TV REVIEW: The Handmaid's Tale - Offred
This review contains spoilers.
During the Women’s March the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States of America, pictures of the signs that marchers had created started to circulate on social media. Many of them utilised references to Trump’s now infamous Access Hollywood tape, whilst others repeated slogans that had appeared at other protests around the world (“I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit” is a personal favourite). There was one particular sign that stood out to me though, one which would have a wider resonance in popular culture as well as politics: “Make Margaret Atwood fictional again!”
Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been terrifying women ever since its release in 1985, presenting a dystopia in which women were socially defined by their reproductive capabilities and forced into servitude by a fundamentalist Christian totalitarian state, the Republic of Gilead. Atwood took her inspiration from reality and argued that the experiences and incidents that occur in her book have already happened somewhere in our own world. Now, in a world where men commit sexual assault and become President and where women’s bodily autonomy is heavily legislated or non-existent, it’s safe to say that the boundaries between Atwood’s fiction and reality have become disturbingly blurred.
Into this world arrives Bruce Miller’s could-not-be-more-timely adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, the first episode of which finally aired in the UK on 28th May. Elisabeth Moss stars as Offred, a Handmaid posted to the household of Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his infertile wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). She’s there to bear them a child in a world where birth rates have fallen dramatically. But Offred remembers the ‘time before’ Gilead when she had her husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) and her daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake) and memories are dangerous.
The first episode has an enormous amount of establishing to do, not only for Offred herself, but for the world around her. Though we are yet to see how Gilead came to be, the episode deftly switches between the present and flashbacks to demonstrate Offred’s place within it and how the Handmaids themselves function. As Offred moves through her typical day, she guides us through the Waterford household, including the enigmatic chauffeur Nick (Max Minghella), and beyond to her companion Handmaid, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), narrating the rules as she goes.
Moss’ central performance in the present day is a collection of dichotomies; she’s calm and furious, subservient and rebellious, a model of piety and a secret heathen. Her physical performances largely reflect the former of those combinations, the devout Handmaid navigating her way through a society that could turn on her any second. The latter is in her narration, used to stunning effect to offer the audience an insight into her true thoughts; her disdain, her determination to survive, and perhaps most importantly, her real name. Offred is the public face, June is the private.
There’s a careful sheen to the aesthetics of the show in its muted tones, contrasting with the deep red the Handmaids’ dresses. The show portrays Gilead in a cold, matter-of-fact manner that works as an acceptance of that reality and an acknowledgement of its power. It's unflinching, particularly in scenes such as the Ceremony, in which the Commander has sex with Offred, his wife sat behind her, the Handmaid acting as a conduit between the pair. The process is rendered as a ritual, deeply uncomfortable in its lack of intimacy.
Like Offred, there’s a burning rage simmering quietly under the surface of the episode. For something so clinical in its presentation, the visceral reaction it provokes is nothing short of spectacular. Every phrase that has its echoes in our own reality, the familiarity inducing an anxious knot in the chest, a nauseating feeling in the stomach. When the disturbing scenes arrive, be it the Handmaids beating a rapist to death in an outpouring of their pent-up fury to the public blaming of a rape victim, they land like a gut punch on our own bodies.
It’s those familiar moments that hurts the most. We already operate in a society that works to turn women on each other. Gilead pushes it to extremes. It’s a society that divides women because it knows that the second women are united and get organised, they get shit done. It’s far better to keep them in competition and suspicious of each other. There are hierarchies built in; the Aunts indoctrinate, the Handmaids and the Marthas serve, and the wives rule. But it is the men who control everything, who shut the doors to their own wives. The only power that women can hold is over each other.
However, glimpses of the time before show that female companionship is not so easily broken and ripples continue into Gilead. The moment where Offred meets with a woman who was with her at the Red Centre feels like a slight exhalation of all the tension that had been built up. It’s brief and it’s quiet, but it is friendship. It serves as a precursor to the moment in which Offred and Ofglen connect, their outward piety (revealed as an amusing mutual annoyance prior to their honesty) giving way to their inner rebel. Both Moss and Bledel sell this scene beautifully as their characters reveal their similar losses, tentatively moving towards the kind of trust that Gilead seeks to destroy.
It proves to Offred that she is not alone, that Gilead hasn’t succeeded in indoctrinating everyone. The revelation of Offred’s real name is a defiant moment to end the episode on, buoyed by the fantastic choice of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me. I struggle to think of an episode of television that has provoked such a response from me. It’s tense and frightening, rage-inducing, nauseating… and utterly, utterly brilliant. As a statement of intent, the first instalment of The Handmaid’s Tale’s is blistering and uncompromising, leaving us all reeling.