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The Handmaid’s Tale’s first 3 episodes are brilliant, terrifying television

Hulu’s new series starts by broadening the book’s world — and leaning into its horror.

Elisabeth Moss is extraordinary as Offred

Every week, a few members of the Vox Culture team will gather to talk out the latest episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. This week, staff writers Caroline Framke and Constance Grady discuss the first three episodes (“Offred,” “Birth,” and “Late”), which were released simultaneously on April 26.

Caroline Framke: The Handmaid's Tale tells the kind of story that curls up in the pit of your stomach, settles into a gnarled knot, and stays for a long, long while. Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel is as visceral as it is personal, sharp and cynical and nonchalant when it tells us that few are as brave under pressure as we all like to think we could be.

I really never thought we'd get an onscreen adaptation that could both understand and convey all this — but lo, Hulu has come along to prove me completely wrong with a total stunner of a TV series.

Atwood's dystopian vision of a United States buckling under fundamentalist, Puritan-adjacent rule is a stark and bitter warning, one that's been called eerily relevant since it was published more than 30 years ago. And now Hulu has brought it to life with a remarkable depiction of all the banal horrors that make the world of The Handmaid’s Tale so incredibly chilling, not to mention a fantastic anchoring performance from Elisabeth Moss as Offred (a.k.a. June).

The new series — created by Bruce Miller, with its first three episodes expertly directed by Reed Morano — is difficult and important television. The pilot episode (“Offred”) is one of the best I've ever seen. But I'm glad the first three episodes were released at once, allowing viewers to fully immerse themselves in Offred’s world, painful though it might be.

There's already so much to talk about. But I'd like to start off by looking at how Miller and his team have approached Atwood's source material. Often a book-to-screen adaptation will take pains to be as literal as possible, but this one takes pains to avoid it. I reread the book after watching the Handmaid’s Tale pilot and was surprised to realize that the first episode contains moments that don't crop up until way further in the story — like that crucial, brutal Scavenging of a man who allegedly raped a Handmaid.

As someone who's done quite a deep dive into Atwood's work, Constance, what struck you most about the way The Handmaid's Tale adapts its source material?

The TV show makes several brilliant choices for adapting the book to the screen

Samira Wiley as Moira, Handmaid edition.

Constance Grady: I think the smartest choice the show made was to open up Atwood's version of Gilead: It means softening the brutality of the dictatorship in places, but it also creates a richer setting. In the book, there are no people of color in Offred's life, because they've all been sent off to labor camps as chattel slaves, which we learn in a quickly tossed-off sentence about the "Children of Ham."

It's certainly reasonable and chilling to think that an American dictatorship would find itself reinstating slavery, but if the show went along with that piece of world building, there would be few opportunities to cast actors of color — and Samira Wiley is so, so good as Moira that it would have been a tragedy.

Instead, the show chose to lean into the issue of race in places where the book doesn't. In the book, Offred becomes a Handmaid because her husband had been married once before, and that makes their marriage null and void and under Gileadean sexual purity laws. We don't know yet if Offred's husband on the show was married before — it hasn't come up — but so far, it looks as though they were targeted not because of a second marriage but because of an interracial one.

It's a smart, frightening way to avoid softening Gilead's views on race without keeping the cast lily-white, and it also feels like an update that matches America's changing sexual mores. We don't mind second marriages all that much anymore, but there are places where interracial marriages are still taboo.

Caroline: That’s a really solid point about the way this version of The Handmaid’s Tale has broadened the world beyond the scope of Offred’s own winged bonnet. I was also thrilled when the pilot went ahead and had Ofglen (an especially thoughtful Alexis Bledel) reveal not only her true revolutionary intentions far earlier than she does in the book, but also the fact that she is gay, with a wife and son living somewhere in Canada.

Atwood’s book introduced the idea of queer people being considered “gender traitors” almost in passing, with Moira’s sexuality being a relative non-factor in her Handmaid status while gay men’s decaying bodies swung from the wall. But the TV series expands Ofglen’s role in a way that centers on her sexuality and the way Gilead views it. In the book, we never find out how Ofglen got caught; in the series, we learn that she had a secret relationship with a Martha. In “Late,” Aunt Lydia (the always towering Ann Dowd) sneers at Ofglen (née Emily) that she’s “a thing” and an affront to God. But he still saw fit to give her working ovaries, so she’ll live another day — albeit without a clitoris.

The Martha, meanwhile, is unceremoniously hung.

The whole plot is horrific, in keeping with pretty everything else on The Handmaid’s Tale. Bledel has rarely been better than she is in the desperate moments when Ofglen watches her lover die, and later wakes up and realizes what’s been done to her body.

And though it’s hard to watch, it’s incredibly smart and promising from a storytelling perspective. Making Ofglen gay adds an extra layer of urgency to her desire to fight against this regime. Though she was always one of the book’s most compelling characters, she couldn’t really have a complete story within Offred’s limited perspective.

Which reminds me: All this being said, I think what impresses me most about The Handmaid’s Tale as a series is how Miller has reenergized Offred’s first-person perspective from the book by funneling it into a sporadic, pointed voiceover that reminds us there’s a vibrant personality trapped beneath those scarlet robes. What did you think of how the show brings Offred’s inner life to, well, life?

Constance: In the book, Offred's narration is supposed to be literally spoken: She's speaking into a tape recorder, and what we're reading is a transcript. So a lot of the narration in the book is fairly informal and "talkable" already, and the TV show expands on that choice in really intelligent ways — all of the impatient sarcasm that Offred used to say out loud in her life as June is simmering behind her eyes, and the voiceover brings it out beautifully.

