The Handmaid's Tale Premiere Recap: What Fresh New Hell Is This?

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu.
Blessed be the fruit.
May the Lord open.
Praise be.
Okay, now that we've got the niceties out of the way, we can actually talk. Don't worry, they can't hear you here. This is a safe space.
Welcome friends! Are you ready to embark on this emotional journey with me? It's going to be hard, but we'll get through it together, because if this show has taught me anything, it's that we need to get that sisterhood network up and running ASAP. Okay, are everyone's shoulders squared and determined? Let's begin.
The premiere episode of Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale" opens with a woman running through the woods with her child. We later learn that this is Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and that she and her husband are attempting to run away to Canada after a violent religious coup has stripped women of all their rights. It's a move that feels uncomfortably close to our current reality, but then again, so does this whole show. Offred is eventually cornered by what looks like an armed militia, and her child is taken. A shot in the distance indicates that her husband is dead. She's struck from behind, and things go dark as she's carted off to her new life.
That new life is summed up in Offred's opening monologue: "A chair, a table, a lamp... The window with white curtains. The glass is shatter-proof, but it isn't running away they're afraid of — a handmaid wouldn't get far. It's those other escapes. The ones you can open in yourself given a cutting edge. Or a twisted sheet on a chandelier.
"My name is Offred," she continues. "I had another name, but it's forbidden now. So many things are forbidden now." (Her name literally means Of Fred, in reference to the man who now owns her.)
The great thing about this show is that it allows us to glean information about the new world we find ourselves in piece by piece. There's no lengthy exposition provided. The show trusts that we're smart enough to figure it out. Offred is a handmaid. That means she is a woman who has proven her fertility in the "old world" and is assigned to a prominent family to act as a surrogate. When Offred meets with Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), the wife of the man she's been assigned to, we learn that there's a hierarchy even within the female ranks of this patriarchy. (For a detailed breakdown of that hierarchy, click here. You can tell who's who based on their uniforms.)
Serena Joy, who could give Cersei Lannister tips on how to freeze someone out, warns Offred that she better not fuck with her husband. ("He is my husband, till death do us part. Don't get any ideas.")
This is also when we get our first glimpse of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) who kind of comes off like a good-looking librarian. "Blessed be the fruit," he says. "May the Lord open," Offred answers.
You know what's great about a totalitarian theocracy? The daily routine. Every morning, Offred goes to the market. The house Martha (read: woman who cannot have a child and is also not a wife, but can cook so isn't immediately sent off to the deadly Colonies) hands her the tokens which serve as currency.
Remember in grade school field trips when the teacher would assign you a buddy? That's basically the deal here. Offred's buddy is Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), whom she describes as a "pious little shit with a broomstick up her ass." This is the first glimpse we get into Offred's real personality. Her internal monologue transports us into her brain, the only place where she can still be herself.
With everything going on, it's almost reassuring to find out that there are still thirst traps in this strange universe. Enter Nick, the Waterfords' driver and handyman, whom Offred passes on her way out to meet Ofglen. He is flirty — she doesn't engage. Not because his tuna jokes are lame (which they are), but because she can't. In this world, it's a death sentence.
That's the sinister aspect to all of this. On the one hand, Nick could just be lonely and horny. But he could also be an Eye, which is what members of the secret police are called, trying to bait her into an indiscretion. Nothing is what it seems.
Same goes for Offred's relationship with Ofglen. Outwardly, they are friends, companions. (Although, being forced to spend time with a girl I despise ranks up there on my list of worst nightmares.) But as Offred points out: "It's bullshit. There are no friends here. She's my spy, and I'm hers."
Through their small talk, we learn that there's a war going on in the country. There are still rebels opposing this system. Thanks to the fighting "going well in Florida" there are oranges available.
A word on this supermarket: It is both familiar and not. The aisles are the same, the artfully placed wicker baskets suggest a bohemian chic home aesthetic. They could be in a futuristic Whole Foods. But here, labels have been replaced with pictures, because women aren't supposed to read. Oddly enough, this does more to remind of artisanal hipster ketchup than anything else.
Clearly, this is the focal point of the handmaids' day. They talk, and socialize. But don't get too comfortable — one of them slips, mentioning that Offred's Commander Waterford is "really high up, his name's in the news." The uncomfortable glances are enough to suggest that everyone realizes this woman has transgressed, and they don't really know what to do about it.
After the market, it's time for a stroll by the river. It's lovely — there's water, trees, and a wall where men have been left to hang. There are three: a priest (probably a dissenting one, given the religious nature of this society), a doctor (symbolized by a fetus, suggesting he performed abortions), and a gay man (looks like Hitler's pink triangle has been recycled).
As she stares at these "undesirables," Offred flashes back to a lecture by a woman named Aunt Lydia. Before being sent out into the world, the handmaids are indoctrinated. The setting seems to be an old high school, which seems appropriate given the extent to which these women are being infantilized.
