Offred, and all the women of Hulu’s excellent adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, are royally — and often literally — screwed.
See Offred resist. Resist, Offred, resist!
The new drama, based on Margaret Atwood’s chilling novel, introduces its protagonist and starts to explain out how she went from working wife and mom in a world resembling ours to downtrodden sex slave in a society run by a totalitarian patriarchy. (Spoiler alert: The transformation is quick and chilling.)
But even though life is bleak for Offred and her sistren, there’s a spark of revolution glowing under those white winged veils. Read on for the highlights of the series premiere, “Offred.”
END OF THE ROAD | The first thing we see is a woman, her husband and their daughter speeding on backroads while sirens wail in the background. They’re clearly running from someone or something, and when the car skids off the road, the family wastes no time: They split up and take off, with the frightened girl holding fast to her mom’s hand as they run through the forest.
The woman is desperate; when the girl trips, her mother picks her up and tries to keep going, but men with guns are soon right on their heels. So the pair hide — and it’s hard to explain, because we don’t even know their names at this point, but watching the woman and her kid try to keep quiet while the men stand inches away is harrowing — and are eventually caught by the weapon-toting team. The woman’s daughter is ripped from her arms, then the woman is knocked out and loaded into the back of a van while her daughter screams for her.
Next time we see her, the woman is sitting by a window in a sunny, clean, sparsely decorated room. She’s wearing a simple, red gown and a white head covering. “My name is Offred,” she says via voiceover. “I had another name, but it’s forbidden now. So many things are forbidden now.”
A TERRIBLE LOT IN LIFE | Through voiceover and flashbacks, we learn bits and pieces of Offred’s story. “A return to traditional values. That’s what they fought for,” she says as we get a sense of the current world order: After widespread infertility and a violent coup, a caste society emerged in which fertile women like Offred are forced to be “handmaids” for “leaders of the faithful” (known as “commanders”) and their barren wives.
Offred lives in the household of Commander Waterford. It’s her second placement, and his tightly wound wife Serena Joy is not a fan of Offred’s. Handmaids aren’t allowed to go anywhere alone, or to read, or to have lives/jobs/wants of their own: In fact, all women don’t have much in the way of rights in this hellish reality.
In a flashback to Offred’s first day at a re-education center, a militaristic matron known as “Aunt” Lydia (played by the sublime Ann Dowd) explains more about how the “plague of infertility” was caused by sexual deviancy and pollution and how “fertility is a gift directly from god.” As a beaten, bewildered Offred is marched into the classroom, she makes eye contact with her friend, Moira, whom we met earlier via flashback. Moira almost imperceptibly shakes her head “no” so Offred won’t reveal that they know each other.
NO NEWS IS GOOD NEWS | And when Offred and another handmaid called Ofglen (fun, soul-sucking fact: The ladies are literally the property of the commanders, so they are known as “Of-Fill-in-Commander’s-First-Name-Here”) go to do some shopping, we learn that lesbians are classified as “unwomen” and sent to “the colonies.” This is problematic on several levels, not the least of which is that Moira is gay. But when Offred doesn’t see her friend hanging with other corpses left as a cautionary tale (a priest, a doctor and a gay man), she breathes a small sigh of relief: Moira escaped at some point, and the fact that she’s not strung up with the rest allows Offred to hope that she’s still out there, somewhere.
Also, hopefully, out there? Offred’s daughter. “Please God,” the handmaid thinks, “let her remember me.” (Side note: This is the point, when watching, that I had to press pause on the screener until my hyperventilating sobs subsided.)
NOT HOT | Let’s get past our case of the sads with a quick explainer on exactly how this God-given gift of fertility is deployed. Because it’s bats–t. In a ritual as sterile as it is bizarre, the handmaid lies on a bed while the commander’s wife holds her hands from behind. Then the commander unzips, does his thing, standing, while clutching the bedposts, and then everyone tries to pretend it didn’t happen. (I believe “Onward Christian Soldier” is playing behind the incredibly unsexy action in this scene, but I’m too horrified by what’s going on to pay closer attention and too traumatized after to go back and check.)
SAY MY NAME | Later, when Aunt Lydia aka Evil Effie Trinket gleefully gathers all the handmaids, she parades a man before them and explains that he’s a rapist. She whips the women up into a frenzy, finally giving them an outlet for their anger and frustration by unleashing them upon the man and letting them do whatever they like. The red robes descend upon the man and beat the life right outta him, and Offred is one of the most vicious, probably because she learns right before the ceremony that Moira was caught and is likely dead. (But is the source, a crazypants pregnant handmaid formerly known as Janine, trustworthy?)
On the way home, Ofglen shows her true colors when she likens good ice cream to good sex: It’s a subject the supposedly pious handmaids aren’t supposed to discuss, and Offred is shocked to learn that her shopping companion isn’t the godly bore she thought she was. As it turns out, Ofglen is a lesbian who was married with a son; he safely got to Canada. Even though the handmaids aren’t supposed to speak about their past lives — and they can never be sure that they’re not being spied on by a member of the Eye of God order — Offred can’t help but share part of her story: The flashback we saw at the beginning of the episode took place when she and her husband were trying to cross the border in Maine. Offred’s daughter would be 8 now. And her husband? “They shot him,” she says.
When Ofglen leaves Offred at Commander Waterford’s home, she does so with this ominous warning: “There’s an Eye in your house. Be careful.” Is it Nick, the Commander’s friendly-ish driver? Is it the Waterford’s domestic servant (known as a “Martha”)? Offred’s not sure. But as the hour closes, she informs us, “I intend to survive” so she can find her daughter. “Her name is Hannah. My husband was Luke.” And finally, we learn who Offred really is: “My name is June.”
Now it’s your turn. What did you think of the premiere? Grade the episode via the poll below, then hit the comments to back up your choice.