One of the things I've been wondering is whether the TV show will ever delve into the book's frame, which is an academic conference on Gileadean studies that uses Offred's account as a first-person primary source document, a sort of Diary of Anne Frank for the future. In the screener I watched, there's a very clear and audible click just before the voiceover begins, one that sounds like a button on a tape deck. Do you think we'll ever see Offred recording her story? Or catch a glimpse of the post-Gileadean world?

Caroline: I still remember getting to that epilogue when I first read the book and gasping so loudly that I startled my dog awake. Now that’s a twist.

But as for the show, I’d guess the writers will wait until the end of the season to bring in that aspect, if they bring it in at all. (Good ear on that tape recorder, though; I missed that!) The future of the series is unclear as of now, but Miller did say at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in January that he wants the series to run for as many seasons as possible. If I were to take an educated guess, I’d say the show either wraps up the book’s story in the first season, and branches beyond it going forward, or it pulls a latter-years Game of Thrones and saves a good half of the book for season two and beyond.

So how relevant is The Handmaid’s Tale to 2017, really?

The Handmaid’s Tale
The Scavenging.

Constance: Speaking of the way the show updates itself: A lot of the conversation around this adaptation has been about how timely it is. Does it feel that way to you? I recently went back to the book, and I was surprised at how dated I found some of the religious angles to be. If this were Mike Pence's America, sure, Gilead would feel very close, but Donald Trump is such a determinedly secular figure that I have trouble fearing a theocratic dystopia. If anything, the Trump era suggests that Gilead's ideology of misogyny no longer requires the cover of religion to do its work.

Caroline: I've always been a little wary of calling The Handmaid's Tale especially timely at any given moment, because the whole point of the story is essentially that it could happen at any given moment. Many of the book's most uncomfortable truths for me come when Atwood is blunt about complacency being a huge part of how Gilead came to be, and the same holds true for the show. “Birth” hammers home that point in its flashbacks, with most everyone (except Moira) rationalizing away the disturbing new changes as necessary — or at least temporary — security measures. "We were asleep," Offred tells us in her voiceover, blunt and bitter.

But I won't lie: The Handmaid's Tale’s pilot was the first episode of TV I watched in 2017, and it was tough. The little details the show includes to make the “before” flashbacks feel current — June as a college student, crashing on a paper about campus sexual assault; Moira griping about slow Ubers — make the “after” of Gilead feel that much more awful and jarring.

Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) swallows some bitter pills in Gilead.

Constance: Atwood's argument is that in a time of crisis, America would revert back to its Puritan roots, and that the Enlightenment structures of the Constitution and our current government would be dismissed as historical aberrations. Which is a compelling argument, but it's not as emotionally close to me right now as the threat represented by Trump, and he is basically a Puritan's worst nightmare.

For me, what's timely about The Handmaid's Tale isn’t so much the way the Gileadean elite use religion as a cover for their work. Rather, it’s the intense, focused attention the story pays to the way systemic oppression operates across categories: the way the women of Gilead are so starved for power that they are willing to grasp at it wherever they can, whether that's by policing one another or by tearing an accused rapist to shreds.

Having said that, Serena Joy is styled to look so much like Ivanka Trump that it can't possibly be an accident, can it?

Caroline: Ooh, I don't know! At the very least, aging Serena Joy down to the point where she can be played by Yvonne Strahovski isn't an accident. The creative team behind The Handmaid’s Tale has talked a little about how they believe a younger Serena Joy makes her infertility and jealousy feel more urgent, which is probably true. But now that you mention her sleek blondness in the context of Trump, it's a little easier to see Serena — who’s a middle-aged Christian television personality in the book — as someone who’s rooted more in Ivanka’s or Fox News’s mold of femininity.

Anyway, I agree with what you said about how Gilead’s Puritan values aren't quite in step with what's unfolding in the Trump administration now, even if it includes some Pences. I think you're absolutely right that Hulu's Handmaid's Tale feels most relevant when it's examining how people find and grab power where they can — as well as the perfectly ordinary ways in which they can lose it.

Next week on The Handmaid’s Tale ... ?

The Handmaid’s Tale
Her name is June.

Caroline: There's still so much we could touch on — one-eyed Janine's development, driver Nick's betrayal, the illicit pleasures of owning men at Scrabble — but they're mostly things that will inevitably keep coming up as the season progresses. So for now, what are you looking forward to in future episodes? I am personally wondering how a director who isn't Morano will frame the show, since I could've easily written another thousand words on her use of close-ups and color alone.

Constance: There are two things I very much want to see how the show will handle. First of all, I want to see Offred's mother. In the book she's an old-school second-wave feminist, which Offred finds both touching and absurd before Gilead; after the revolution, she's declared an Unwoman and sent to the colonies. I'm interested to see how the show updates her activism and politics, and I'd love to see if the writers can work her into the present day of the show somehow.

Second, I am so excited to see Moira in the present again. I'm certain it will break my heart, but in the best possible way.

Caroline: Ah, yes. I'm dying to know how Moira will come up again, and what's next for Ofglen/Emily. I’m probably just as excited for more flashbacks as I am terrified to witness their escalating chaos. And I’m especially interested to find out whether the show's Offred is — as the final moments of the pilot seemed to promise — more determined to change her situation than the book's more tentative version of the character.

But more than anything, I'm fascinated by what the hell else this show might be able pull off. We thought the book would give us a blueprint for what this series would be, but as it turns out, that source material is more like the spark for a far more unpredictable fire.

The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are currently available to stream on Hulu. New episodes will be available every Wednesday.

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