Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale, Season One, Episode One: Offred

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale is an adaptation of the Margaret Atwood book by the same name.  The source material is now 32 years old but never has it felt so relevant.  With the shit stain occupying the oval office, plans to defund Planned Parenthood, the denial regarding global warming and Americans running across the Canadian border for safety and the chance at a better life, it's hard not to feel as though this is more than a simply dystopian story with elements of the world we now live in and instead a chilling foreshadowing of what could be. 

It's fitting that the first episode entitled Offred, is based on our protagonist.  We know that Offred's real name is June, though it's a name that she is forbidden to go by now.  Women take on the name of the commander of their household and therefore the name Offred quite literally means of Fred.  Offred is not a person and she does not have feelings. Offred has one job and that is to bare children for the new regime while being as modest and invisible as possible. 

June lives in what was once the U.S. which has now, over run by Christian fanaticism, is called Gilead. We follow June as she, her husband Luke and their daughter Hannah, try to escape into Canada, only to be caught.  Luke is murdered and June and her daughter are seperated. Thus begins Offred and the end of June. We follow as Offred goes about her daily tasks of getting the shopping done for the household, accompanied by Ofglen, whom Offred believes to be a pious spy. Offred is all to aware that she, as a handmaiden is always being watched.  They (read: the government) look for subversiveness and they look for any attempt to escape. Offred already knows that with so much already stacked against her, the only real escape is death and the powers that be, know that as well. 

Offred's downcast eyes are always obsequious because she has learned through her time in a re-education camp that punishment is swift and merciless.  She's learned that if a woman is raped, she's responsible for it.  Offred has learned from the Aunts, women dressed in brown who responsible for the indoctrination of the handmaids, that in the old society (read: U.S.A.), pollution was poisoning everything.  When the birthrate started to decline, the women were so stubborn and unfeminine that they kept taking birth control and having abortions. Women like Offred are supposedly blessed because they have a chance to redeem themselves and erase their former slutty ways through strict dedication to God and fulfilling a woman's true purpose in life - giving birth to children for their commanders. Though the Aunts have power over the soon to be Handmaids, they speak in envy of their lot in life. 

We learn early on that there are few options for women.  There are the Aunts, the Handmaids who wear red, the Marthas, who essentially perform all domestic duties, and of course the wives, like Serena Joy, who wear Blue. The final insult in Gilead is to be declared an "unwoman" and to be sent to clean up the toxic waste which is the result of an ongoing war against the rebels. Offred lives an uncomfortable household where everyone hides their true thoughts, less they be ratted out to the authorities.  Serena Joy for instance may be a wife and have status; however, it's clear that she resents Offred and Offred's potential to have a child.  Serena Joy also fears that Offred will come between her and the commander. The only power Serena has is a charade and it's clear that the veneer has become thin.  As she lies on her back with legs spread and Offred lying between her being repeatedly penetrated by the commander, Serena Joy digs her fingers into Offred's wrists, each plunge into Offred's body an assault upon her and her sense of self. Serena doesn't want to be a part of the ceremony anymore than Offred does. 

The only two males in the household are Nick, the limo driver and of course the Commander played by none other than Joseph Fiennes.  As a low status man who hasn't been given a woman, clearly Nick has a little bit of leeway.  Offred finds herself wondering if Nick watches her. Offred gets her answer when she runs outside in a thin shift in full disgust of the the commanders semen leaking out of her body, only to come face to face with Nick.  This is an act which could potentially have Offred declared an unwoman and sent away but Nick keeps her secret. 

For his part, the commander is sort of aloof and he doesn't seem to have a close relationship with his wife.  The ceremony in which he attempts to impregnate Offred is about as cold and passionless as it could possible get. It's clear he takes no pleasure from the act and views it as his duty. I have no doubt that each night a ceremony is performed that Offred feels as though she's being raped and given that she cannot refuse, that would make her correct.  What isn't clear is how much room the Commander himself feels he has to consent or to refuse to comply.  We know that he's a person in a position of power in this new society but with everyone being watched, could he too just be playing the game and trying to survive?

The first hour did a great job of explaining what Gilead is like and some of the perils which exist for women.  It's a true dystopian nightmare.  Even as the sun shines, a walk back from the market comes with seeing the bodies of a doctor, a gay man and a priest hanging publicly. A woman who dares to tell an Aunt to fuck off is rewarded by having her eye plucked out.  A man who is convicted of raping a Handmaiden, supposedly causing the woman to lose her child is punished by being surrounded by Handmaidens and beaten to death. There's the potential for violence in every single breathing moment and aware of this, people speak to each other in packaged platitudes thanking God for their meager blessings.  

Offred's isolation practically leaps off of the screen and we get to know her from her inner running inner monologue, often laced with brutal sarcasm and pain. If Elizabeth Moss doesn't win an emmy for this role, something is wrong.  In the moments were we don't hear Offred's voice, her eyes and her tears tell the story of fear and determination to survive in the hope of someday being reunited with Hannah.  Everyone she ever knew or loved is lost to her now.  We wait for the moment when she cannot bare anymore and her the carefully crafted mask she's created in order to survive cracks. It happens when she learns that Moira, her friend from before, tried to escape, was captured and is more than likely dead. Moira was the last link that Offred had with her old life, the last person who knew her as June and not Offred. 

When the Offred does break, the chasm doesn't swing wide open, she doesn't collapse, and instead she finds any ally in the one person she wasn't expecting to build a relationship with,- OfGlen. The two women talk about their previous lives together. We learn that OfGlen is a lesbian and that she tried to escape with her wife and child but was caught at the border because unlike them, she didn't have a Canadian passport. We learn that an anger burns inside Ofglen, just like it burns inside of Offred. It's a glimmer of hope and it's enough for Offred to recommit to staying alive long enough to find her daughter.