Imagine the most oppressive ideas about the female body penetrated the very basis of our society. Imagine that we had, not long ago, started over and allowed our fear and anger to dictate our policies. This is, vaguely, the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, and perhaps today it’s not so hard to imagine. It was always supposed to feel close, though—just a few mistakes away. “There’s a precedent in real life for everything in the book,” Margaret Atwood recently said of her dystopian novel, first published in 1985. “I decided not to put anything in that somebody somewhere hadn’t already done.”
Familiarity comes at you quick indeed when you sit down to watch Hulu’s new series adaptation, painstakingly developed for television by Bruce Miller and starring Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss. The first images are not of some creepy alternate universe, but of a car careening down a country road, a thirty-something woman (Moss) with highlights, wearing jeans and a hoodie, holding her young daughter. Then suddenly she is leaving her husband behind because she has to, she is running through the woods, and gunshots rip in the distance.
We get this sense of what happened to our protagonist before we meet her in the present, though we still don’t know what exactly happened to the world, to the United States. In the present, she sits in a dark, unembellished room, silhouetted dramatically against a window. We meet her voiceover, which will guide us throughout the episode and the series (a necessary carry-over from the first-person novel). Her name is Offred: “I had another name, but it’s forbidden now. So many things are forbidden now.”
Crucial to living in this world, especially as a Handmaid, and especially as Offred, is this sense of the world before. It seeps in quietly, like when Offred first meets Commander Waterford (a.k.a. Fred, of “Of-fred,” who now possesses her). “Nice to meet you,” he tells her. In an awkward, accidental burst of congeniality, like an echo an alternate universe, Offred says, “You too,” earning stares of disbelief from the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). A bit later Offred overhears the Commander telling Serena Joy about his busy day. “Always a lot of meetings,” he says, and it’s so mundane, a reminder of the inevitable bureaucracy of all this.
The previous life imposes itself most stealthily when we’re with people who pretend like it never happened, or at least act like they do. Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), another Handmaid with whom Offred is partnered for outings, the “pious little shit with a broomstick up her ass,” according to an early voiceover, asks, “Was there ever a ‘before’?” But this is just before Ofglen reveals herself to Offred as a not-so-true believer by looking at a bonnet shop and recognizing what it used to be: an ice cream store with salted caramel that was “better than sex.” The acknowledgement immediately breaks the pretend piety. Remembering is a radical act.
And we know Offred remembers. Her previous life hits her with sudden force, buried memories awakened by the right trigger. The episode moves between times, as the series likely will, with Offred’s flashbacks to life with her daughter and husband, even further back to college and early adulthood with her best friend Moira (Samira Wiley), or not so far at all, when she remembers her days at the Red Center, where she was to soak in the propaganda and train to be a Handmaid.
Does everyone live like this, with all their ghosts haunting them? The household servants known as “Marthas,” the Wives and even the Commanders? Maybe if we got to know them, as we did Ofglen, we would find that they weren’t “pious little shits” either. Of course it’s surely easier to forget the past life when you have power in this one.
But how did the world get like this, anyway? We wait about fifteen minutes to find out, when the violent image of three executed men hanging on a wall—a priest, a doctor, and a gay man—propels Offred into her first flashback to the Red Center. We hear the angry, disappointed voice of an older woman as images on slides flash before us: a screaming newborn baby, smokestacks polluting the air. We learn, as the Trunchbull-like instructor Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) strolls threateningly between rows of new Handmaids, about the “plague of infertility” put upon the human race as a punishment from God for all their messy mistakes. “Oh, you are so lucky!” Aunt Lydia squawks, at once comic and sickening as she reminds the fledgling Handmaids of their noble purpose: bearing children for the infertile leaders of the society.
But Offred—or, let’s now switch to (spoilers!) June, which she reveals to be her name in the final line of the episode—will never forget the child she already has. The pain of losing her daughter is relentless, perhaps even more so in the series than in the novel. For those of us who read the book, whether in an English class or for our own intrigue, it’s interesting to imagine how Bruce Miller and his team will fill out Atwood’s world and extend it for the small screen, build it out into a series that has already been picked up for a second season. The answer may partly be in Offred’s lost daughter; the pilot suggests that the quest to find her could be an overarching plot. “All this crazy shit is going to end,” Moira, whom June reconnects with in Handmaid training, whispers assertively one night in the barracks of the Red Center. “And we’ll find her.”
Maybe Offred will find her, or at least she’ll find some purpose in searching for her. “I intend to survive for her,” she tells us in her last voiceover monologue. They’re certainly setting up something.
There’s a lot going on in The Handmaids Tale, and a lot going on in “Offred” (I haven’t even talked about the Ceremony yet!), but for me, the most fascinating part of watching is the fact that I am watching The Handmaid’s Tale. The team behind the series has brought the novel—with its first-person narration, dreamy flashbacks, and striking visual imagery—hauntingly and expertly to life, and not a moment too soon. It’s all too easy to look at this world, with its supermarkets and SUVs and religious fanaticism, and see an only slightly twisted version of our own. Offred, Ofglen, Serena Joy, and even the Commander are all versions of you or me, if we had let the world get away from us. This happened to their world, and it happened fast. Could it happen to us? Yes.
But don’t worry. As Aunt Lydia assures the new Handmaids, “ordinary is just what you’re used to.”
Catch episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu.