Based on the novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale has now come to our screens in the UK – Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4, you’re welcome – and so far it’s been a really intriguing watch.
The central conceit of the show is that humanity has all but decimated the US as we know it, and this has resulted in a “plague of infertility” among the women of the country. Under the rule of their new uber-religious, totalitarian government, those few women who are fertile become Handmaids to the rich and powerful in the militant society, whose only purpose is to provide children for the man and wife the Handmaid is assigned to. This is where we find our heroine, Offred (whose name literally means Of-Fred, the property of Fred, the Commander).
With a mass beating, secret scrabble, and quite possibly the most uncomfortable sex scenes you will ever watch, The Handmaid’s Tale lands us right in the middle of a poignant, ‘what if,’ dystopia.
Episode one opens with a thrilling sequence, where we are introduced to Offred as she desperately tries to keep her daughter safe from the armed suits pursuing them – she fails. It’s a strong and engaging opening, and sucks you right in. We come to learn more about the new world of Gilead from Offred’s well-placed flashbacks into what life was like before, in our world, and her initiation into life as a Handmaid.
As Margaret Atwood’s novel is written in the first person, so much of the storytelling relies on Offred, and we are told much from her voiceovers, plenty of which I am led to believe comes straight from the pages of the novel (a sign of a good adaptation in my humble opinion). And Elisabeth Moss is brilliantly cast in the lead role, often telling as much through her look as her voice, a voice which is strong and witty and compelling, when she can speak freely, and this is almost exclusively in her voiceovers. It’s in these voiceovers that we learn more about Offred and the world she inhabits, and where this technique could pretty easily become cumbersome and clumsy, it is executed smoothly in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Even within the first episode, your sympathies as a viewer are spread across different characters – not an easy thing to achieve with a trio of characters you’ve only just met. During the Ceremony, we feel sorry for Offred and Serena Joy, and even the Commander to some extent, looking at the society these people have been forced into. And it’s a society that’s quite horrifying to behold, not least because there are echoes of reality there.
But the most uncomfortable I’ve felt in these two opening episodes was during the birth ritual of episode two. Because holy god was that weird. The Wives are so desperate to be like the Handmaids (fertile) that they play at a mock-birth while the Handmaids are gathered upstairs. Then the Wife sits astride the birthing chair, above her Handmaid, claiming the birth as hers. And to top it all off, the newborn is wrapped up and placed in the arms of an ‘exhausted’ Wife, while the Handmaid looks on, now acting as a wet nurse to her own child. That was some tough going as a viewer, even for Janine, a character we’re not exactly led to love.
But what I’m most excited to see next (other that what the hell happened to Ofglen?!) is what happens with Offred and the Commander. I mean, who needs a cheeky Nando’s when there’s a cheeky Scrabble? But in a society where women are forbidden to read, and for ex-assistant publisher, that’s got to be one of the most freeing experiences there is. Not to mention highly illegal.
So what happens now? Where do we go from a not-so-innocent Scrabble game with the man she should never even look in the eye, never mind have any kind of relationship with?