The sound of sirens, fade in on a country road. A car is speeding down the road, presumably being chased by the police. Inside are not hardened criminal looking thugs but a black woman and a white woman in their early to mid 30s and a black girl of perhaps 6. An odd group to be running from the police but from the nervous looks on the faces of the adults, running they are.
The car skids off the road into a ditch. The trio hurries out and the man instructs the woman to take the girl and keep running. 2 miles and someone will be there to meet them. What’s in two miles and why are they running there at all?
The woman and child take off running through the woods, eventually finding a spot to hide as the hunting party draws close. The little girl calls the woman “Mommy”, only to be hushed as footsteps are almost on top of them. Luckily the men don’t hear them hiding and move on.
But not far enough and thus they spot the woman and child as the pair continue to run. The hunting party catches up with them but these men look literally hunters, not police. And they act with a brutality that seems more a kin to a gang rape than catching criminals. They literally rip the little girl from her mothers arms and bash the woman in the head to keep her from fighting back. They strap the woman to a crude gurney and shove her in the back of a non descript van.
Cut to. A woman sitting on a window seat in a room that looks like something out of the early 1900s. A voice, almost chant like, describes the room. A chair, a table, a lamp. A window with white curtains and shatterproof glass. Shatterproof to keep the “Handmaids” from using it to kill themselves. Same for the lack of an overhead light that could be used for hanging. The woman isn’t speaking so much as thinking to herself, making a reference to “Ceremony Days” and “chances”. She refers to herself as Offred. She is the woman from the woods. Sitting on that window seat, dressed in a plain red dress with a white hair cover. Looking a bit like some kind of modern day nun. Or perhaps not a nun but rather a novice before she has taken her vows and gained her full wimple. Even the notion of another name from a past life, with rules not to speak it, calls up ideas of the whole Sister Mary whatever naming used by nuns, or at least the Hollywood version of them.
Cut to another memory. This time of Offred’s arrival in the house. She’s still wearing the same red garb but her winged headdress is much more wimple like, hiding her hair more completely and her face with it. She’s greeted by another one, who allows her to sit “just this once” and speaks with an air of being the mistress of the house. This is Serena Joy. She’s not much older than Offred but very stuck up. She refers to their previous Handmaid as a dumb dog, pleased that Offred is on her second posting and therefore needs no training. Serena takes exception to being called “ma’am” saying that Offred is not “a martha” whatever that is (clearly some kind of servant as are Handmaids but in what sense has not yet been stated).
Enter a man. It’s quickly apparent that he is the master of the house. He greets Offred using the phrase “Blessed be the fruit” for which she has a quick and practiced reply. He introduces himself as Commander Waterford, a title which suggests that he’s someone important. Perhaps military or government or maybe even both. He seems rather awkward, particularly about the rote response given by Offred, and quickly leaves the room. Serena reminds Offred that she is the wife ‘until death do us part’ and dismisses Offred, instructing her to be essentially invisible. Whatever the Handmaids position, it makes Serena feel threatened. Very threatened.
Back to the present, Offred walks downstairs to the kitchen where a cook in plain grayish brown grab is preparing bread by hand. Rita is a Martha (which is presumably a house servant doing the cooking and possibly cleaning). The kitchen is very plain with no fancy tools. It looks like it could be part of Downton Abbey not modern times. Offred seems almost in awe of Rita, watching as she scoops out floor and such with her hands, making bread like it was a work of art. Traditional values, just as ‘they’ like it. Rita gives Offred a stack of tickets with icons on them, admonishing Offred to make sure the eggs are fresh. Clearly Rita isn’t impressed by Offred’s status.
Offred goes out to meet Ofglen, another handmaid and Offred’s shopping partner. An inner monologue reveals that Offred has been at the house for 2 months and barely spoken to Ofglen who comes off as pious with ‘a stick up her butt’. Offred’s inner monologue is also rather snarky towards Nick, the not attractive but no status driver for the Commander who lives over the garage. Offred is outwardly meek with Nick, pondering if perhaps he’s “an eye”.
Offred and Ofglen walk down the road, and passed a school of pink clad little girls. Offred pauses, looking for the face of her little girl, her thoughts drifting for a moment to the memory of a trip to the beach. Ofglen interrupts the moment and they continue to the store. It’s an odd place where all the food is labeled with icons, as if the Handmaids are all illiterate. They encounter another pair of shopping Handmaids who tells them that oranges are in stock with the same fervor that real life girls might give to talking about a hot boy they just saw walking down the street. Offred says she has no token (the tickets Rita gave her, in place of a written list and money) but the girls say that she should just name drop her Commander because he’s very important.
Offred and Ofglen finish their shopping and walk home ‘by the river’, which also means walking past three hooded and hung bodies — a priest, doctor, and a gay man. The sight invokes a memory of entering the training center. A stocky woman, resembling Trunchbull from the old Roald Dahl tale Matilda, is droning on about pollution, birth control, orgies, plagues. Not yet Offred spots a face in the crowd. The face of an old friend.
