NOTE: This review contains SPOILERS for the streaming drama series, book, and 1990 movie version of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Atwood’s book has echoes of New England Puritanism, along with atrocities drawn from sources including Saudi Wahhabism, the Third Reich, American slavery, and the East German surveillance state. It’s constructed not as a realistic story, however, but as an eyewitness account… -Emily Nussbaum (The New Yorker)
Mankind is failing, most women are sterile because of industrial pollution (or Mother Nature just having enough of us). Birth rates are plummeting. An ultra religious cult see it as their God-given mission to “save mankind.” They seize power by staging a fake terrorist attack against the US government, impose marshal law, and set about rebuilding American society. (“War On Terror” anyone?) They use The Old Testament as their blueprint, but with some totally wack interpretations and distortions. Fertile women become the property of the state. Brainwashed and farmed out to the new ruling elite as baby makers, slavery and subjugation is all they can hope for. -Summary by IMDB reviewer
Canadian writer Margaret Atwood wrote her dystopian novel in 1985 (while she was living in Berlin, Germany); it was first published in 1986. She didn’t put anything in that hadn’t happened before at some place and time period in history. Her book is considered a blend of historical fiction and sci-fi; I read it in HS (I think). Many years later, I saw the 1990 movie starring Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway, and Aiden Quinn. Critics (mostly) hated that film, BUT I thought it was pretty decent. Veteran actors Duvall and Dunaway played the Waterfords; their ages were appropriate to the book. However, in this new Hulu series, the couple are much younger, energetic, and passionate.
The Handmaid’s Tale looks extraordinary – stylised, choreographed almost, menacing. It sounds fabulous, too. -Sam Wollaston (The Guardian)
Even the light coming in through the windows has a soft luxury to it, a Vermeer-ish quality. -Sonia Saraiya (Variety)
Much has been written lately re: the importance of world-building in good drama series; after all, the look is what first draws the attention of viewers to a show. Offred wears a distinctive white bonnet (the 1990 film had a red veil) and scarlet-colored dress and hooded cape, as do ALL the other Handmaids. The commanders wear black suits w/ dark-colored ties; their wives wear blue dresses (covering the knees and and conservatively cut) and matching capes. There are also lower-ranked married women in this world; they are called Econowives and wear grayish striped dresses. The Guardians dress like modern-day SWAT teams- in black and gray colors.
There are also little/subtle touches which enrich the show. The Gilead-era flag (which is shown in Canada) only has two stars, b/c the U.S. ONLY has control over two states- Alaska and Hawaii. In the real world, the red tags attached to the Handmaids’ ears are used on livestock (such as cows); this is a reminder that the Handmaids are viewed as farm animals, NOT humans. There are mentions of Uber, Tinder, the SATs, and even a cute scene involving a food truck- things that we are familiar w/ in 2017.
In the book, Gilead is a white-supremacist culture. In the show, black actors play Moira and Luke. The result is an odd trade-off: we get brown faces, but the society is unconvincingly color-blind, as if race had never existed. -Emily Nussbaum (The New Yorker)
June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss)
The book uses a 1st person narrator, so the reader ONLY knows what Offred knows. This series also gives us POVs of other characters, BUT she is the lead. Moss has tackled meaty roles before (The West Wing; Mad Men; Top of the Lake). She is VERY good at expressing a lot of (conflicting) emotions w/ subtle/brief looks and body movements. In her previous life, Offred was a book editor and married mother to an adorable young daughter (Hannah). At the start of the series, her goal is to stay mentally strong and survive in order to someday find her little girl.
Moira (Samira Wiley)
The petite, out and proud lesbian is June’s best friend. Moira, who is BOTH funny and strong-willed, manages to escape from the Rachel and Bilhah Center in the disguise of an Aunt. Offred gets left behind on the subway platform, BUT she understands the difficulty of the situation. Though there are rumors that Moira died, we see her (later in season) working at Jezebels, a club where commanders come to fulfill their fantasies w/ a diverse array of women (many of whom were intellectuals in the past). Just like the Handmaids, these women can’t say “no.” When they are reunited (by chance), Moira explains to June that Jezebels get good food, booze, and drugs. In the book, she says that she can read and have relationships w/ women. Fans of OITNB rejoice!
