have their windows and signage. The supermarket is still the supermarket, albeit rendered into a Ballardian abstraction of polite, contained terror. It’s a brilliant aesthetic choice and one enhanced massively by the way the Handmaids are constantly made the smallest thing in any crowd shot. This is a world of freedom measured in inches, where the only place to hide is behind the wings of the veil you’re shackled to.
It’s also a world of tragic, banal and horrific violence. The rape scene dances on the razor’s edge between darkly funny (The cook complaining when Commander Waterford is late) and horror that’s intimate in the very worst way. The image of Offred’s face, locked in a carefully neutral mask as she’s violated is very, very difficult to deal with. But, unlike Offred, you have the luxury of looking away.
This is where the show’s greatest strength and potentially biggest problem lives. Not a single punch is pulled here and there are countless moments of abject horror in the show. There has to be, because that’s the engine of the story but it may turn some viewers off. If you can, stick with it. Because the show’s power, and strength, lives in that persistence. In Offred reclaiming her name. In the shared moment of silence between her and Nick the chauffeur. This is a show not about winning, but survival and what we go through to get there. It’s unflinching, brutal, clever, darkly funny and utterly tragic. It will scare you. It will make you angry. It will horrify you. You’ll want to look away. If you can, don’t. A show this good, this difficult, this essential? Deserves your full attention.
- The performances are astonishing. Elizabeth Moss’ Offred seethes with rage and bitter humour and she anchors the entire episode. But Yvonne Strahovski’s pained, furious Sereny Joy, Alexis Bledel’s Ofglen and Samira Wiley’s Moira are all particular standouts.
- The direction is just as good. It’s all carefully designed to make the Handmaids look small and contained. Tiny cogs in a machine that hates them.
- Nothing. This is the best piece of TV drama you’ll see this year. And the most horrifying.
And The Random:
- Reed Morano teaches Cinematography at NYU and her previous work includes Frozen River, Kill Your Darlings and more.
- Bruce Miller is the executive producer of the show as well as a writer. He previously worked on The 100, Eureka and more.
- Margaret Attwood, author of the original novel, has a cameo as one of Aunt Lydia’s assistants. She’s the one who hits Offred.
- ‘You Don’t Own Me’ by Lesley Gore plays over the end credits. This is the original, that was covered by Grace (And stomped all over by G-Easy on the Suicide Squad soundtrack).
Review by Alasdair Stuart