'The Handmaid's Tale' Episodes 1-3: Book Readers' Review
Aaaaaand breathe. You made it through the first three episodes, and if you are anything like me, you are probably hiding under a blanket, whimpering ‘it’s happening, it’s happening’ to yourself. It was nightmarish in print, and somehow even more terrifying on screen. It’s one thing to imagine it — but another to see it. It all felt a bit too close for comfort, didn’t it?
Here’s the standard spoiler warning — for the first three episodes, and the book.
Episode 1: Offred
Opening with the attempted escape, and the violent abduction of June and her child, sends a clear signal: this show isn’t holding back. There are so many moments in the first episode that exploit pure visceral horrors: parental anxiety, torture, rape; not to mention the crippling effects of shame, guilt and paranoia. For those of us who don’t process adrenaline that well, it’s almost unbearably tense.
In my spoiler-free review, I mentioned that there were three big moments in the first episode, and I was referring to the failed escape attempt, the Ceremony and the Particicution. The Ceremony is definitely worse on screen. The Bible reading is more humiliating to start with; then, juxtaposing Offred’s blank and impassive expression with Serena Joy’s seething resentment, her hands gripping Offred’s wrists so tightly that they leave marks, makes this scene supremely uncomfortable. I was in such dire need of comic relief that I found some in the Commander’s stance, performing his duties with his hands on his hips like he was doing the Time Warp.
The cuts between the ‘present’ and the Red Centre mirrored the structure of the text, and this was again, even more terrifying than I had imagined. Aunt Lydia is definitely the stuff of nightmares. Moira is already there — she has learned to assimilate and survive — which means that the first signs of rebellion come from Janine. And she is taught a harsh lesson. I feel bad for every time I looked down on Janine now. Moira is the voice of outward compliance, schooling June in the art of blending in, not attracting punishment, which is brutal and freely given. I hope that she escapes the Centre the way she does in the books — I want to see one of those Aunts get it.
Speaking of murderous rage, let’s talk about the Particicution. Having it this early on really shakes things up. Offred is not the disgusted outsider — she’s right in there with the rest of them. And it changes the tone of the event; this is the one chance they have to express themselves freely, to unleash the rage that simmers just under the surface, playing in voiceover to distinguish between Offred and June. This is when June can let herself out, and take out all of her fury on the nameless prisoner. All that they suffer — every humiliation and restriction — all of it, has been metaphorically destroyed by the prisoner’s actions against a handmaid. She sees him and sees the presumed death of her best friend. He becomes the focal point for all her anger. And so she charges in. As the dust settles, so does the shame. She has become complicit, sullied by the system. And she does all of this without saying a word - Moss’s performance here really is extraordinary.
It is this moment that encourages her to reclaim her name, her voiceover identity at the end of the episode. And this micro-rebellion, the inner refusal to be broken, gives us the end credits theme: ‘You don’t own me’.
The bonding with Ofglen starts nice and early, and one of Ofglen’s comments really resonated: “They do that really well. Make us distrust each other.” This sums up how all of this happened. This is a world where women have turned on each other and are complicit in the oppression of their sisters. It manifests most obviously in the Aunts and the Wives of course, but we see it with the handmaids too, and the Marthas. Any tiny source of power is pounced on, greedily, it seems. And the reference to the return of ‘traditional values’ made my skin crawl. This is how it begins, my friends.
Episode 2: Birth
Question 1: Is it OK to be relieved when the Eyes don’t come for you? Or is this also something to be ashamed of?
Question 2: What’s worse: being treated like “a dog, and not a very smart one”, or a child: “would you like a cookie, dear?” These are the attitudes of the Wives, and this episode is not kind to them.
You could get whiplash from their U turns. “Aw, isn’t she well behaved? (Beat) Little whores, all of them.” It is necessary for the Wives to dehumanise or infantilise the handmaids; it is part of the great denial about their purpose in the household.
Serena bemoans that “You have to take what they hand out.” This is true of handmaids and cookies, I suppose. (Even though it’s a macaron not a cookie. Seriously, what would Mary Berry say?) Offred accepts the macaron to demonstrate her gratitude and obedience, but June spits it out - another micro-rebellion.
There are parallel births here - two real, and one pretend. The Wives’ behaviour really is ridiculous, taking ‘sympathy pains’ and ‘kidding yourself’ to new depths of stupidity. Serena spots Offred quietly mocking their behaviour, which doesn’t bode well.
