“The Handmaid’s Tale”: To see and be seen
Elisabeth Moss in Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale.' | Hulu

Season One, Episode One: “Offred”

After writing my previous post about the prevalence of inaction, ennui, and napping in the novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, the TV show’s action is particularly striking – from the very beginning of Episode One.

We are hurtled, first thing, into a high-speed car ride along a winding, rural New England road, sirens blaring from somewhere behind, an as-yet unnamed woman sitting in the backseat of the car, holding tightly to a scared-looking little girl. As a panicked, bespectacled man drives, the woman keeps turning to peer out the window, her vision limited to what can be seen through the slits in the headrests.

Already, the ability to see is becoming constricted. And clearly, they are seen. After crashing into a ditch and stumbling out of the car, the man urges the woman and child to run through the woods, for someone, somewhere is waiting for them. The music is driven by a deep, pulsing electronic bass, sounding like synthesized bellows. The two figures from the car are soon followed. The fear on the mother’s face as she tries to keep her daughter sitting quietly is palpable.

The men who quickly get there, toting machine guns, are just that – men with guns. We see no faces, just their jacketed bodies and their guns as she looks up from the hollow in which they sit. All of this takes no more than a minute and, as the men with guns pounce, grabbing the child to the mother’s shrieks of “Please don’t take her,” I’m already tearing up. Then the girl is carried off screen left as I can only watch with quickened heart rate as the woman’s body is dragged across the ground out of the frame on the right.

Reed Morano’s direction is superb; Elisabeth Moss’ acting is wide-ranged, both emotional and restrained. Bruce Miller’s script is basically true to Atwood’s book, but also renders the Offred character not just more active (which has to be done for a filmed adaptation; who wants to watch a woman sit in a chair or lie on a bed for 45 minutes?), but also more bold.

In an interview with The Frame, Morano spoke about wanting to bring some humor into the story through Offred’s internal narration, and that happens. In the novel, she wonders if her shopping partner Ofglen is a true believer or not. One of the first things we hear from Moss’ Offred as she heads out to meet Ofglen is her internal aside: “pious little shit.” We see her roll her eyes, when her head is facing forward with the wings on. Not only do those wings obstruct her ability to see, they also allow her a bit of privacy as long as no one is standing right in front of her. Roll those eyes, girl! While shopping, one of the handmaids in the store goes on about oranges and how they all should get oranges. Offred thinks, “I don’t need oranges. I need to scream. I need to grab the nearest machine gun.”

Not only is the Offred of the show bolder, so is Janine. The first we learn of the book’s Janine from one of Offred’s flashbacks, she is already identified as one of Aunt Lydia’s “pets.” Unfortunately for the bolder show version of Janine, she does not confine her smart-ass comments to the internal narration Offred employs. In the middle of a speech by the sadistic Aunt Lydia at the Red Center – where the young fertile women are taken for indoctrination after the state has kidnapped them – Janine speaks a comment out loud. Aunt Lydia walks toward her and menacingly asks Janine about what she said. “Fuck you” is Janine’s response. She is tased, dragged out, and the other handmaids don’t see her until after bedtime when she is half-carried, moaning, into the dormitory, a bloody bandage tied around her eyes. “When the right eye offends, pluck it out,” Moira whispers to Offred as they pretend to sleep in cots next to each other.

In the novel, it is the feet they go after in torture sessions, since a handmaid’s feet aren’t important to the regime, only her uterus is. Likewise, the eye is of no consequence to a breeder, but it’s an interesting alteration, fitting in with the theme of limited vision for some (the Handmaid’s “wings” that close off their portion of the visible world as they walk outside, Offred’s constrained view from the car as she, Luke, and their daughter try to escape) and increased powers of surveillance for those in charge.

The spy agency is called “The Eyes.” Offred tells us, as she sits and waits in her room, that “someone is always watching.” Yet, increased power to surveil is a snatching of more literal vision than one should have, but does not translate to moral vision or to the ability to see and understand the consequences of one’s actions.

For while Offred is among the watched, the controlled, she also stands in hallways and watches the Commander’s wife through partially open doors. She sees Serena Joy get shut out of a room that all the men have gone into; the Wife looks displeased – both that she is left out in the hallway and that Offred has seen.

We know from the book that she fought and argued for Gilead to come into being. Yet she could not foresee what it would mean for her. She wanted a kind of power, too, but now not only is that denied her, she cannot even see into the room where power sits. While the power that Serena Joy helped to set into place, the power that some women – like Aunt Lydia – are more than happy to participate in and support, can do serious damage, it cannot confer upon these women moral vision. Janine can no longer see out of her one eye, but she could see well enough to know that what Aunt Lydia was saying was bullshit.

What Aunt Lydia was saying got to the heart of the whole enterprise. The centuries-old patriarchal Madonna/Whore dualism can no longer function. The women meant to be Madonnas no longer fit into that faux hallowed space, for they or their husbands are sterile (shhhh, I didn’t say that bit about the men perhaps being sterile; the official line, of course, is that the wives are at fault.) So, women forced into the handmaid role must, at one and the same time, be both Madonna – they’re the only ones who are fertile – and Whore – made to have sex with other women’s husbands.

The Ceremony scene is handled with creepy brilliance. Elisabeth Moss’ face is a near perfectly blank slate with soulless eyes as she lies with her head in Serena Joy’s lap, and the fully-clothed Commander thrusts away at her. “Onward Christian Soldiers” plays loudly in the background. Offred may be able to exit her body while the Commander enters it, but Serena Joy cannot get away. More than the bitter older woman of the novel, this younger Wife is shown to tear up at the end. And, Offred, after lying on the bed back in her room must suddenly get up and run outside, close to a full-blown panic attack.

The “Christian” soldiers may have captured these women: the would-be Madonna and the coerced Whore, but there is resistance under foot, too. At the end of the episode, a composed Offred refuses to be named for the man she is forced to serve in this debasing way. She lets us know that she intends to survive, and, in a departure from the novel, she announces HER name: “I’m June.” The closing, over-the-credit music plays: Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.”

This review originally appeared on the author’s blog, And Another Thing.


Cathy Colton
Cathy Colton

Cathy Colton is a community college English professor in the Chicago area. She offers a feminist take on books, movies, TV, and more at her blog, And Another Thing.