Handmaid’s Tale Episode 1 Explained in Detail

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I’ve literally not been this excited about a TV Show since The Dukes of Hazard first season debuted. (If this doesn’t get you excited for this show, I’m sorry, but you are the absolutely wrong demographic for this write up. Literally leave. Just shew. Go.) Regardless, I’ve been waiting for this show for over a year. Can’t wait. Loved the book. Adored the book in all it’s ‘what the heck is going on’ ‘how horrifying is this’ goodness.

So here we are. Hulu just released the first three episodes of the first season. I have only watched a single episode, because that is how this works. I watch an episode and I talk about where I think this thing is going to go. (BUT YOU READ THE BOOK!! I hear you screaming at your phone as you read this in your car while your wife drives you to the bowling alley for your weekly league practice, and she is on her way to Starbucks (to also read this page, because that is how you two roll (I joke, but there is a couple out there that reads this blog in this way, minus the bowling and the rest, but they chime in on different posts and refer out to each other… HEY MICA! HEY ELIZABETH!! hahaha) and then after you’ll go get sushi and discuss the episode and the post – and then comment jointly (not with JOINT, TOGETHER!) after discussing it. (BRINGING COUPLES TOGETHER SINCE 2003!!))) Anyway – currently so lost – I will watch an episode and discuss it and where I think it is going to go. I will make references to the book from time to time, but I won’t make it a thing because obviously the show is doing it’s own thing. That much is apparent even from the very first episode. I mean, not in a bad way… oh shoot… you know what I mean.

And by the way, if you are digging these write ups, you may enjoy my Westworld episode write ups or even my more recent The OA  breakdowns and discussions. But let us away, because, Oh Holy Night was the first episode so so so good.

Handmaid’s Tale Episode 1 Overview

Right out of the gates Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale derails from the book. It starts with a car chase, and Offred’s (which isn’t her name then, it was June then, but from now on I’ll refer to her always as Offred) husband, who we find out later is named Luke, stays behind and tries to hold them off. Offred and her daughter Hannah run for the border of Canada in order to get out of the Republic of Gilead, which is where the current city of Cambridge, Massachusetts now is, but is now being run by an autocratic/theocracy of some stone age sort that is hellbent on subjecting everyone’s will to that of the state, which happens to watch anything and everything at all times. (What? You didn’t pick all that up from watching the first episode? It was all there. (Ok, so the book helps with that some too.))

But Luke is killed. Hannah is taken. And Offred is beaten senseless and taken to the Red Center. The show does a pretty good job of keeping the viewer in the dark. WHAT IS HAPPENING!? But basically in a time of loose morals, pornography, rape, licentiousness, etc, there is a moral backlash and the conservatives go to war within America to setup a conservative alternative. Oh, and by the way, due to pollution, chemical waste, and the rest, reproductive rates have fallen through the floor. Which basically means that women that can reproduce have just become extraordinarily valuable commodities.

We learn quickly that Offred’s first posting didn’t work out. And now Offred has been settled with an important Commander, Commander Waterford (or Commander Frederick, Offred anyone? What do you mean you don’t get it? Of – Fred. Property Of Fred. Ofwaterford doesn’t really work now does it?) who was a co-founder of the Republic of Gilead and apparently is in the papers regularly. So Offred has landed in an important house. A very important house we will find.

“Like Bilah served Rachel…”

So, I want to talk about something for a moment. While the women are in instructional classes (replete with tasers and guns) Aunt Elizabeth teaches them about their new roles and what they are to do, and why. And while doing so she quotes the Old Testament by saying, “Like Bilah served Rachel”… so, what is that all about? In the Old Testament – or the Jewish Testament, either way – Abraham was promised by God that his descendants would be as many as the stars in the sky, and as numerous as the sand on the seashore. Right? Only glitch? 10 years later, no kids. So Sarai (to become Sarah) offers Abraham Hagar in order to try and make the prophesy real. And Hagar gets pregnant. And it will be through Hagar that all of Israel’s enemies will come.  Just a few of which were the Ishmaelites, the Edomites, Amalekites, Kenizzites, Midianites and not the least of which was the Assyrians.

And similarly to Hagar, Rachel also followed this same derailed path. Leah and Rachel both married Jacob (the grandson of Abraham through Sarah) which is a funny story for another day… but when Rachel found out that she was barren she offered Bilhah to Jacob in order to have an heir. But neither this, nor Sarai’s offering of Hagar to Abraham were God’s plan and bad things come of both of these ‘offerings’. Right? So the fact that Aunt Elizabeth called out Bilhah as a wonderful plan for fulfilling God’s plan on earth? No, we should already be sufficiently freaked out, but also on edge because nothing but really bad things came to Abraham and Jacob because of these unions.

A Priest, a Doctor, and a Gay Man

As Offred is walking back from shopping with her assigned Handmaiden counterpart, the two of them come across the hanging of a priest, a doctor, and a gay man. And it is in that one shot that we realize many of the morals and beliefs of this new land of Gilead. Unauthorized religion is a punishable offense. Homosexuality is a capital crime. And learned people are enemies of the state. These are similar to many things that we saw in Communist bloc countries like Russia. Which means that the civil war that has established Gilead has succeeded in instituting a very hardline moral code via an extreme police state. The Eye is watching! (Not quite as iconic as ‘Big Brother is Watching’… but it’ll do.)