Moira is an old college friend and an out lesbian. From her cautious glance, she’s been there for a while. Once the party girl, now she’ll play the role of mentor. As not yet Offred takes a seat, the purpose of the Handmaids is finally pointedly stated. They are fertile women, given an important and biblical role. They will bare children for the elite men and their infertile wives, like Leah the servant to Rachel from the Old Testament (the training center is actually called the Rachel and Leah Center). Trunchbull, aka Aunt Lydia, is not happy when one of the new ‘girls’ speaks up in class. Aunt Lydia actually uses a taser on the girl, before she’s dragged out by other Aunts.
Not yet Offred whispers to Moira in the dorm about the attempt to escape and losing the little girl. Moira tells her to not lose hope. They will get out. Unlike Odette (Moira’s girlfriend?) who was classified as an ‘unworn’ and sent to ‘the Colonies’. Wherever that is, it’s clearly not good. The door to the dorm opens and the pissy girl, Janine, is brought in and dumped on a bed. She’s sobbing loudly and there’s a thick bandage over one eye. An eye that has been cut out as punishment. “We’re breeding stock, we don’t need eyes for that.”
Offred returns home to prepare for ‘The Ceremony’. She bathes, her mind drifting to thoughts of her daughter, her old life. Offred ponders if her daughter even remembers her mother at all. Offred dresses and at the appointed time, descends to Serena’s sitting room where she kneels and waits. Again her thoughts drift to the past. To the Rachel and Leah center where Janine stands in a circle telling a tale of having been gang raped. Aunt Lydia admonishes the other Handmaids into proclaiming that it was Janine’s fault, she led them on. Rape culture is alive and well once again.
Rita whispers a small compliment about the quality of the eggs behind Offred’s back as she enters the sitting room. Nick enters also and Serena soon joins them. After a few minutes, there is a knock. Part of the ritual. A ritual that includes bible readings, prayers and strangest and most unappealing sex ever. Offred is forced to lay with her head between Serena’s knees while the Commander trusts into her with all the passion of a man who could just as easily be taking a shit. He turns his eyes away, keeps his hands firmly on his hips. One can almost count off like marching. One, two, left, right. When he finally does ejaculate, he merely turns away, wipes himself off and tucks it back in without a look or a word. Serena is equally silent, climbing off the bed as quickly as she can and ordering Offred out of the room. It’s the most non violent rape ever but rape none the less.
Offred has a sleepless night and commits the sin of walking outside without permission and in her nightgown no less. She realizes that Nick is watching her from the steps of his small apartment and she quickly goes back inside, nervous that he might report her for her indiscretion. But morning comes and it would seem that Nick has said nothing. The bells in the nearby square chime the signal for a ‘salvaging’ which doesn’t make Rita happy because now she has to do the shopping. Offred goes to the park where all the local Handmaids are gathering. While clearly some kind of ritual, it does give the Handmaids the opportunity to speak on familiar terms and in whispers with one another. Mostly about their postings and the news they have heard about other Handmaids. Janine, very pregnant, tells Offred that Moira has died, casting a somber tone to the moment. There’s no time to react as the ceremony begins. Aunt Lydia Trunchbull orders the Handmaids to take their places, kneeling on red cushions on the grass.
Once the Handmaids are assembled, a man is brought out. He’s a criminal, a rapist. Guilty of a sex crime not just against a woman but a handmaid. A pregnant handmaid who lost her child. Driven to a frenzy, the Handmaids are permitted to attack the man, beating him to death. No not just permitted, but expected to kill him. It’s a scene that resembles Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery where no one person is guilty of killing the chosen one because they all threw stones, as was the ritual. The only one not to participate is Janine, who still stands nearby basking in the moment.
As they walk home, Offred’s thoughts drift to the past and to telling Moira that she’s pregnant. Moira is thrilled but Not Yet Offred is cautious, due to the reports of miscarriages, still births etc. Moira vows that no matter what happens, she’ll be there. Ofglen interrupts Offred’s thoughts, offering her sympathies. They pause in front of a dress shop and Ofglen mentions that it used to be an ice cream shop. She is surprisingly open, making comments about how great the ice cream was, “like good sex”. Offred opens up and admits that she thought Ofglen was a true believer, only to discover that Ofglen thought the same of her. It’s what they do, says Ofglen, make them afraid of each other (perhaps so they can’t unite and rebel?)
As they walk home, their conversation is no longer the lame, rote nonsense about good weather etc. Now they actually talk about things of meaning. Like their children and their spouses. Ofglen reveals that she had a son and a wife, both of whom had Canadian passports and could run. She also warns Offred that there’s an Eye in the Waterford household. The presence of an Eye raises the stakes, makes it even more important that everything appear perfect and ‘normal’. But inside Offred makes a vow to herself that she will survive. Not just in the sense of her body but also her mind, her sanity. It won’t be Offred that survives, but June. June will survive to remember Luke and find Hannah.