Contains spoilers (obviously) for The Handmaid’s Tale season 1.
The ultimate themes of The Handmaid’s Tale, promises writer-producer Bruce Miller, are hope and survival. If you saw season one though, you’ll know that its more immediate themes are much less friendly. Hulu’s adaptation didn’t dilute a drop of the finely controlled rage in Margaret Atwood’s novel. If anything, it made her dystopian creation of Gilead—a fundamentalist regime in which fertile women are enslaved and institutionally raped—even more brutal.
With season one out now on DVD and season two arriving in the US next month, here’s a reminder of what happened in the first ten episodes.
Chronologically, the story begins in more or less present-day Boston where June (Elisabeth Moss), a college graduate whose best friend is Moira (Samira Wiley), works for a book publisher. June meets Luke (O-T Fagbenle) at a hot dog stand and the two begin meeting in secret until Luke eventually leaves his wife for her and they marry. June and Luke have a baby daughter—Hannah—who is briefly stolen from the hospital by an unhinged woman unable to have her own child. A significant drop in birth rates combined with a rise in birth defects has brought America to a fertility crisis. Maternity wards are empty, candle-lit vigils are held outside praying for successful labours. Unpredictable weathers systems and failing harvests have also thrown the country’s supply chains into disarray.
Meanwhile, writer-activist Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) is rallying crowds to her newly coined “domestic feminism” movement. She’s published a book called A Woman’s Place arguing that women have a Christian, moral responsibility to be mothers, and that domesticity and meekness don’t equate to weakness. Serena Joy’s next book will argue that, in a world where few healthy babies are being born, fertility could be traded globally as a national resource. Serena Joy and her husband Fred Waterford have been unable to conceive a child.
Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) is part of The Sons of Jacob, a fundamentalist religious, patriarchal group with an army at their command who frame Islamic extremists for terrorist attacks they commit on Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court as an excuse to seize military control of the country. These men are the architects of Gilead, the experimental regime which enslaves fertile women, kidnaps their existing children, executes gay people and rebels, and sends anyone non-compliant to “the colonies”, which means certain death.
The Sons of Jacob cook up the notion of ‘The Handmaid’, a fertile woman sent into the home of powerful men—now called Commanders—unable to conceive a child with their wives. To sell their wives on the idea of impregnating Handmaids, the Commanders use biblical justification, add a bunch of solemn rituals, and call it ‘The Ceremony’ (“Act may not be the best name, from a branding perspective”). A monthly event, The Ceremony involves the Commander reading aloud from the bible, then raping the Handmaid while she lies between the wife’s legs.
Seeing the signs of regime-change on the horizon too late, June, Luke and Hannah try but fail to cross the border to Canada together. June and Hannah are captured and separated, while Luke manages to get to Toronto, where he settles in Little America, a place set up for US refugees from Gilead to wait for their loved ones.
June is taken to a Red Centre, run by Gilead’s female enforcers, the Aunts, and patrolled by armed Guardians. Four roles are designated for women in Gilead: Wives, Aunts, Marthas (domestic servants) and Handmaids. Gay women (labelled ‘gender traitors’) are either forced to repent for their ‘sins’, or strung up in the street along with doctors who perform pregnancy terminations and other dissidents.
There’s also a fifth category for women, we learn later in the series: Jezebels. These are young, attractive women who don’t fit into one of the other categories and are secretly kept in a Boston brothel and used for sex by the Commanders (without the knowledge of their wives). Jezebels wear revealing, glamorous clothing and make-up, unlike the modest green dresses of the Wives, red cloaks and white headgear of the Handmaids, or grey habits of the Aunts.
Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) runs the Red Centre where June and Moira are taken. It’s a cruel place of indoctrination and brutal punishment. Unhinged young Janine (Madeline Brewer), who is told by the Aunts she is to blame for the gang-rape she suffered at age fourteen, has an eye amputated there for bad behaviour. Once trained in the ceremonies and rites of Gilead, the Handmaids are posted to their Commanders’ houses until they bear them a child.
June and Moira stage an escape attempt from the Red Centre, but June is recaptured while Moira boards a train to a safe house in Boston. She too is eventually recaptured and June believes Moira has been sent to the colonies, and so is dead. In fact, Moira, a gay woman, has been taken to Jezebels to serve as a sexual plaything. June, now forced to adopt the name of her Commander, Fred Waterford, becomes Offred.
One of Gilead’s rituals is The Salvaging, which is designed to make the Handmaids complicit in the violence of the regime and as a way for them to vent anger (so as not to direct it at their Commanders). They’re summoned by the ringing of three bells (reading is forbidden for women in Gilead, all forms of words, in supermarkets and on street signs, have been replaced by simple pictograms) to form a circle around a bound prisoner. When the whistle blows, they beat the prisoner—accused of a crime, whatever the real reason for his punishment—to death.
Birth has even more rituals involved. Summoned by bells once again, the Handmaids gather around one of their number in labour and chant supportive prayers, while the Wife who is to receive the surrogate baby play-acts her own fake labour surrounded by other Wives. Janine (whose eye was removed at the Red Centre), now known as Ofwarren after her Commander Warren Putnam, is the first Handmaid to give birth in the series.