The Ghastly Ritual of the Ceremony

This entire society is based on restrictive religious ceremony and a need to find a way to propagate said society. And the solution that the founders of Gilead came up with was the Ceremony. Handmaidens are assigned to influential homes, and once a month they are required to undergo the Ceremony.  “And when Rachel saw that she had born Jacob no children…”

While watching the first episode moments ago, in the middle of the ritual, I stopped the episode and wrote this down: “The Ceremony is quite possibly the most passively violent thing I have ever seen depicted on television.” And I think I was on to something. So much so I tried to figure out how the segment was shot. Was each person’s vantage shot individually with no one else in the room? Was it Elisabeth Moss (Offred) and Yvonne Strahovski (Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife) just together? Was Joseph Fiennes by himself. And I think it was all a distinct psychological protection mechanism. Seriously. I’m not even joking. I didn’t do well with that scene, like at all.  I couldn’t really even watch. But the point of shooting the scene and hammering the audience with it is extraordinarily clear – every woman in this society is belittled in some way. Some passively, some extraordinarily, and actively.

Burgeoning Relationships

And then afterwards, Offred runs outside to get fresh air… and she sees the driver, Nick (Max Minghella). It was definitely against the rules for Offred leave the house and she expected to be turned in by Nick and picked up by the Eye. But is shocked when she isn’t. And even goes so far to crack a joke (albeit an ultra subtle joke) at Nick’s expense a little later in the show. 

The other interesting relationship that comes out of no where is between Ofglen (Offred’s spy partner) and Offred. Which is an interesting sub-story by itself. You have Offred assuming that Ofglen is a pious traitor to freedom and women everywhere, and apparently Ofglen assumes the same about Offred as well. It is an indication of the fear and the restrictive nature of Gilead that they would suspect one another so completely.

The Salvaging is Brutal

The bell rings three times. And if you have close captioning turned on – which I always do just to validate I’ve heard characters correctly, or spelling – it said, “The Bell Strikes Thrice”. Which, seemed to be an very evil portent to me. No? And we quickly learn that the Handmaidens can be summoned at a moment’s notice for various reasons, and three apparently means a “Salvaging”. And all the Handmaidens converge on an open park that has been setup for some sort of assembly purpose.

It’s during the ‘salvaging’ that Offred finds out that Moira is gone. That she was sent to the colonies and where she was assumed dead from toxic waste clean up duty. We also learn that Janine, the woman who had had her eye gouged out, was pregnant, and basically insane. She doesn’t seem to be doing well at all. She is definitely going to be playing a bigger part further on in the story.

But the most important thing we learn here is that it is apparently a capital crime to rape someone in this culture. (The irony here is so thick and multi-layered that I don’t even know where to begin.) And even worse? This man had raped a Handmaiden. So they have brought him to the Handmaidens for justice in a ritual called, get this, The Particicution. Come on. That is amazing. Participation. Execution? The state coercing the subjected in order convince them to kill another subjected individual without a just hearing? So how it works is that they are allowed to do whatever they want until the whistle blows. And that is when we see Offred just go to town on this guy. And at the end, as they are carting away his dead body we see that Offred is wondering what just happened to her. Did I just take out my angst with this situation and with the Commander out on this guy? What am I beginning to become?

And the final thing we learn about Offred was that her daughter’s name is Hannah. Her husband’s name is Luke. And Offred’s real name? Is June.

Rules of the Handmaid’s Tale:

The rules of this movie are vast and mult-faceted. But I jotted down a few as they came up throughout episode 1:

1. Handmaidens are required to always goes in twos
2. The Handmaidens are not allowed to read the news
3. Handmaidens are restricted to stay in the house, specifically their room
4. Alcohol, cigarettes, etc. are all black market items and illegal

Thoughts on the First Episode

After watching the first episode I was fairly blown away. It was such a good portrayal of the book. Obviously this isn’t a cookie cutter from the book because there are numerous deltas that are obvious without much work. But it has heightened the fear from the book. Boiled down and concentrated the elements that were truly horrifying from the book. But it is so well done, and so interesting, I can’t wait to see where the show goes next. Obviously we are going to see the relationship between Offred and the Commander grow and get more complex. We will see … yeah, we are going to see lots of crazy going on. That’s for sure.

Over the next couple days I will post a walk through and a discussion for episode 2 and for episode 3. Then the episode 4 through 10 will come weekly as Hulu releases them. What are your thoughts though? Where do you think this is going to go? Obviously don’t spoil it for others if you’ve jumped through the next two. Can’t wait to watch the next show… well, in a sort of, I can’t look away sort of way.

Interested in reading all of my Handmaiden’s Tale episode recaps so far? You got it – I will update them here as I write them:
Episode 1 – Offred
Episode 2 – Birth Day
Episode 3 – Late
Episode 4 – Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum
Episode 5 – Faithful
Episode 6 – A Woman’s Place
Episode 7 – The Other Side
Episode 8 – Jezebels
Episode 9 – The Bridge
Episode 10 – Night