The Handmaid's Tale is a 10-episode show from Hulu, starring Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski, Alexis Bleidel and Samira Wiley. Based on the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, the series follows the life of a "handmaid" to Commander Fred Waterford, a woman forced into concubinage until she bears Fred and his wife Serena Joy a child.
Of course, the handmaid has been given the name Offred, i.e., "Of Fred."
Offred had another name once, another normal 21st century life, until the religious theocracy of Gilead came and took America away. Now women are forbidden to read and are monitored as closely as they are in Saudi Arabia. Hulu couldn't have timed the release of this show better if it had tried.
This is the story of how she intends to survive.
Offred (Elisabeth Moss) navigates her life as a handmaiden in the home of a commander, who has forced sex with her, along with a wife who despises her. In flashbacks, she recalls her life before Gilead.
The Story So Far:
The first episode tends to give us a rough outline of what to expect while filling in the gaps later. True, there are plenty of gaps to fill, but The Handmaid's Tale lays it all out for us. How Offred came to be a handmaid. How her daughter was taken away from her. How this society works and her place in it. It's nice to have a show tell us up front what to expect and not coyly dance around its own premise.
In fact, this show has a "wonderful" way of being right. in. your. face. Without flinching, we get what's sure to be 2017's most uncomfortable scene: Fred (Joseph Fiennes) has sex with Offred as she is lying between his wife's legs. But we see her face as he's f**king her. (Those are author Margaret Atwood's words.) She's checked out. And there's no happy place for her to go.
The world of Gilead isn't quite fleshed out but we get the gist of it from subtle details. Because women do the shopping, none of the cans have words, only pictures. Black vans, used by the "Eyes" (secret police), are in almost every background. Offred views everyone with suspicion, because, really, anyone could be out to get her.
This means her interactions with everyone in the present are prickly and uncomfortable. But as a typical woman, her inner monologue is sharp and unrelenting. But soon, a fellow handmaid, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), reaches out to her, and they open up to each other. It was a sliver of light in one hour of pitch black television.
Note: Despite the show's tone, it's beautifully shot. Even the ugly scenes are pretty.
In the book, we're never certain of Offred's real name. But here, at the end of the episode, she declares it proudly (to herself. She doesn't dare speak it aloud). Her name is June.
Canny eyes will spot author Atwood as a woman who slaps Offred upside the head. It was my one genuine laugh during the episode.
Yvonne Strahovski proved herself a winning comedic actress in Chuck, but here, her performance as a cold, neglected wife lacks dimension. It's hard not to compare to her Faye Dunaway's turn as Serena Joy in the 1990 film version — because seriously, no one looks good next to the acting powerhouse that is Faye Dunaway — but you could feel Dunaway's rage boiling to the surface. Here, Strahovski hardly simmers. I hope she breaks out of her icy exterior soon.
Offred, looking at three hanging corpses, with different symbols on the bags over their heads: "A priest. A doctor. A gay man. I think I heard that joke once. This wasn't the punchline."
Offred: "The glass is shatterproof, 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 and chandelier. I try not think about those escapes."