Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale was published back in 1985, but the Hulu adaptation of its grim, deeply emotional story of female oppression was one of 2017’s best, most gripping (and unfortunately most timely) TV shows, and that’s sure to be the case again this year with season two. Here’s how to catch up on – or remember – the events of season one, where the characters were left, and generally just how insanely awful the world of Gilead is for women.
Elisabeth Moss as Offred. Photo: George Kraychyk (Hulu)
Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and Nick (Max Minghella). Photo: George Kraychyk (Hulu)
What it’s about
The Handmaid’s Tale mostly takes place in and around what used to be Boston, in the country of Gilead – the new name for the United States after a violent uprising led to a civil war, which ended with a fundamentalist takeover of the government. It’s set in a time that’s much like today, except environmental devastation has advanced so much that most women are infertile, and the few babies that are born often don’t survive.
In Gilead, young women with babymaking potential are forced into sexual slavery, submitting to monthly rapes as part of a “Ceremony” cloaked in religious scripture, with the mandate of producing a healthy child for the rich family they serve.
While the Handmaids, as they’re called, suffer the most under this new, exceedingly patriarchal regime, it sucks to be a woman in any capacity in Gilead; their ranks include the wives of the rich Commanders, the “Aunts” who police the Handmaids, and the “Marthas” who toil as domestic help.
Though some of these women have marginal amounts of power over each other depending on the context, all of them are seen as second-class citizens when men are around. They aren’t allowed to have jobs, own property or even read books, and – in the most visually striking component of the show – they’re forced to dress in colour-coded uniforms that symbolise their various stations.
The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t just dump the viewer into this world. It builds a lot of flashbacks into its storytelling, going back years to show us how Gilead came to be from the point of view of – and the wildly different experiences of – its various characters. More recent flashbacks examine how the Handmaids are trained, and the awful, New Testament-style punishment they get if they don’t conform (see Janine’s eye in the photo below) or try to escape.
Eyes are important in Gilead. There’s a secretive network, the Eyes, that drives around grabbing people off the street when they need to be taught a lesson. One of the most often-uttered phrases in the new country’s old-fashioned vernacular is “Under his eye”, a reference to God’s all-seeing eye. Plus, everyone is spying on each other all the time, keeping paranoia levels running sky-high.
Janine (Madeline Brewer) and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). Photo: George Kraychyk (Hulu)
Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss)
Before Gilead, June had a comfortable, happy life, working in book publishing and living in Boston with her husband, Luke, and their young daughter, Hannah. In Gilead, she’s forced to become a Handmaid and is renamed “Offred”, since she’s placed under the control of Commander Fred Waterford. Eventually, she makes the dangerous choice to become involved with a resistance group called Mayday.
We get to know more about June through flashbacks that piece together her life, both with Luke and when she’s in the Handmaid intake facility, the Red Center, just after she was captured. But her voiceovers, which reveal the thoughts and emotions that she almost always has to stifle, are even more essential. She’s smart, caring, brave and sarcastic – someone who’s easy to root for as well as ache for. Elisabeth Moss won a well-deserved Emmy for her performance.
Moira (Samira Wiley)
She’s June’s best friend and former roommate; by chance, they’re both placed in the same Red Center training group at the same time. Moira is a lesbian – or a “gender traitor” in the homophobic language used by Gilead leadership – but she’s deemed fertile, so she’s fast-tracked to be a Handmaid rather than sent to the Colonies, the toxic wasteland where most gay people would be forced to go (if they weren’t outright murdered first).
Outspoken and daring, Moira manages to escape, though her journey to Canada was held up when she was forced to work at an underground brothel frequented by the supposedly pious and very married Commanders. (Hypocrisy in Gilead is as ubiquitous as red Handmaid dresses or the machine guns carried by Gilead’s resident army.) At the end of season one, however, she eventually makes it across the border and finds Luke.
The Waterfords (Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski)
Commander Fred is a Gilead bigwig, and Serena Joy is his dutiful wife. But neither of them are what they appear to be at first.
Though the Commander initially shows a certain amount of kindness to Offred, engaging her in Scrabble matches, he’s actually a cruel, selfish man. Not only does he casually disregard all of Gilead’s supposed values by taking Offred to a brothel and making her sleep with him outside of the Ceremony, he’s also the main force behind a deal to broker a trade between Gilead and Mexico for the only valuable commodity left on Earth: Fertile women.
As for Serena Joy, her icy demeanour occasionally softens when she’s protecting the one thing she wants above everything else (a baby, no matter how she gets it). But she’s hardly sympathetic. Before her husband and his ilk came to power, Serena was an ultra-conservative author and speaker who helped plan and gather support for the Gilead movement.
The irony of her life is that she can’t participate at all in the oppressive patriarchy she helped build, so she’s frequently left frustrated on the sidelines. She also has a scary temper, and she isn’t above being incredibly evil (including, in one of the season’s most agonising scenes, threatening to harm Offred’s daughter Hannah) to get what she wants.
Nick (Max Minghella)
Commander Waterford’s longtime driver; he’s also an Eye. In flashbacks, we learn how he just kind of fell into his gig, and how he isn’t really a bad person, but rather someone who lost his way at exactly the wrong time. Despite his duty, he cares for Offred and they have a sexual relationship – at first sanctioned by Serena Joy and her baby fever, but then clandestine as their feelings grow, though he ends the relationship when he senses it’s becoming too dangerous.
Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd)
The most fearsome of all the Aunts, Aunt Lydia rules the Red Center with an iron fist, meting out torture and scripture in equal amounts. Her tone can be patronising or terrifying, depending on what she needs from the Handmaids. Though she has a strong sense of duty to Gilead and its mission of producing as many children as possible, there are occasionally tiny, tiny cracks in her stern facade – most notably when it comes to dealing with the helpless Janine. Ann Dowd also won a well-deserved Emmy for her supporting performance.
Emily (Alexis Bledel)
Like Moira, Emily (also known as Ofglen and Ofsteven) is a lesbian. She’s Offred’s shopping partner (since the women can never be left alone in public) and is the first person to tell Offred about Mayday. She’s taken by the Eyes when they discover she’s having a forbidden relationship with one of the Marthas. The Martha is executed (and Emily is forced to watch); Emily’s punishment is to have her clitoris surgically removed, after which she’s sent back to Handmaid duty.
One day while shopping, she sees her moment and steals a car – but in the ensuing mayhem, she runs over an Eye and splatters his guts all over the market.
Since we know this character returns in season two (more on that below), we know she survives whatever happens to her after she’s dragged away. Alexis Bledel’s performance earned another well-deserved Emmy for the show – which, incidentally, raked in a total of eight Emmys, including Best Drama – winning for outstanding guest actress.
Janine (Madeline Brewer)
Part sassy rebel, part fragile soul, Janine talks back in the Red Center and promptly has her eye plucked out at punishment. Renamed Ofwarren, she’s the first among the women to get pregnant and give birth to a healthy baby, but she becomes even more scattered and childlike as her ordeal continues; she’s also saddled with a sleazy Commander who takes advantage of her and makes her believe he’s going to run away with her.
She very nearly jumps off a bridge with her baby, but hands the child to Offred (one of her few allies) at the last second. She survives the plunge – and she survives her sentence of being stoned to death (for the crime of putting a baby in danger) by her fellow Handmaids when they refuse to harm her.
Luke (O.T. Fagbenle)
June’s husband. We see their meet-cute in flashbacks, as well as how their relationship came to be despite the fact that he was married to another woman at the time. He’s a genuinely good guy who only decides to press on to Canada after being separated from June and Hannah after being convinced he could do more to help them alive, across the border, than dead (since he’d almost certainly be swiftly killed) back in Gilead.
June (Elisabeth Moss), Hannah (Jordana Blake) and Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) try to escape. Photo: George Kraychyk (Hulu)
Where things stand – and what’s new for season two
Going into season two, Offred is pregnant with what can only be Nick’s baby, since pretty much everyone involved knows the Commander is likely sterile. The last scene of the first season sees Offred climbing into one of the Eyes’ dreaded kidnapper vans, but Nick is there, and he tells her to trust him. It was a pretty classic cliffhanger, since we had no idea where she was going or WTF was gonna happen.
Also, was she in trouble for her work with Mayday, or because she led the Handmaids in refusing to stone Janine (an act which seems poised to spark the beginnings of a rebellion in Gilead), or some other offence? Or was she even in trouble at all? Thank goodness The Handmaid’s Tale got a season two, because we had all kinds of urgent questions like that which needed answering.
Though we don’t want to know too much as we get into the second season, The Handmaid’s Tale cast and crew have let a few bits and pieces drop. We know there will be 13 episodes instead of 10, giving the show even more freedom to expand beyond the events of the book. We’ll be visiting the Colonies, the dreaded wasteland beyond the city where dissidents, wrongdoers, or anyone who pissed the wrong people in Gilead off are sent to do hard labour. We’ll see Emily and Janine there, along with a new mystery character played by Marisa Tomei.
Other new characters will include Offred’s mother, a key character from the book, to be played by Cherry Jones; Bradley Whitford as as a Commander who’s also “the architect of Gilead’s economy“; and Clea DuVall as Emily’s wife and the co-mother to their son, who we know managed to escape to Canada (though we don’t know if we’ll be seeing her in flashbacks or in the storyline’s present day).
Speaking of Canada, Moira and Luke will be working as activists together, presumably doing all they can to get June out of Gilead. We’ll also be getting more glimpses at how Gilead came to be, with a specific look at what happened to America’s free press as the country changed.
And, oh yeah, Offred is still gonna be pregnant, no matter where she ended up going in the van. According to Moss, the baby will be like “a ticking time bomb” this season.
Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). Photo: George Kraychyk (Hulu)
Why you should watch
Though The Handmaid’s Tale has a weathered scattered criticisms – the fact that an oppressive society like Gilead would be totally colourblind, not addressing race whatsoever, is a big one – it’s overall an impressive and important work.
It can certainly be depressing at times. You might scream at your TV screen more than once per episode. But it also has a lot of beauty among the horrors, which goes for the cinematography, direction, writing and production design – as well as the acting performances, especially considering its stars must often convey complex emotions without saying a word.
And it also makes some unexpected creative choices, such as the various pop songs – Simple Minds’ “(Don’t You) Forget About Me”; Jay Reatard’s “Waiting for Something”; Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” – that add even more emotional texture to every episode.
The Handmaid’s Tale premieres today on SBS and SBS On Demand.