Luke Bankole (O-T Fagbenle)
Luke, June’s husband and father to Hannah, gets a backstory in this series; that is NOT in the book. When they first met, Luke was married to another woman; this adds to the shades of gray in the story. This actor is British-Nigerian and I had never seen him before; he does a great job in this role (incl. the more action-oriented scenes).
Emily/Ofglen (Alexis Bledel)
In her previous life, Emily was a college prof, married (w/ a wife), and young son. Offred doesn’t really know much re: Ofglen until after 2 mos. of walking w/ her to do the grocery shopping; no Handmaid can travel alone. Later in the series, Ofglen goes through FGM (scary, yet still happening ALL over the world). This is a VERY meaty (and unusual) role for Bledel; she is best known for The Gilmore Girls.
Janine/Ofwarren (Madeline Brewer)
Janine, a fiery redhead, was mouthy at the training center; she was severely punished by one of the Aunts (losing an eye). Poor Janine has a tragic past; she was a survivor of a gang assault (resulting perhaps in PTSD). Moira is tough on her, BUT June has success in calming her down; the behavior of one Handmaid will affect ALL of them. Even after Ofwarren gives birth to the Putnam’s baby girl, her emotional turmoil continues.
Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd)
Ordinary is just what you’re used to. This might not seem ordinary right now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary. -Aunt Lydia to the Handmaids
Aunt Lydia is the head of the Rachel and Bilhah Center; she is a harsh taskmaster who seems to truly believe in the ways of Gilead. In time, we notice that she feels bad for Janine, BUT she can’t let things slide for ANY of her “girls.” Ann Dowd, a veteran character actress, brings a BIT of ambiguity to the role- she is NOT a total villain.
Cmdr. Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes)
Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some. -Cmdr. Waterford explains to Offred
He is usually called “The Commander” by everyone; his wife (Serena Joy) only calls him Fred. Some of the other Handmaids tell Offred that he is “really high up” and “very important” in the government of Gilead. At first, The Cmdr. is merely going by the book during ceremony nights; later, he wants to connect w/ Offred. He requests that Offred come down to his study (a no-no); they chat (even flirt a BIT), play Scrabble (which they are BOTH good at), and he gives her fashion magazines to read (another no-no).
To show her just how much power he holds over her, The Cmdr. takes Offred (wearing one of Serena Joy’s blue capes) out to the club- Jezebels. Notice that he chose a sparkly mini-dress and matching heels for Offred to wear; this shows us what type of woman he desires (someone to show off). Fiennes does a great job w/ his American accent; I don’t think I’ve seen him using one before. The actor creates a man who is complicated, yearning for connection (esp. to Offred), and enjoys flaunting the rules (which he helped establish).
Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski)
Never mistake a woman’s meekness for weakness. -Serena says to the Mexican ambassador, Mrs. Castillo
Serena Joy is portrayed by an Australian actress (former model) who somewhat resembles Grace Kelly, BUT w/ a more taller/athletic body. She gets a backstory in this series that is NOT in the book (like Luke). In flashbacks, we see how Serena Joy was a part of the establishment of Gilead; she wrote a book about the role of women. (Atwood modeled Serena Joy on the historical anti-feminist figure, Phyllis Schlafly, an outspoken opponent of the ERA in the ’70s.) The world she helped create has left her feeling alone, bitter, and (eventually) cruel. Serena Joy eventually turns on Fred, saying that he is NOT “worthy” of fathering a child, so God has denied him one.
Nick (Max Minghella)
Max Minghella’s performance gets more interesting every week. You never know what he’s going to say until he says it—that face is unreadable in the best and most unsettling way. -Allison Shoemaker (A.V. Club)
Nick is The Commander’s driver; he lives in a humble room above the Waterford’s garage. In the pilot, Offred explains that he is “low rank” and “has not even been assigned a woman.” At first, Nick just watches Offred (w/o speaking); this makes her a BIT nervous, BUT also curious. They begin to secretly flirt; BOTH are feeling lonely and need someone to talk to. Mrs. Waterford gets them together b/c, MOST likely, The Commander is shooting blanks. It takes time, BUT Nick is revealed to be a protector, NOT merely a coward or survivor. He was recruited rather young as one of the Sons of Jacob, a secret group of men who are the Eyes in the households of the commanders.