Ofwarren believes Commander Putnam when he tells her that he will leave his wife and take her and the baby to live as a family – lies told so he can use her for sex outside the official Ceremony. When she discovers the truth, Ofwarren/Janine takes the baby onto a bridge and threatens to jump. Offred tries to talk her down, promising that Gilead’s days are numbered and there is a resistance fighting back. Ofwarren gives Offred the baby, but jumps herself. She doesn’t die however, and is sentenced to be stoned to death by her fellow Handmaidens in a Salvaging. Led by Offred, the Handmaid’s mount a peaceful resistance en masse and refuse to murder their friend (“They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army”).
Offred’s first inkling of a resistance movement in Gilead comes via shopping partner Ofglen (Alexis Bledel). Handmaids are paired up for anything that requires them going outside of the home, so they’re always being watched and monitored by each other. Ofglen was a university lecturer before the regime change. Her wife and young son fled to Canada but she was captured. Ofglen warns Offred that a member of the Waterford household is an Eye, or surveillance agent, for Gilead.
One morning Offred discovers a new Handmaid in her friend’s place, calling herself Ofglen. Discovered to have been having an affair with a Martha, the first Ofglen was taken away by the Guardians and forced to watch her lover being hanged. As punishment, she was genitally mutilated before being sent back into the home of another Commander and renamed Ofsteven. Her “two working ovaries” made her too precious to kill.
On her return, Ofsteven seemed resigned to capture, but spied an opportunity for rebellion. She drove an unattended car around a market square and ran it over a Guardian in protest, before being taken away in one of the ominous black vans that transport dissidents to their cruel punishments.
The new Ofglen warns Offred that she’s happy in Gilead and doesn’t want anything to mess it up for her. Before things changed, she was a homeless addict forced into prostitution, so relatively, life is better for her now. Nonetheless Offred makes it known to Alma, Handmaid to Commander Ellis, that she wants to become part of the Mayday Resistance. Offred is given an assignment.
Shortly after she was posted to his home, Offred was invited by Commander Waterford into his private study. There, he asked her to play Scrabble against him, drink whisky and read magazines—all forbidden activities. He used to do the same with the last Offred, we learn, who eventually committed suicide by hanging herself in her bedroom closet. On the wall of the closet, the previous Offred had scratched the Latin phrase ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’, which translates to “don’t let the bastards grind you down”. Offred used this phrase to play on Commander Waterford’s guilt about her predecessor and manipulate him. Convinced that she was attracted to him, Commander Waterford brings Offred a glamorous dress and make-up, and took her to Jezebels for sex. She saw Moira, whom she’d previously thought dead, working there.
Knowing that she’d been taken to Jezebels once, Mayday gave Offred the assignment of returning to pick up a package and hide it until further notice. On her return visit, Offred failed to get the package so asked Moira to retrieve it for her, but she refused because of the great risk. In a butcher shop however, Offred is later passed the package with a note from Moira. She hid it under the bathtub next to her bedroom, after that it was full of letters from Handmaids all over Gilead writing to their family and loved ones who made it to Canada.
The Eye that Ofglen warned Offred about turned out to be Nick (Max Minghella), Commander Waterford’s driver. Out of work, Nick accepted a job with Commander Pryce, a Sons of Jacob member who is attempting to cleanse the group of non-pious members like Putnam (Janine’s Commander, whose arm was amputated as punishment for his affair) and Waterford, whose transgressions at Jezebels are known about because Nick is the one who drives him there. Nick was placed in the Waterford home to spy on his master.
Frustrated at Offred’s failure to become pregnant, Serena Joy had arranged for Offred and Nick to meet in secret for sex to help her chances of conceiving. Unbeknown to Serena Joy, the two later began a love affair in earnest.
A delegation of Mexican trade representatives visited Gilead and Serena Joy’s theory that fertility could be used as a commodity to trade between countries was put into practice. Gilead is pitched to the visitors as a flourishing utopia with an organic agricultural model, slashed carbon emissions, and the biggest rarity of all – children. The Mexicans are aware of the true nature of the regime their trade is shoring up, but ignore their qualms and make a deal anyway.
Begging the Mexican contingent for help, Offred learned that Luke is still alive and was able to pass him a note saying “I love you so much. Save Hannah.” Thanks to a sympathetic Mexican politician, the note reached Luke in Canada. Inspired by Offred’s Mayday assignment, Moira staged another escape attempt and succeeded, making her way across the Canadian border, where she was reunited with old friend Luke.
Serena Joy learnt of Fred and Offred’s trips to Jezebels, and found out that Offred is pregnant by Nick. Desperate for the baby, Serena Joy takes Offred to watch her meet with Hannah, promising that if Offred were to harm either herself or the baby, she would hurt Hannah in turn.
The final scene of season one sees Offred (having told servant Rita where the secret package of letters is hidden) being led away by the Guardians. “Just go with it,” says Nick, as she’s led into the black van. “Trust me.”
The Handmaid’s Tale returns to Hulu in the US on Wednesday the 25th of April and to Channel 4 in the UK shortly thereafter.