The Handmaid's Tale

This recap of Episode 1 of Hulu’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE is chocked full of {SPOILERS}. ***If you haven’t watched yet, go do that and then come back here. ;)***

I’m out-of-my-mind thrilled that Bruce Miller, the show’s creator, has given us this timely little gift of a show, based on the book by the incomparable Margaret Atwood. Now, let us begin.

The premiere episode opens on a woman (Elisabeth Moss), a man (O-T Fagbenle), and their little girl (Jordana Blake) gunning it down a remote road in their car. Sirens are heard in the distance, it’s clear that they’re being chased. Their car gets stuck in a ditch after losing control, so the man tells the woman to take the little girl and to run into the woods about two miles north, where someone will meet them. Before they get very far, there are three gunshots back at the car. For a moment, the woman stands there, stunned, before she scoops up her daughter and continues to run.

Nearby, men’s voices grow louder, so the woman and her daughter hide. The men have guns (so I can only assume that we’re in America), and are mere steps away from their hiding place. They start running again, and I immediately think: YOU DID NOT HIDE LONG ENOUGH. Sure enough, the gunmen catch up, wrench the little girl out of her mother’s arms as she pleads with them not to do so. Ugh, heartbreaking. Mom is knocked unconscious and dragged off screen, then loaded into the back of a van. In the background, we see their crashed car, but no sign of the man anywhere.

Buckle up, people, because that’s just the first five minutes!

In voice-over, the woman from the woods takes stock of her sunlit bedroom, dressed now in a red habit and white bonnet. Visually, this is a stunning set of shots, which turn out to be the first of many beautiful shots throughout the episode. Kudos to the Director, Reed Moreno, and the Director of Photography, Colin Watkinson, on the look of the show. It’s masterful.

The woman is a Handmaid whose name is Offred. She had another name, “but it’s forbidden now. So many things are forbidden now.” THINGS ARE NOT GOOD. I’m certain of this because, historically, when they give you a new name and a bunch of stuff is freshly forbidden, things are not good.

Offred has a sit-down with, let’s call her Mrs. Green Dress (Yvonne Strahovski) who is clearly in charge of this house. Mrs. Green Dress (MGD) compares the last Handmaid she had to a “dog, only not a very smart one.” Charming.

MGD runs down the house rules for Offred, the first of which is “don’t call me ma’am. You’re not a Martha.” Who are the Marthas and why do they have to call you ma’am?

Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), MGD’S husband, enters (🎶dunh, dunh dunh🎶). Offred greets him by saying, “Praise be to you. May God make me truly worthy.” I’m from the South, so I’m used to a smattering of non-sequitur God references peppering conversations, but she said, “Praise be to YOU” – meaning the Commander. Barf  ($20 says that’s also how FLOTUS greets her husband).

Anyway, MGD stares him down, with that look wives give when they’re warning their husbands not to flirt with that woman. He smartly heeds her silent warning, sheepishly starts to retreat out of the room with a “Nice to meet you.” Successful first interaction over, right? Think again.

Offred screws up by replying, “you too.” EVERYONE IMMEDIATELY REACTS AS IF SHE FARTED. Commander W leaves, but it’s too late because MGD is super annoyed by this point. Offred is to be seen as little as possible. She goes on to remind Offred that the Commander is HER husband, ’til death do they part. And then she throws in the fancy lady version of “don’t start none, won’t be none,” which is, “If I get trouble, believe me, I will give trouble back.” Close-up on Offred’s clenched fist after MGD leaves the room. I think Offred might start none, y’all. And as a result, there might be none.

We then meet Rita (Amanda Brugel), who is “a Martha,” making bread from scratch. Marthas have to do things that are considered “a return to traditional values,” code for keeping yet another group of women deemed worthless trapped in the kitchen all day making a bunch of bleeping bread for MGDs and Commanders.

Rita’s annoyed at Offred’s very existence. She sends Offred to the market to shop for groceries, which she’s forced to do with her “friend,” fellow Handmaid, Ofglen. Offred mentally derides Ofglen as a “pious little shit with a broomstick up her ass.” Can’t wait to meet her, she sounds lovely.

As Offred leaves the Waterford property, she encounters Nick (Max Minghella), the Commander’s driver, who’s hauling dirt in a wheelbarrow and who looks very fine doing so (#OBJECT). They have a brief conversation about what she’s going to buy and it’s subversively flirty, more on his part than hers.

Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) and Offred head to the store, discussing nothing, yet speaking volumes. They distrust each other and suspect the other is a spy.  After shopping, they walk home, passing a wall where three men are hung: a priest, a doctor, and a gay man, further informing us about the kind of America this has become.

Offred flashes back to her first day at Handmaid indoctrination class. A stern, militant woman in a potato sack style brown dress (Ann Dowd), explains God’s revenge on them for being toxic polluters and whores: the plague of infertility. She rails against birth control pills, morning after pills, abortion, and even Tinder. Yikes.

As Offred takes a seat, she spots Moira (Samira Wiley), and flashes back to life before all this insanity. They’re at some sort of outdoor party. We find out, a) they’re old friends and, b) Moira is a lesbian. Uh oh.

Potato Sack Lady lectures about how they’re blessed because they’ve been “left intact” by God, meaning they can have children. Their job will be to serve as baby-makers for the leaders of this hell on earth (my words not hers) and their barren wives. It’s abundantly clear that Potato Sack Lady really and truly believes they’re lucky to have this gig. Easy for her to say: she’s beyond child-bearing age.

Janine (Madeline Brewer), another Handmaid newbie next to Offred, is just not buying any of this garbage. Fed up with her attitude, Potato Sack Lady welcomes Janine to the “Rachel and Leah Centre” (biblical references, google them if you don’t know their deal), BY SHOCKING HER IN THE NECK WITH A CATTLE PROD AND, HOLY COW, THE SYMBOLISM IS OVERT. Two other Potato Sack Ladies drag Janine out of the room.

Potato Sack Lady continues to lecture, “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.” At which point, I screamed “RESIST, OFFRED! RESIST!” at my TV and then paused the show for two minutes so I could try to regain my composure.

At bedtime, in a giant cafeteria full of cots, Offred explains to Moira that she tried to escape with her daughter but couldn’t. Moira swears that she will find Offred’s daughter and that all this “crazy sh*t is gonna end.” I love Moira for that.

Moira goes on to tell Offred that her girlfriend, Odette, was rounded up in a purge, reclassified as an “Unwoman,” and sent to the colonies. I thought Handmaids had it bad. Unwomen have it worse. Now we know that if they find out Moira is a lesbian, she’ll be reclassified as an Unwoman. I’m scared.

Janine is dragged in and put on a cot, with a bandage around her head, whimpering. Come to find out, they removed her right eye because, “If my right eye offends thee, pluck it out.” (Matthew 5:29). Nothing justifies violence like a bible quote.

Back to the present, Offred has to rush home to get ready for “the ceremony.”  Once home, she takes a bath and remembers going to an aquarium with her daughter, “Please, God, let her remember me.”

Okay. Put the children to bed and steel yourselves because, boy oh boy were these next few scenes were hard to watch.

Flashback to the Centre where Janine, sans her right eye, describes being gang-raped in a basement by boys she knew from school. Potato Sack lady victim-blames Janine, “Who led them on? Whose fault was it?” The Handmaids point at Janine and chant, “Her fault, her fault.” God allowed this to happen, according to Potato Sack Lady, to teach Janine a lesson.

Back in the present at the Waterford house, Offred kneels on the floor. Rita and Nick come in and stand behind her. MGD rushes in, irritated that the Commander isn’t there yet. The Commander knocks on the door, a sign that he’s not in charge (but, really, we all know he is). He comes in, reads a passage from the bible about Rachel and Jacob having children. I won’t lie. I’m getting pretty bibled out, guys.

Next thing you know, the Commander is thrusting into Offred, who lies on the bed, between MGD’s legs, her wrists held in place by MGD. No one wants to be there at that moment doing what they’re doing. The three people in that room are not happy. It’s absolutely horrific. There’s no nudity. It’s one of the most cringe-worthy scenes I’ve ever watched.

Eventually (and I’m sure you know what I mean), MGD lets Offred’s wrists go, the Commander leaves. MGD orders Offred to “get out.” Offred reminds her that “the chances are better” if she lies on her back for a bit. MGD truly does not give a d*mn. She wants Offred out. So Offred leaves. MGD cries. And I do feel sorry for her.

The next morning, three bells ring. We learn that means “there’s a salvaging today.” Oh yay. Can’t wait to see what the heck a salvaging is. Offred does some minor flirting with Nick in the kitchen before she heads out to her salvaging appointment, as one does.

