“The Handmaid’s Tale”—S1.E2: The Birthmobile

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Before we begin, let’s take a moment to talk about one of the narrative decisions made for the show; specifically, the decision to drop into the start of the story without a preamble about how we got here (other than a couple crashing their car for no evident reason and then getting kidnapped by dudes in ski masks). For viewers who have not read the book The Handmaid’s Tale, I imagine the first episode of the show could be pretty confusing. If you’re not paying attention, for example, Aunt Lydia’s spiel about Rachel and Bilhah as the justification for Handmaids could go over your head and then the awkward sex scene with Commander Waterford, Repressed Blond Woman (true name: Serena Joy, although I don’t think we know that yet after episode 1), and Offred wouldn’t make much sense.

It would have been easy to have Offred, in her opening monologue, provide the backstory for the setting: a coup, a harsh religious regime, the loss of individual freedoms, and the official stratification of society. Instead, that backstory is interwoven with the present in each episode through dialogue, voiceover narrative, and flashbacks. Although this approach will be more confusing to some viewers, there is good reason to do so: by telling us what happened in pieces rather than at once, it’s like putting together a puzzle: we can see bits and pieces, but we don’t see the full picture until the end. Right now, we are presented with the broad outlines of a situation: five years after some sort of strange military/political/social event, women are walking around a world in which supermarkets are guarded by militiamen with assault rifles, bodies are left hanging by a river, and Handmaids kill an accused rapist like a pack of dogs falling on a hare. The question is, how did they get there and why is everyone going along with something that no one seems to believe in?

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One of the goals of book, and therefore season one of the show, is to show how a society can pivot from a liberal democracy to a repressive theocracy. Not just any democracy, either, but the United States. A convincing backstory is therefore crucial to the show proving that this is a plausible if highly unlikely future. (For political science buffs, the book/show might be seen an envisioning of political theorist Hannah Arendt’s work on how totalitarianism emerges in democratic societies.)

When last we left off, Ofglen (who will inevitably find and date Moira because there is a two lesbian rule for all TV shows, which is: there shall be two lesbians, and they shall date. Three lesbians there shall not be, nor one, but two the number shall be, and they shall date. Four is right out.) was whispering through the fence to Offred that there was an Eye in her house and Offred was like, “Yeah duh, but also yay because now we’re besties and apparently you don’t have a stick up your…um yeah, see you tomorrow.” Offred then went inside and watched Serena Joy get shut out by her husband and we all realized the symbolism that everyone is always watching everything in Gilead. Everyone is an Eye in their own way, including the viewer.

At the start of episode two, Offred is staring at the ceiling musing about blue. She is remembering the pre-Gilead past and all her associations with the color and word blue from that time. In some ways, she’s unconsciously tethering herself to that past so that she won’t lose it by forgetting these things. More immediately, she’s escaping her present reality, because once again the Commander is attempting to impregnate her and it’s easier to escape mentally then be present for it. As in episode one, no one is enjoying this civic duty. Serena Joy can’t watch it, and the Commander looks almost bored. Offred thinks, “I wish he’d hurry the fuck up,” and Serena Joy is clearly thinking the same thing. We, the viewers, are given to understand that this is what sex looks like when it has been completely stripped of emotion. Or rather, of positive emotion. Instead, this is a combination of anger, contempt, and an emotional emptiness. This ritual violation has quickly become so normal as to be almost banal. Boring.

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The scene changes to Offred meeting Ofglen outside and OMG you guys, Toyota Priuses have survived the theocracy! (Which, when you think about it, is actually unexpected given that environmental conscientiousness in the U.S. is culturally associated with political liberals, who were probably the first to go in the post-coup purges…but I digress.) The presence of modern cars is yet another purposely discordant note in the harmony of the scenery in “The Handmaid’s Tale”: we are in a familiar world, with recognizable, recent makes and models of cars. This is not the far future, nor an alternate universe, but our own reality. This story could be taking place tomorrow, based on the visual cues. Ofglen hails Offred with her usual “Blessed be the fruit” greeting and Offred, empowered by the knowledge that Ofglen doesn’t believe that hogwash either, almost doesn’t respond, but does when she thinks Nick the possible Eye is paying attention.

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At the hanging place, where they sit after going to the grocery store (morbid much?), new men are being strung up (one is Jewish, based on the Star of David on his hood). Offred and Ofglen decide to take the long way home so they can talk. Offred is from Brookline, Massachusetts, and Ofglen is from Missoula, Montana (they now live in what was once Cambridge, Massachusetts). Offred, a former assistant book editor, remembers when her company edited a nine-volume series on the history of falconry. Ofglen wryly notes that she’d willingly read it now.

Clearly, it’s been awhile since they’ve been allowed any sort of intellectual stimulation. Ofglen was a lecturer in cellular biology before the coup. Male scientists were sent to the Colonies, but she was kept because she was deemed fertile; breeding stock. The two stop to watch a church being demolished, and Offred notes it was her father’s parish and the place where her daughter was baptized. Evidently, the women weren’t moved away from their previous neighborhoods when the coup happened and they were turned into Handmaids. Ofglen notes that another church in New York City was dismantled and its bricks thrown into the Hudson River. The theocratic regime evidently is sectarian, although which religious sect exactly isn’t clear.

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