When the Commander and Offred are playing Scrabble in episode three, all the tiles are turned face-down except for two: ‘M’ and ‘A’. When you’re in the middle of Margaret Atwood Reading Month, an ‘M’ and an ‘A’ are immediately recognizable as relevant. And it’s details like this which made me want to rewatch this Hulu Original series to begin with.
When I was a girl and a teenager, even a young adult, I rewatched a lot of series and films. Of course I could recite my favourite passages by heart. But I could also recite banal dialogue from “Three’s Company” and “Star Trek”, shows which ran in syndication in the black hole of the TV schedule, when other households might have been watching the news. Sometimes I rewatched because I wanted to, but mostly I rewatched because there wasn’t anything to watch. Not anything of interest.
No longer the case. My TBW list is now almost as long as my TBR list, so making the decision to watch a series for a second time seems like a big deal. This one is worth it.
SEASON ONE, EPISODE ONE: Offred
This was the original title for The Handmaid’s Tale, so how appropriate that it’s the title for the TV series’ first episode. When I first watched the first season, it had been several years since I’d read the book. Now, having reread the book this month, I’ve noticed more details about how the two stories compare. The show, for instance, begins with the scene of June’s escape from Gilead with her husband and daughter (Luke and Hannah). As readers, we don’t have a glimpse of this scene until near the end of the novel.
There are a lot of links with the novel, though. There’s an early scene in the book in which Offred (Of Fred, who was once June) observes the shape of an eye in a ceiling moulding in the Waterfords’ house (I think it’s mentioned in the voiceover of the series, too) and of course there’s the infamous line “Under His Eye”, intended to reflect an overarching gaze, to inspire obedience and servitude. And after the escape goes wrong, and June is falling in and out of consciousness in the van, the light above serves another kind of eye, which then transposes into a window, the window of the room she is staying in, which affords her a limited view of the world below, her eye on the world.
In the show, however, the Waterfords are younger and abler. Serena walks with a cane in the book, has arthritis in her hands, and she appears “withered”. Both the Waterfords are grey and fragile, despite their status. I don’t know whether it’s more or less haunting that they wield tremendous power when they are more or less robust. Either way, it’s a chilling scene and, in the show, Serena lays out her terms immediately. She will give trouble if she gets trouble. (Of course, she’s trouble from the start, if you have less power than she.)
Reading, you don’t get as much of a sense of the way that other women experience the Gilead system: it’s all Offred all the time. In the show, with a whole cast, we’re invited to consider the broader system. We are afforded access to Offred’s view and experience, through her voiceovers too, but we are not limited to it. So although, throughout the episode, we are obviously most concerned with the inequity of the system for the handmaid, the episode ends with the Commander shutting a door in Serena’s face, leaving her standing out in the hall.
Occasionally Aunt Lydia reminds the handmaids to consider that a wife’s position isn’t all roses either. Of course Aunt Lydia is a huge presence right from the start, in book and show. We hear the Christian story of Rachel and Bilhah and how “ordinary is just what you’re used to”. There’s an up-close-and-touch-it view of Aunt Lydia’s cattle prod in action (which brings a new dimension to the device’s presence in the book, more visual impact) which adds complexity to some story elements. But sometimes the story is simplified too.
One of the most memorable (and frequently broadcast) scenes in this episode is when the handmaids have gathered for the execution, in which they are expected/invited to join in the kill. In the novel, this is called a Partici-cution. (I’ve added the dash.) In both novel and show, we are told that this man is accused of rape.
In the show, Offred is willing – and, more than that, eager and ambitious – to participate and her participation is designed to raise questions. If not about June directly then about the general effect of being immersed in a totalitarian society which breeds distrust and violence.
In the book, it’s June’s friend, Moira, who leaps into the fray first. But in the book, Moira explains that she did so because she knew him to be a political (part of the resistance), so Moira was motivated to move quickly, in order to knock him out before the other women began to kick and flail.
If that was all, we might have to wonder whether Moira wasn’t just making excuses for her violent actions. But in the book, Offred also observes the man struggling to speak; she even hears him mumble “I didn’t…” before he is attacked and silenced permanently.
I suspect the priority for this episode was to emphasize the oppressive and visceral nature of life in Gilead. The show includes a lot of details to support the world-building. Every scene has a clear purpose: we learn so much about currency and policing, resources and homelife, and how different women inhabit different classes within the system and navigate different challenges (Odette is reclassified as Unwoman, Moira warns Janine of the Colonies, and Ofglen – the handmaid from down the street – warns Offred that there’s an Eye in the Commander’s house).
There will be plenty of opportunity, in later episodes, to consider and develop this idea of a resistance (other than simply stating that a man sentenced to death might have been assigned a random crime to allow his sentence to move ahead unquestioned). Although I appreciate the complexity of these additional details and wish, somehow, they’d been included.
It’s useful to be reminded how often those in power adopt the language of those they oppress, in order to command a sort of loyalty from the oppressed. Wouldn’t a woman who had been raped be more willing to beat to death a rapist than any other person? Seems like a good plan, from the perspective of the powerful.
Yet, what if you consider the act, in which Aunt Lydia diligently schools the handmaids, the ceremony between the Commander and the handmaid, rape. Then it’s clear that the authorities consider their own actions proper and the actions of the aberrant (in that system) criminal. And it has nothing to do with penetration or consent. Nothing to do with the words ‘rapist’ or ‘rape’ as a handmaid would define them.
There is a lot of darkness in this episode. But there is also the friendship between June and Moira (and just as the book has flashback, the show allows Offred to fall back into memories of her life before), which we view in the past and in the early days at the Red Centre, when both women begin their handmaid training.
And there is the satisfaction in viewing Margaret Atwood’s cameo (she’s one of the Aunts, a sort of back-up to Aunt Lydia). Apparently when she was filming the scene, in which she’s supposed to slap June, Elizabeth Moss had to ask her repeatedly to strike her a little harder. Then – she got it right. So the surprise you see in this scene, is probably not entirely acting, but truly being surprised.
But perhaps the most satisfying bit comes at the end, with a final look that encapsulates everything that we haven’t yet learned about resistance. And the tremendously satisfying song which plays out. The use of sound here, too, is such a powerful part of this series. Not only with – but especially with – the soundtrack. I won’t spoil that bit. But if you’ve seen this episode, you are probably humming along. It’s perfect.
If anyone else is interested in watching/rewatching this series, I’ll have more to say about it. So far, I’ve only watched four episodes for a second time, and I’ll probably only watch one or two each week. Even though I’d thought of rewatching previously, it took #MARM to galvanize me into action.
Oh, and the photo? The Handmaid’s Tale is filmed in Toronto and the surrounding area, including the Lower Bay Station (not part of the regular Toronto Transit System, a lower level of the regular station), which is a popular filming location for many series and films (long list here).