Friday, April 28, 2017

The Handmaid’s Tale 1x01 Review: “Offred” (Not All Men... Actually, No, ALL Men) [Contributor: Melanie]


“Offred”
Original Airdate: April 26, 2017

Note: Spoilers for the book also included toward the end of the review.

It took approximately 30 seconds into the first episode of The Handmaid's Tale for me to get angry.

The pilot opens with June (Elisabeth Moss), her husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), and their daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake), making a break for it into Canada (sound familiar?). They get within two miles of the border before they’re apprehended. Luke is shot and presumably killed while June and her daughter are separated. June is taken to a training center for Handmaids — fertile women who have been chosen to follow the Biblical precedent of Bilhah and bear children for the barren wives of government leaders. June is indoctrinated with Scripture, obeying to avoid punishment (one woman has an eye gouged out on her first day after speaking out of turn). A few years later, June finds herself now named Offred (as in “of Fred Waterford”), tasked with serving as the resident working uterus.

Naturally, Fred’s wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahvoski) — suburban white mom names didn’t go away post-apocalypse, praise be — is icy toward her. An attitude only further chilled after their first Ceremony, the censored name for the act of the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) having sex with Offred while she lays on Serena Joy’s lap. It’s a mechanical act, preluded by a reading of Scripture, then, with all clothes still on except for what absolutely has to be removed, the act, as it were, happens and then everyone goes to their bedrooms for the night. After this ordeal, Offred begins to suspect that the Commander’s driver, Nick (Max Minghella), might be an Eye. She spends her days going out into town to do the shopping based on a list provided by the Marthas (household women), always accompanied by her assigned companion Ofglen. They two have scripted conversation, both thinking the other is pious until they eventually bond over shared memories of a former ice cream store.

Offred has been passively but persistently looking for her friend Moira (Samira Wiley), who was a friend from college. However, on the day of a Salvaging  — a mob-based punishment for criminals reminiscent of The Lottery — she learns from Janine (Madeline Brewer) that Moira was declared an Unwoman and sent to the colonies for attempting to run. She has likely died from radiation poisoning there. In devastation, Offred takes her anger out on the Guardian who was convicted of raping a Handmaid and causing the miscarriage. The mob of Handmaids beat the man to death, with Offred moving in first. She realizes later — after she and Ofglen have their moment of understanding during which she warns Offred that there is an Eye in her house — that she must do anything she has to to survive and find her daughter.

That was the most cohesive recap I could muster since this first episode was heavily layered with world building, exposition, and flashbacks within flashbacks. But it was a great first start to the much-anticipated adaptation of the “grandmother of dystopian novels.”

The thing I really found myself focusing on in this opening episode was the changes between book and screen. The book, like the show, is constantly blending past and present — Offred remembers when life wasn’t utter crap, while trying to reconcile it with the now. In the first few pages she declares “I intend to survive,” which is a mantra she decides upon at the the end of the first episode after learning Moira is dead. But one thing the book and show continue to share is how scarily parallel this world is to our own. You switch a few bits of context around and much of what’s happening there could easily be happening here.

Ofglen tells Offred: “They’re good at making us distrust each other,” with the "they" being the men who have taken control of the government. The unfortunate reality is that that is a fact now. Whether it’s in TV shows, movies, staring at that really fit woman at the gym with envy, calling each other derogatory names, women are conditioned to be in constant competition with each other. While competition between men is a form of encouraged ambition, competition between women is a method of division. The power that comes from women joining together and communicating was palpable during the worldwide Women’s March in January which was the largest single-day protest in the history of the United States and held similar records all over the world with an estimated five million participants worldwide (of which I am proud to say I was one). But that joining together is a testament to what anti-feminists fear from the sorority of women.

That’s a theme here: Offred notes her daily walks with Ofglen aren’t for companionship as they’ve been told, but so either woman can act as a spy on the other and report back. The method worked, as both Ofglen and Offred refused to have any real conversation with each other, both believing the other was a “true believer” of the national religion and propaganda. It is only after it’s revealed that they’re on the same moral side that Offred makes the decision to no longer remain passive in her world. As we always say here at Just About Write... ladies supporting ladies.

The other very poignant moment in this first episode was the treatment of Janine at the Red Center. She is another captured runaway, brought into the center on the same day as June. Janine has an immediate rebellious attitude and finds herself short one eye within minutes of being at the center (“And if the right eye offend thee, pluck it out”). Later, she recounts the story of her apparent gang rape. Aunt Lydia — the instructor and caretaker of the Handmaid’s in-training — has no sympathy for her, and follows the story with a very familiar question: “And who led them on?” It’s a poignant moment as Janine struggles to find an answer. Aunt Lydia then declares that her rape was punishment from God, before forcing the other women to verbally state her guilt and shame her.

While that doesn’t happen in a room full of women in a clinical setting, it happens in a much worse place: at home, at work, on the street, everywhere. It’s an internalized part of our culture that we blame victims for their own rape, often — but not always — women. Evidence of this is found in the lenient punishments for rapists (most recently Brock Turner being released after only three months in jail on a six-month sentence — commuted down from what was originally requested to be 20 years). In fact, many rapes aren’t reported as a result of harsh backlash against the victim for several reasons.

One deviation from the book that I found interesting was the diversity and inclusive cast and character backstory. This doesn’t change the fact that our protagonist is still a white woman, but Samira Wiley, a queer woman of color, plays Moira, June’s best friend. Moira, a gay woman, escapes the purges — though her partner is not so lucky. June’s husband is a played by a Black man, her daughter being played by a Black actress. Ofglen’s backstory reveals she had a wife, with whom she had a son. While the original novel does not overtly state race or orientation on many characters, the inclusion of these points here is poignant, especially if you look at the characters to whom these changes have been applied.

Recently, in a Q&A and signing for the book that I attended at Toronto’s Eaton Center, Margaret Atwood was asked if she felt the story, which takes place in the U.S. (shocker) could happen in Canada. She replied that while Canada has not, historically, behaved well in some situations of oppression (citing their policy for allowing the U.S. to come in and extract runaway slaves during the 19th century, which is mimicked in this story when they bar refugee women and families) she felt that Canada was too diverse for something like this to happen. She qualified this by saying diversity was the ultimate enemy of monolithic government systems. This world works in the United States because the majority is white Christians with roots in theocratic government systems in its early life, in Canada, this theocracy is a harder sell.

That’s important here. Ofglen is — spoiler! — a resistance member (or at least she was in the book). Moira was an outspoken protester of this government and eventually survives deviantly from the prescribed Handmaid life. Nick — another character who will turn out to be (also spoiler!) a resistance member — is played by an actor of Chinese and Jewish heritage. The diversity is placed in those characters who are already fighting this system. This is also indicative of our current state of affairs as it is those marginalized minorities who are fighting for change.

I know, I know: this was long! But this was a great opening episode to The Handmaid’s Tale. Check back here for more recaps as we move through the season.

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