Back in 1985, Canadian author Margaret Atwood wrote a frightening, prophetic "speculative fiction" about a repressive theocratic state in which birth rates have plummeted and enslaved women are used as docile breeding machines, in the hope of saving humankind from extinction. Appropriately enough, the opening episode of Hulu’s small-screen adaptation contains the entire novel in embryo. In fact, it uses re-ordered scenes, flashes forward, flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks to set up so many plot lines – and reveal so much vital information – that it feels more like an attention-grabbing, stand-alone TV pilot than the introductory instalment of a 10-part series.
The rushed opening scenes exemplify series creator Bruce Miller’s frantic approach. Together with her husband and young daughter, Elizabeth Moss’s as yet unidentified lead character is fleeing in a car from armed pursuers. When the car crashes, they are chased into the woods. Moss’s character is separated from her husband, her child is snatched from her arms, and she is knocked unconscious. Cut to Moss being ushered into a classroom, where a young women are being indoctrinated by a zealous yet benign-seeming religious teacher, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). However, when rebellious student Janine (Madeline Brewer) mocks her teacher’s pious proclamations, Aunt Lydia zaps her with a hand-held cattle prod. Moss’s husband and child are gone, and so too is her name: “I am Offred”, she tells us later in voice-over, “I used to have another name, but it’s forbidden.” We are immediately plunged into Offred’s subjective experience of nightmare world, and by sharing her sense of disorientation we experience something akin to the source novel’s compelling first person narrative. Everything is seen through Offred’s eyes, and it is not a pretty sight.
In the totalitarian state of Gilead, women are segregated into categories and dressed according to their station. Offred, a handmaiden, wears a modest, figure-hiding blood-red gown and a pure white winged cloche hat that forces her to look straight ahead and to converse without eye contact. Yet everywhere she goes, she is watched. On her trips to the Loaves and Fishes food store, she is always accompanied by Ofglen (Alexis Bledel): “We go everywhere is twos . . . She’s my spy, and I am hers.” They are precious breeding sows, waiting to be put to the boar. The semen will be provided by her employer, The Commander (Joseph Fiennes), while Offred lays passively between his wife, Serena Joy’s own spread thighs. For those who know the biblical story of the childless Rachel and her husband Jacob, there is scriptural precedent for this. But this is ritualised rape, however one seeks to justify it.
Compared to Volker Schlöndorff’s chilly, inert 1990 film adaptation starring Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway, this opening salvo is so packed with incident and ideas that it feels desperate to speed things along. What’s described above is only the half of it, and one wonders how writer/director Bruce Miller plans to eke out the rest of the story. By front-loading the series in this way, Miller risks peaking too soon; so one hopes that this episode’s multiple narrative threads will be slowly woven together over the next nine weeks, rather than unravelling in haste. When Miller takes his time and allows things to breathe, there are some nice touches: e.g. the briefly glimpsed identifying tag in Offred’s left ear. Fingers crossed, Miller won’t make a pig’s ear out of Margaret Atwood’s silk purse.