BLESSED BE THE FRUIT (HANDMAID'S TALE EP. 1 RECAP)
I think my credentials as #1 Handmaid’s Tale fan are established by now, but check out my primer on the Handmaid’s Tale novel, and the roundtable discussion of the novel with AG and myself. To be honest, despite the thousands of excellent reviews from trusted sources I read in the last week, I was nervous to watch the first three episodes that were released today on Hulu. I mean, I was anxious about it. I stalled before watching, even though I’d waited all day and been in desperate anticipation since the series was announced last year. I was braced for something...I suppose it was the book reader’s fear. We all know the pain of seeing some wonderful book translated on the screen and watching it be gutted. Or maybe just neutered.
I can say that so far, the filmmakers haven’t gutted my beautiful thing. Blessed be the fruit. The first episode does an excellent job establishing the world, complete with organic classroom exposition dump and cameo from St. Margaret of Atwood, coming straight out of the slap a bitch school of acting. The episode begins with a frantic chase through some woods: Luke (O-T Fagbenle), June (Elisabeth Moss), and their daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake) are fleeing for their lives. Luke crashes the car--way to go, Luke--and mother and daughter run through the woods. This scene was genuinely upsetting. They are terrified. It is worth noting that Monday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, and this scene had resonance. The family is attempting to cross the border into Canada, but Luke is killed and June and Hannah are captured. One thing that stands out about this adaptation is the violence--it’s visceral in a way that is different from the novel. When June is knocked to the ground and her daughter is ripped from her arms, it is stomach turning.
The episode balanced between June, now Offred’s, life as a handmaid and flashbacks to her indoctrination in the Red Center, where she is abused by the Aunts (including Margaret Atwood). We learn, in a classroom scene, that the wickedness and wanton ways--birth control, morning after pills, baby murder--led to a fertility crisis. “They did this to themselves,” the Aunt says. By them she means us. In my notes here it says: TELL ME THIS IS NOT FEMINIST AND I WILL FIGHT YOU. June sees her best friend, Moira (Samira Wiley) and a new “recruit,” Janine (Madeline Brewer). Janine mouths off and ends up with her eye taken out. Which, um, gosh. Poor Janine. She tells a terrible story about being gang raped and the other women chant: her fault, her fault, at her. June hesitates, and then Boomski! the very author of the novel slaps her upside the head. Janine also goes batty and Moira and June try to keep her together. Moira reveals that her girlfriend was picked up in “a dyke purge” and warns June she needs to keep it together for her daughter.
In Offred’s daily life, we begin to see the contours of the handmaid’s confinement. She is assigned to the Waterfords: Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Rita (Amanda Brugel) is the Martha assigned to the family, and Nick (Max Minghella) is the driver. Offred shops with Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) in a grocery store with no writing.
After Offred bathes, she participates in the Ceremony. The whole “family” gathers in the living room, Serena Joy angrily smokes a skinny cigarette, and the Commander takes a Bible out of a locked box and reads some Old Testament bullshit that justifies this terrible arrangement. Then, Offred, Serena Joy, and Commander adjourn to the bedroom and have the world’s saddest and most awkward threeway. Serena Joy, who looks like an angry Portia de Rossi, holds Offred’s hands while the Commander bangs her. They have fully clothed sex and then Serena Joy orders Offred out, even though conception best practices say to lay there for a while. Who is having fun here? No one. Offred runs outside and has a mini-freak out, under the watchful Eye of Nick.
Here’s a thing I have to say about casting: Joseph Fiennes has that Fiennes’ face and he looks like a sad hipster Jesus all the time. I find it distracting. I shouldn’t have one lick of a sympathy for the Commander--he is an architect of the whole damned system. But when I look at that Fiennes’ face I can’t help but feel sorry for this miserable bastard.
At the end of the episode, the Handmaids are summoned to a Particicution. (Atwood loves portmanteaus). Offred hears from good old Janine, now hugely pregnant, that Moira is dead. The Aunts bring out a “rapist” who raped a Handmaid and caused a miscarriage. They tear him apart with their hands, in a Maenad like fury. Offred falls on the man, ripping at him with her hands and kicking him, perhaps venting her rage and sadness over her friend’s death.
I like the way the world is fleshed out and the series is beautiful and well acted. The big departure is the graphic violence. In the novel, the violence is muted because we are in Offred’s point of view, and she is shellshocked. Here, the violence is stark. The hanging bodies on the Wall-- “a priest, a doctor, and a gay man. I think I’ve heard that joke before,” Offred thinks--are harder to look at from the objective lens of the camera. Offred kicking the “rapist” and the other women tearing at him while Janine twirls off to the side: that’s some graphic shit there. I also miss Offred’s mom. Like, a lot. She is a militant lesbian feminist in the book, with whom Offred sometimes sparred before the fall of civilization. But, overall, I like it. Elisabeth Moss is a fucking acting genius. I’m happy to see my favorite thing done well.