Rita (Amanda Brugel)
Rita is one of the Marthas; she has worked for the Waterfords for a few yrs (like Nick). She is brusque, at first, BUT then treats Offred w/ kindness (making her healthy meals). After all, the birth of a baby would be great for ALL of the household. We learn that she lost her grown son in the war; most likely, he was fighting against the establishment of Gilead. I hope that she gets a backstory in Season 2; she is one of the few Latina women on the show.
The Handmaids’ uniform denies the women individuality until the camera moves close enough so that we see their faces. In Gilead, the group is MORE important than the individual, as the Aunts and Commanders often say. Those women who don’t fall in line, like Ofwarren (who went through emotional turmoil after pregnancy) and Ofglen (who fell in love w/ one of the Marthas), are dealt w/ VERY harshly.
And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. -Genesis 30:3 (King James Bible)
In this world, a healthy birth happens 1 out of 5 times. June/Offred is in her early 30s and already has a daughter, so there is a good chance that she can have another child. Janine/Ofwarren gives birth to a fine baby girl, gets to breastfeed her, BUT then is ceremoniously put out of the Putnam’s household. Like MANY other viewers, I am NOT convinced that Serena Joy wants a child; she has bought into this society, BUT that doesn’t mean that she’s happy w/ it.
Love & Marriage
Unlike in any number of other gender dystopias, most men don’t oppress women because they hate or fear them, but because they can’t empathize enough to love them when it becomes inconvenient.
…And women gave up everything by empathizing too much and turning on each other to support the men they loved. -Adi Robertson (The Verge) re: the book
Serena Joy is rejected (coldly) by her husband after one halted ceremony scene; after all, intimate relations in Gilead are solely for the purpose of procreation. Maybe some viewers felt sympathy for her then? I was a BIT shocked when The Cmdr. admitted to Offred that he didn’t believe in love; in flashbacks, it seems like he and his wife were once deeply in love. (In the book, Atwood explains that some couples were already married before the establishment of Gilead; others were placed in arranged marriages to spouses of equal status.)
Offred goes to Nick’s room b/c she wants to spend the night w/ him; this happens after Mrs. Waterford has them perform the ceremony. As for love, Offred likes Nick, BUT is still in love w/ Luke. As for Nick, I think that he does fall in love w/ Offred; he can’t express himself, as it could get them BOTH killed.
Women & Femininity
“Women have too much freedom here,” a foreign undergrad student commented when I asked him how he liked America. A few months ago, I mentioned to a friend how it’s too bad that apt. buildings in some countries (EX: Japan and India) didn’t rent to unmarried couples. “They should have a choice, at least,” I said. She replied quickly: “Oh, all those rules are for protection of women. What if the boyfriend leaves her? And if she gets pregnant?” The founders of Gilead take this type of thinking to another (extreme) level; they think they are protecting the Handmaids and the (possible) future children. How is legally sanctioned rape protection!? In one scene, The Cmdr. tells Offred that it’s the “destiny” of women to bear children. So, where does that leave his wife?
Freedom & Confinement
“You’re free here,” The Cmdr. tells Offred in their room at the club. We know that no woman is free in this world! In the flashbacks, we see June (and other women in Boston) being let go from their jobs, then their bank accounts frozen, before being sent to the training center. Moira lashes out at Luke when he tells June “I’ll take care of you.” Ugh, that’s NOT the point- it’s about choice! One can argue that Offred finds a sort of freedom in her relationship w/ Nick, which is a (dangerous) rebellion.
Reading, Writing, & Storytelling
Since reading is forbidden for Handmaids, ALL the items in the grocery store are marked by pictures instead of words. Before Moira’s escape scene, we see workmen chipping away at the signs in the subway. You know what reading promotes- thinking! Before each ceremony, the household gathers in the parlor while The Cmdr. reads the story of Rachel, Jacob, and Bilhah from the family Bible. Offred discovers a Latin phrase written inside the closet in her room; she finds out (from The Cmdr.) that it translates to “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” The Mexican ambassador’s assistant proves that he can be an ally to Offred when he hands a pad of paper and pencil, asking her to write a message for her husband (who is alive). The mysterious package Moira mails from the club to the butcher (another male ally) turns out to be letters and photos from a diverse group of women (some mothers); they are desperate to tell the wider world their story.