Wednesday, April 26, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Handmaid's Tale' - Everything is Taken Away from Offred in the New Society of Gilead in 'Offred'

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale - Episode 1.01 "Offred"

Offred, one of the few fertile women known as Handmaids in the oppressive Republic of Gilead, struggles to survive as a reproductive surrogate for a powerful Commander and his resentful wife.

"Offred" is such a gripping but chilling first episode of The Handmaid's Tale. It definitely feels weird to praise this show because its central story and themes are so absolutely horrifying and topical. But it paints such a striking portrait of this particular world and the devastating effects it has on all of its main characters. This is not an easy premiere to watch. And yet, it's one of the best pilots I've seen in a long time. It's so beautiful to watch. Reed Morano does an exquisite job in using light and color to define this world and its frequently oppressive and violent themes. The performances are also incredible. This first hour belongs to Elisabeth Moss as Offred. As a character, she has to portray repressed anger in every scene she's in. She wants to break free of this world and get back to the things she really cares about. And yet, she also lives in fear that any minor slip up could be the thing that gets her killed. It's a brutal existence where every minor moment is so important to these characters and this world. That makes every single scene vital. It's a fascinating introduction to this world. It depicts how horrifying this new system can be. So when the moments of release finally come, it's so emotional and beautiful to watch.

The Handmaid's Tale is set in a dystopian future caused by dwindling fertility numbers. The world has created an oppressive and totalitarian regime that ensures that the women who can give birth do so as much as possible. It's a world where sex and reproduction are now violently controlled. It's a system that has reduced women down to human incubators or subservient roles. That's their only purpose. The people in charge believe God has singled these women out for a reason and it's their duty to fulfill that purpose. There are just violent punishments if they act out in any way. They no longer get to choose when and with whom they have a baby. It's all assigned. They live at a commander's house and have sex with him in a ceremony. Not only are they responsible for making babies, they have to deliver babies with the genetics that the people in charge deem the best. So, there really is no love or passion in this world. Women exist to deliver babies to men who will one day grow up to fulfill the same duties that they are now. It's a chilling cycle of abuse that takes so much humanity out of the world and replaces it with religious pleasantries and a simplistic worldview.

The story is being told through the eyes of Offred. Of course, that's not the name she was born with. This society even strips that away from her. She no longer has an identity in Gilead. She is a Handmaid tasked with giving birth to children. She's a symbol for all that's good and holy in this world. But the audience also gets to see Offred as a person. She had a life before all of this happened. In fact, the show uses flashbacks in order to provide more context for how Gilead rose up from the world that we all know. It's chilling to think about something like this happening one day. And yet, the possibility is still there. When Offred gets pregnant with her daughter, it's not a celebration. She's genuinely afraid of what might happen. She worries she'll lose the baby because the majority of women who do get pregnant do nowadays. Of course, she doesn't. She had a happy family life before Gilead was created. She had a loving husband and a daughter she adored. Both of them were taken away from her. Her husband, Luke, was likely killed. She hears a gunshot but his body isn't seen afterwards. So hope may still be alive for him. Meanwhile, her daughter, Hannah, was taken to an unknown location. Offred wants to search for her. And yet, the act of doing so could get her killed. So instead, she just has to go along with all of this in the hopes that one day Gilead will fall and she'll be able to find Hannah again.

Those are the memories that allow Offred to get through all of this. It's torture for her. She is beaten down throughout this premiere. That literally happens when the soldiers first take her from her family. But the rest of the hour is pure psychological torture. This system is so manipulative and oppressive that it can easily make women go crazy. They are forced into a box. A box of Christian beliefs where birth control, the morning after pills and abortions were heinous acts. People who lived unholy lives were punished for it by being raped. Those are horrifying views to impart on impressionable young minds. But it's what the people in charge believe is necessary to create a perfect society. Offred doesn't break at the Red Center but another handmaid, Janine, does. She experiences so much trauma. Her eye is removed from her head and then she is victim shammed for a gang rape she experienced in her former life. It's brutal. Aunt Lydia is in charge and she wants all of this to be seen as okay behavior. It's now the ordinary way of life. Once of of this actually becomes ordinary, that's when this universe will become its most horrifying. Offred still winces at all of these actions but goes along with them nevertheless to protect herself.