Handmaids file on to a lawn area in front of a huge stage, again guarded by a bunch of men with machine guns. What is with all these men with machine guns?! Janine is there, pregnant, wearing a patch where her right eye used to be. She tells Offred that Moira is dead. Now to be fair, Janine is not all there, mentally. They broke her spirit and her brain at the Centre, so I can only assume she’s wrong. But Offred clearly believes her, and she is instantly overcome with grief.

Potato Sack Lady, who we find out here is called Aunt Lydia, announces from the stage that they’re there because of their “duty.” A man is brought out from backstage. He was convicted of rape, the penalty of which is death. Aunt Lydia announces that the man raped a pregnant Handmaid  – and the baby died. Was there a jury trial? Was an attorney appointed him if he could not afford one? Doubtful. Aunt Lydia, doing what she lives for, commands the Handmaids to form a circle around the man. I’m sure you know where this is going. Aunt Lydia blows a whistle, the Handmaids go HAM on the guy. Offred leads the charge, in the throws of her grief over Moira and her daughter and this world and the ceremony and everything. They kill him with their bare hands!

Flashback to Offred telling Moira she’s pregnant. She’s not excited but Moira is! Apparently, it’s really hard to get pregnant. Five women at Offred’s work miscarried. Moira tells Offred she’ll be fine and that won’t happen to her. And “no matter what happens, I’ll be right here. Just like always.” So now I’m in tears.

On the way home from the salvaging, Offred and Ofglen have a heart-to-heart about how all this Handmaid stuff is bullsh*t. And about how they each thought the other was “such a true believer.” Offred tells Ofglen how she and her husband tried to cross into Canada from Maine but “they shot him.” When they part, Ofglen tells Offred “it was nice to finally meet you.” And then she whispers to her, “There’s an eye in your house. Be careful.” Grrrrrrreat. Who is it?!?! Who is the eye?! I hope it’s not Nick, because the flirting!

The last scene of the episode, back in her room, Offred tells us she “intends to survive, for her. Her name… is Hannah. My husband… was Luke. My name… is June.” Nice to meet you, June. We’re glad you survived.

Elisabeth Moss’s performance has nearly left me speechless. Her Offred is amazingly strong and so vulnerable all at the same time. Suffice it to say, she’s going to be showered with awards and acclaim (well-deserved) for this performance.

My fave moments:

  • Margaret Atwood, the book’s author, is the Potato Sack Lady who slaps Offred on the cheek when she’s in the blame-Janine-circle at the Centre. Anyone else catch that?
  • MGD’s visceral reaction after the “ceremony.” Yvonne Strahovski – what a great performance. Layers and layers of acting yumminess.
  • Offred mentally referring to Ofglen as a “pious little sh*t” and Ofglen referring to Offred as “so frickin’ pious.” Piety as an insult really speaks to me. Did I mention I’m from the South and that I’m pretty bibled out?
  • Moira to Offred re: her pregnancy: “… I’ll be right here. Just like always.” Very sweet.
  • “My name is June.” I want this printed on a t-shirt that I will wear to every women’s march from now until forever. We. Are. All. June!

What I hope we see in the next episode:

  • What MGD does all day, aside from ordering Marthas around and smoking.
  • More fist-clenching from Offred, and hopefully even a more aggressive, “ma’am.”
  • Bigger clues about who the eye in the Waterford house is.
  • Some inkling of what’s become of Offred’s daughter. I’m very, very worried about her.
  • Same for Moira. I refuse to believe Janine.
  • Max Minghella, shirtless, washing a limo or taking down a fence. Or both.

Something I learned:

  • The Handmaids’ names, Offred, Ofglen, etc., are Of *Commander’s First Name.* Because the Handmaids belong to their respective Commanders. So it’s Offred (Of Fred), Ofglen (Of Glen), Ofhelltotheno,  you get it.
  • “Under his eye” is their version of “see ya.” Under, as in “you’re all less-than.” And His, as in “not hers.” And eye, as in “you best believe you are being watched.”
  • Don’t binge watch! Dole the episodes out to yourself slowly and savor every tasty little morsel.

This incredible show is most definitely not meant to be watched in a vacuum. It should be discussed, and at great length. What’d you think of this episode?

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Kim Bowman

In addition to recaps, Kim writes witty ensemble TV comedies with strong female leads, none of which have been produced *insert sad trombone sound here.*

Nevertheless, she persists.
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