Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 19, 2018)
Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale takes us to a dark vision of the future. Set after the Second US Civil War, the states become torn into different realms, and “Gillead” takes form as a totalitarian government with a fundamentalist orientation.
Birth rates plummet and the government forces the few remaining fertile women to serve as virtual sex slaves. The series focuses on Offred (Elisabeth Moss), a “handmaid” under Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes).
With this three-disc Blu-ray set, we get all 10 episodes from Tale’s first season. The plot synopses come from IMDB.
Offred: “One the few fertile women known as Handmaids in the oppressive Republic of Gilead, Offred struggles to survive as a reproductive surrogate for a powerful Commander and his resentful wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).”
As expected, “Offred” invests in a lot of exposition, as it needs to set up the series/characters in a basic way. It does so efficiently and also boasts enough indelible imagery to become more memorable than the average pilot.
Birth Day: “Offred and her fellow Handmaids assist with the delivery of Janine's (Madeline Brewer) baby, prompting Offred to recall her own daughter's birth. Offred draws closer to Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) while dreading a secret meeting with the Commander.”
With the rudiments out of the way, “Day” seems less plot-heavy than its predecessor, which means it comes with a bit less impact. Still, it develops some narrative/character elements, and the view of the bizarre birth ceremony adds creepy intrigue.
Late: “Offred visits Janine's baby with Serena Joy and remembers the early days of the revolution, before Gilead. Ofglen faces a difficult challenge.”
Many have viewed the Tale series as a reflection of America under Trump. “Late” makes that comparison clearer, as it alludes to the slippery slope under which liberties disappear and public discourse becomes cruder.
Even without that commentary, this becomes a good show, especially when it depicts more of life before Gilead and the way women lost their rights. Add in a breathtaking wordless scene between Ofglen and another prisoner to make this a strong show.
Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum: “Punished by Serena Joy, Offred begins to unravel and reflect on her time with Moria (Samira Wiley) at the Red Center. A complication during the Ceremony threatens her survival.”
Once again, flashbacks become the most compelling part of “Nolite”, as the glimpses of Offred’s relationship with Moira provide dramatic material. The “present day” parts work a bit less well, but they still manage to advance the narrative in a positive manner.
Faithful: “Serena Joy makes Offred a surprising proposition. Offred remembers the unconventional beginning of her relationship with Luke (O-T Fagbenle). Ofglen - now Ofsteven - tries reintegrating into Gilead.”
Usually I like the flashbacks, but not this time, mainly because Luke seems like such a drab character – the more I see of him, the less I care about his fate or understand why Offred went for him in her prior life. At least the “current day” scenes offer more intrigue, as they thicken the baby-making plot and add some emotional undercurrents.
A Woman’s Place: “When a trade delegation from Mexico comes to Gilead, Offred discovers several shocking secrets.”
After a claustrophobic focus on Gilead and the lives of those from the former US, it’s good to get a glimpse of the outside world via the visitors from Mexico – as well as a better understanding of the new US order. We also find a good view of Serena Joy’s old life/career in this involving episode.
The Other Side: “Luke tries to survive the harsh new world alone so he can find June and Hannah (Jordana Blake) again.”
As noted, Luke doesn’t do much for me as a character, so an entire episode based around him seems bound to leave me cold. We do find important plot information, but I think the events could’ve been summarized effectively in less time.
Jezebels: “While his wife is away, Commander Waterford takes Offred on an excursion outside the walls of Gilead to a den of iniquity where she finds a familiar face.”
Eventually Tale seems likely to offer backstory on all its main characters, and “Jezebels” becomes Nick’s turn. Some of this adds to the development of the “handmaid” program, as we view its roots. These elements become the most compelling, whereas the Gilead scenes fare less well. They come across as a bit trite, even if they do allow a glimpse at a seedier side of Gilead.
The Bridge: “June is tasked with going back to Jezebels to find a package. Meanwhile in Gilead, Janine has trouble relinquishing her newborn baby.”
With little time left in Season One, “Bridge” needs to send matters toward a close – well, a semi-close, as obviously we’ll see more in Season Two. As a lead-in toward the finale, it offers a decent exploration, though I admit the “Offred the Spy” theme doesn’t do a lot for me.
Night: “When a punishment is handed down for Janine, June and the other handmaids must face the unthinkable. Serena discovers Fred's secrets.”
Season One finishes with a dramatic series of events, though not anything that one would call explosive. However, some major slambang conclusion wouldn’t fit the series, so I like the quiet sense of rebellion we find here.
Overall, I like Season One, though I admit I think it sags periodically toward mid-year, mainly because it starts to feel too much like a soap opera. Still, “Night” moves the show back onto track and leaves me curious to see where matters go in S2.