Aunt Lydia expounds on the dangers of radiation and pollution, which caused "the plague of infertility."
"Birth control pills! Morning after pills! Murdering babies! Just so they could have their orgies, their Tinder," she exclaims, sounding not unlike certain Republican pundits. "Like Bilhah served Rachel, you girls will serve the leaders of the faithful and their barren wives. You will bear children for them."
So, some context on that last reference: It's a story from the Old Testament, in which Rachel, married to Jacob, realizes that she cannot have children. Desperate, she asks Jacob to sleep with her handmaid, Bilhah, so that she may have a child to care for.
The mood in the room here is interesting. First off, we catch our first glimpse of Moira (Samira Wiley), Offred's friend from before all this madness. She seems to understand how to survive all this shit: Keep your head down and go with it. Most follow her example. But one girl, Janine, still reacts as I expect I would. She laughs. She mouths off. This earns her a shock from Aunt Lydia's taser before she is dragged off, and her eye plucked out. ("If my right eye offends thee, pluck it out" — Bible punishments are horribly creative.)
The girls sit in silent terror while Aunt Lydia delivers the scariest line in an episode full of them. "Girls, I know this must feel very strange. But 'ordinary' is just what you're used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary."
Nothing makes this more obvious than a later scene, which shows Janine describing her rape to the group. Prodded by Aunt Lydia ("Who led them on? Whose fault was it?") everyone points and chants "Her fault! Her fault!"
But at night, there's some reprieve. Sleeping in what used to be the high school's gym kind of feels like a giant slumber party, only one in which the adults can kill you. In adjoining bunks, Offred tells Moira about her daughter, and asks her about her girlfriend. "She was rounded up in one of the dyke purges. She's reclassified as an Un-woman, sent to the colonies."
Back in the present, it's ceremony night. The first step is a bath, a ritual that has its roots in many religions, but personally reminds me of a practice in Orthodox Judaism in which women must visit a mikveh, or bathhouse, after every period to wash themselves clean for their husbands.
Then, everyone assembles in the living room. Offred waits, on her knees. Rita and Nick stand behind her. Serena Joy sits with a smoke in hand. The Commander is late ("What is it about men," Serena Joy sighs, in a weirdly normal moment.) And then a knock. The Commander enters with a "Good evening, dear," conveying a strange bougie bonhomie. As Aunt Lydia explained earlier, this is the new normal.
He pulls out a Bible, gives his spiel about Jacob, Rachel, and Bilhah, and then it happens.
It is rape. It takes forever.
Offred's face is dead still as she's repeatedly penetrated by her master. His wife holds her in her lap, also dead still, tears in her eyes. And then with a final heave from Waterford, it is over. Finally.
Not so for Offred, who has to go to bed and sit there in the oppressive silence of her little room with "the commander's cum running out" of her until she can't take it anymore and runs outside. This, as you may have guessed, is also forbidden. And since Nick spots her, I think we can expect to see more of him.
The next day brings a salvaging. What is that, you ask? Well, basically, it's where the handmaids gather in a field to beat a man accused of rape to death.
It's an unexpectedly complex scene. On the one hand, in this male-dominated world, it's pleasantly (?) surprising to find out that the penalty for rape is severe. But on the other, it's twisted. The penalty for rape is death — but for the wrong reasons.
This is just another means of control. It's a way to let these women blow off steam and release their pent up anger against an undesirable, rather than the system itself. With this crime, they become complicit.
The salvaging, like the market, is also an opportunity to trade stories with the other handmaids. There, Offred learns that Moira is dead. Janine tells her, smiling radiantly as she strokes her very pregnant belly. She's come a long way from the woman who talked back in class.
On the way home, Ofglen breaks the silence by telling Offred she's sorry about Moira. "You knew her from the Red Center?"
"And before," Offred answers.
"Was there ever a before?" she sighs. Could there be more to Ofglen than we thought?
Turns out, there is. Ofglen loves ice cream, and totally remembers a time when the baby clothes store on main street sold "the most amazing salted caramel. It was better than sex. Like, good sex."
And with that, the spell is broken. These two aren't each other's spies anymore. They're two women in the same, sad situation. "They do that really well, make us distrust each other."
As they walk, Ofglen reveals that she and her wife had a son. They had Canadian passports, and escaped.
Finally, they reach the house. "It was nice to finally meet you." It's a rare moment of normalcy. But it doesn't last. As Offred closes the gate, Ofglen warns her that there's an Eye in her house.
The last scene circles back to when we first see handmaid Offred. She's sitting by the windowsill, hands in her lap. But she's not contemplating suicide this time. Offred intends to survive for her daughter. "Her name is Hannah," she declares in her thoughts. "My husband was Luke. My name is June."
See, we did it. Now, go take care of yourself. Drink a glass of wine, take a deep breath, and don't let the bastards grind you down. Until next week!
Ready for Episode 2? Click here.
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