Offred is one of the few fertile women in what was once America. As a handmaid, her only function is to bear children. Based on the novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale has now come to our screens in the UK – Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4.
This is a continuing series review. Click to read the review of Episodes 1 & 2.
This show really does pack a punch, and episode 3 in particular does more than its fair share. We’re given plenty more this week on how America became the Republic of Gilead, more of Offred’s relationship with Serena Joy, and the harrowing journey that Ofglen faces next. We caught a glimpse of a potential something with the driver Nick, and we didn’t see any more of the Commander this time, which was disappointing, but I’m sure that Scrabble rematch can’t be far away.
I’m coming to the flashbacks first. We’ve heard before that the new government took away people’s freedom slowly at first, and then all at once, though quite how this happened has been kept from us, until now. Offred tells us that people were asleep, that they were in a heating bathtub that boiled before they knew it. And we got some context this week too: there was a supposed terrorist attack in D.C. and the government had imposed martial law ever since. Once people had gotten used to that, the rest could be taken away by force. By the time the military were opening fire on protesters, it was too late to fight back – people had taken their freedom and rights for granted already, so didn’t stand up to claim them back until the authorities were powerful enough to grind them down.
That’s where we find the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, this week. We see a different side to her when she believes there’s a chance that Offred is pregnant. She treats her with good food, and allows her a visit to Janine’s baby (who, by the way, gives us an insight into what can happen to the handmaids when their resolve and sanity is tested), and Serena Joy has a couple of touching conversations with Offred about how much she values her. Even though Offred is our vehicle into the world, we can still see the hardships in Serena Joy’s life, and find sympathy with her. Even when she snaps at Offred as aggressively as she does, after discovering she is in fact not pregnant, there’s still sympathy there, for me anyway. This is what their new society has ground her down to – that she values Offred so little as a person, but so highly as a womb on two legs.
But it was Ofglen’s story that really chilled this week. Ofglen appeared to us as one of the few characters that lived in a quiet resistance of the oppression forced upon her. She had continued to pursue her sexuality under the new regime, and been caught. She and the Martha she was in a relationship with were persecuted as ‘gender traitors,’ or, as Offred defiantly stated, gay. A round of applause please to Alexis Bledel, who played Ofglen’s ordeal brilliantly: in silence, and with only her eyes to communicate, until that heart-wrenching scream at the end of the episode. As a fertile woman, Ofglen was permitted mercy in that she wasn’t executed, but she was prevented from wanting what she could not have. She was served “redemption” – genital mutilation. As a walking womb, she can still bear children, as is her value in society, and what’s worse is that this seems to be in part a punishment, but they also consider it a kindness – they are doing her a favour by removing this sin from her life.
Margaret Atwood has said that not one thing in The Handmaid’s Tale is new, it’s all happened before to real people, at some point. That’s the power of the story, what with prosecution of ‘deviant’ sexualities, women denied oppressed and denied an education, female genital mutilation, and the implication of a military combat against terrorism. And with what’s happening in the world now, there are plenty of moments in The Handmaid’s Tale that slap you in the face, because this version of reality doesn’t seem quite so comfortably far away as we’d like it to be.