Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to learn more about God, the Bible, and her church. She wanted to learn more about the rituals they performed every week, thus hoping to reach a deeper understanding of her faith. Every Thursday night, she attended class with others looking for the same understanding and one night a priest came to speak about the Bible. The girl was excited, for she liked the priest and thought he was wise. When the priest began explaining the Bible, though, the girl’s heart sank. “The Bible,” he said, “is mostly stories. We cannot take them literally.” While the girl was no evangelical, she at least thought most of the book was supported by history. There was no way to tell, the priest said. “The stories teach a lesson. They aren’t manuals for living; simply guides for morality.”
In the nation of Gilead, that priest would be hanged for heresy.
In the build-up to the premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, there were articles and reviews galore about the show’s predestination within our current political climate. Aunt Lydia’s diatribe about contraception and abortion would not be out of place at any modern pro-life rally. These reviews make it seem as if the show is presenting an alternate future; that we’re a collective Ebenezer Scrooge looking upon the horror that might be.
Several religions, though, still subjugate women, seeing them as having no value outside motherhood and homemaking. Evangelical Christians follow a literal interpretation the Bible. The stories of the Old Testament are considered historical no matter how metaphorical they appear (e.g. Jonah and the whale). Roman Catholicism still limits women from holding the priesthood, even though evidence in the New Testament shows women being the strongest believers in Christ’s following.
And with religion becoming an increased motive for politicians to restrict women’s rights, The Handmaid’s Tale is closer to current life than it is to fiction.
We begin with Offred. She is remembering the final moments of her old life: the car chase, fleeing in the woods, clutching her daughter, the men wrenching them apart.
As we travel with Offred — through the house and through the town — we hear her voice. She’s our tour guide through not only her life, but through a new world. We learn right away that she’s a handmaid, although we don’t learn everything a handmaid does just yet. She is assigned to Commander Waterford and his wife, who wants to see as little of her as possible. Offred wears red; the Commander’s wife wears blue. We are not told why.
We begin to learn, however, how handmaids are special and not special. Men aren’t supposed to look at them, they’re not allowed to travel alone, and everyone hopes they will be blessed. But the wives don’t like them, the cooks tell them what to do, and they are afraid of each other.
Offred goes with Ofglen to Loaves and Fishes to do the grocery shopping then they walk home, taking the route which allows them to see the hanged men. Each man is wearing a hood with a symbol indicating their crime. The doctor has a fetus on his hood, while another man is identified as gay by a pink triangle. Stopping fertility, whether by science or sexuality, is not tolerated.
That night is the ceremony. Ofglen kneels while the other servants come into the room followed by the Commander’s wife. The Commander requests to come in, although it looks like his wife doesn’t want to let him in. When he does, he takes out a Bible from the mantle and begins reading the passage from Genesis where Rachel gives Jacob her maidservant to become a surrogate for her. As we continue to hear the Commander, we see him having sex with Offred while lying between the legs of his wife. No one looks like they want to be there, but the women seem especially upset. You can see the feeling of violation in Offred’s eyes; ritualistic rape must never become easy. The Commander’s wife is humiliated; not only is she infertile, but she has to participate in an empty ritual.
For anyone familiar with Genesis, the story of Jacob’s wives is not the first time a wife gives her husband a maidservant so she can get a child. Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham and Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. It’s telling that this story isn’t used in the ritual. The distinction between the two stories helps brainwash the handmaidens. In Rachel and Leah’s story, their handmaidens stayed after their children were born; they were a part of the family. In Sarah’s story, Hagar becomes insolent and believes she is more important because she bore Abraham a son; she and her child are eventually banished for their haughtiness. If you were trying to subdue a group of strong, independent women, which example would you want to use? The one that uses punishment or the one that provides a false sense of liberty?
In between the scenes of Offred’s current life, we flashback to various time of her previous life. We meet her best friend, Moira, and we learn more about why handmaidens are so prized. Fertility has become a problem, even more so than it currently is for women. Wanted pregnancies result too often in miscarriage and still birth. When Offred tells Moira she’s pregnant, she’s not scared of becoming a mother, she’s scared of the pain that might come from being denied motherhood.
We already know, though, that she has had a healthy daughter. Later in the episode we see mother and daughter watching sea life at the aquarium. She looks young, maybe five or six, and the mother wonders if her daughter will remember her. I think she will.
Even more flashbacks tell Offred’s story in the Rachel and Leah Center. Moira is there, too, and becomes her coach in survival. She tells her to stay strong because she will be with her daughter again someday. She commands Offred to keep it together, so she doesn’t lose her sanity like Jeanine, a handmaid who has been abused and tortured into submission by the center’s Aunts. And Offred manages to do all of this, too, until Jeanine gleefully tells her that Moira has been sent to the colonies, where she’s surely dead by now.
The scene which follows is amazing to watch. Elizabeth Moss, who plays Offred, displays a masterful command of acting. No voiceover is needed because her face tells us everything. The scene is moving all on its own, but then they add to the execution by the handmaids. By the time the women encircle a man accused of raping and killing a pregnant handmaid, we understand why Offred leads the charge. Kicking the shit out of a man is a moment where she’s allowed to feel. It’s safe to be angry. We see revenge in her eyes, along with the need for power over herself.
By the end of the episode, she knows her value and decides to continue taking back her power. She tells us her real name.