In the other (actual) birthing room, poor Janine labours away to the supportive/highly irritating cheerleading of the other handmaids, conducted by Aunt Lydia, who is being nice and therefore even more scary. Even she seems to flinch at the self-indulgent stupidity of the wife. In both rooms, there is female solidarity. The moment when the handmaids come together to comfort the distraught Janine was genuinely moving. There is sisterhood here, against the odds. There is shared joy, shared pain, shared suffering. But it is not enough.
Running through the episode are flashbacks to the story of June’s labour, with more backstory; the hospital is all but empty, Hannah’s healthy arrival unique for the evening, and then of course there is the distraught mother without a child, who tries to take Hannah for her own. Here is the desperation that made Gilead happen. But in the flashback, the woman stealing a child is psychologically damaged. In the ‘present’, a similar theft is becoming ordinary, just like Aunt Lydia said it would.
It’s also Scrabble time! There’s tension here, of course, and bathos to spare. In a world so controlled and humourless, a board game is the very height of naughtiness. Ban something, and it immediately becomes sexy. For Offred, being invited to play Scrabble seems to be a recognition of her personhood and intelligence. But it’s also an abuse of power. For all the jokey banter about dating, this is exploitation of her vulnerability for his pleasure. But, it is a tiny source of power for Offred- so, greedily, she snaps it up. It is a chance for her to find out what he wants and exploit it for herself. It is also a way to ‘beat’ Serena, who was shut out of the study on the first episode, and now Offred has been invited in. Part of her revels in this power, so much so that she lets him win the game. Ah, deliberate female underachievement to flatter the male ego and keep oneself safe. Too close, too close. Another question for you: Who is playing Scrabble - Offred or June?
The next morning, she is practically strutting through the garden to the sounds of ‘Don’t you forget about me’ when she is thrown another curveball. There is a new Ofglen. And with that, her happy feeling disappears.
Episode 3: Late
I am still traumatised by this episode, but I will do my best to keep it together. There are a few candidates for the worst parts of this episode, and I don’t mean that they are poorly executed. It’s just that the brutality of the regime alongside the flashbacks to a world so close to current affairs — well, it’s a potent mix that may have broken me a little.
“I was asleep before”, says June. The world around slipped into Gilead slowly at first, then with a sudden, inescapable bang. It started with everyday sexism, delivered venomously rather than casually. It’s in the judgemental glare of the woman on the street at June and Moira going for a jog. It builds to the barista’s name-calling, beautifully challenged by Moira. Then with a bang, women are second class citizens. Luke doesn’t quite get it, though June and Moira put him straight. June, who seemed to sit out of the politics in the novel, is again front and centre this time. She marches for women’s rights. She is there with Moira when the march turns violent. (Where’s Kendall when you need her, eh?) This is a regime that brooks no dissent. And again, it’s too close, way too close for comfort.
So is institutionalised homophobia. The interrogation of Offred was tough to watch. Her desire to survive battles against her revulsion, and she almost can’t help herself. Only Serena can save her from Aunt Lydia’s brutality.
Is Serena scarier when she’s being nice or when she’s openly horrible? It’s a tough one. But there is some humanity behind that icy facade for a short time. Her desperation for a child briefly outweighs her hatred of Offred. For a moment, she even rebels, before pretending it was a slip of the tongue. “What we do is so terrible… so terribly hard…”
How safe is Janine now? I’ll be interested to see how this story develops in the show. Will they follow the novel? Will the baby turn out to be a ‘shredder’? Janine thinks she is immune from harm, believing that she has replaced the Wife in her Commander’s affections. He won’t be able to protect her from his wife’s vengeance if that’s the route they go down. Best not bite her again, Janine. This is a woman’s world after all.
But this episode belongs to Emily, the handmaid formerly known as Ofglen. No mercifully quick suicide to escape the Eyes in this version. I couldn’t bear how horrible any of this was. The joke of a trial, the euphemistic sentences, trying to seduce her way free, having to watch her lover hang — and then the bandages. Oh god, the bandages. Many points to the show here for bringing in the issue of female circumcision, but it was a cruelty too far for me.
When people ask why women are so afraid for themselves in the current political climate, I would like to show them this episode. This is why. This is why women and the LGBTQ community fear Mike Pence and his ilk.
The message of this episode is ‘Don’t fall asleep. Stay awake to the world.’ It’s not hard advice to follow. I may never sleep soundly again.
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