The need for friends is so vital to Offred's well-being as well. However, the system is set up for everyone to be distrustful and suspicion of each other. Soldiers are watching around every corner. Spies are in every walk of life to make sure the people who act out are punished for doing so. That's what contributes to Offred being so afraid of doing anything that could be perceived the wrong way. She says a little more to her new Commander than she should in their first meeting. She has a panic attack after the sex ceremony and goes outside without her handmaid's outfit on. All of those things present as a feeling of being trapped. Her mind is the only safe place for Offred. Even there, she's worried that someone might hear her. Overall, there's too much voiceover narration in television with only a handful of shows doing it in necessary and interesting ways. Offred's is very important. It provides the show with some minor humor. She has a dark view of the world and the voiceover is how she expresses her true feelings. But it's also delivered in almost a whisper. It's enchanting and mesmerizing really. It's another depth to Moss' performance that's really fascinating.

However, Offred is able to voice her opinions out loud by the end of this premiere as well. When she's at the Red Center, she is able to survive because a friend from her former life, Moira, is there as well. Moira knows the drill and how to help Offred through all of this. She agrees to help her find Hannah. That's her little act of rebellion in this story. That's what makes it so heartbreaking when Offred is told that Moira has died. She was sent to a work camp for trying to run away. In that moment, Offred's whole world breaks. Moira was a symbol of hope. And now, she's been taken away from her. She takes out all of that anger on the rapist Aunt Lydia brings forth for the handmaids to punish. That's quite an interesting scene because it shows the handmaids can be empowered too. They just still have to abide by a strict rule of conduct. But more importantly, all of this reveals Offred's true self to her traveling companion, Ofglen. Up to this point, they hated each other because they believed the other to be a true believer of the cause. That wasn't the case with either of them. So even though they've known each other for two months, today is the first day they've actually met. They see each other for the person beneath the Handmaids identity. That's a massive relief. They both understand each other's pain and suffering. So now, Offred has a new potential ally to help cope with this world. That gives her the confidence to finally say her real name again: June. So now, June is feeling more confident about her life and the potential that the future will be better than the present. The rest of the season will reveal whether that's true or if it's just a futile dream June has to hold onto right now to survive.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Offred" was written by Bruce Miller and directed by Reed Morano.
  • That sex scene with Offred, the Commander and his wife is so mechanic. It should be defined as rape because Offred doesn't want this to happen. She's completely dead on the inside while it's happening. And yet, it occurs nevertheless because it's her purpose in society. She exists solely to bear this man's child. She's just horrified by it in the moment and in the immediate aftermath.
  • The Commander's wife is an interesting character too. She doesn't like having Offred around because she's a constant reminder of what she can't give to her husband. She's perfectly fine breaking the rules in order to see as little of Offred as possible. She gives an aura of control - especially during the sex ceremony. But she also feels powerless as well because her husband is the only important person in this household.
  • Commander Waterford is also well-respected amongst the community. It's a high posting for Offred to get. However, all the information about the state of Gilead and the future of this society are just little teases. They are fighting a war elsewhere in the country but then the people in charge go into another room to discuss it further.
  • The Commander has a driver who lives in the house as well. He's painted as a servant too. But that's just because a woman hasn't been chosen for him to marry yet. And yet, something more is probably going on with him too because he sees Offred's panic attack and doesn't report it.
  • Janine is pregnant in the present day. So, she clearly recovers from the psychotic break she suffers at the Red Center. Her being happy about her pregnancy while also having only one eye is a chilling image.
  • Offred and Ofglen's new friendship is immediately important and necessary for both of them. And yet, they are constantly looking over their shoulders to make sure they aren't being watched. More importantly, Ofglen drops a major tease in saying that there is an Eye somewhere in Offred's new house. So, the paranoia will only increase moving forward.