The below contains spoilers for the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, which are now available to view in their entirety courtesy of Hulu. If you haven’t watched all three episodes yet, come back when you’ve caught up.
“My name is Offred, and I intend to survive.” These words, internalized by the protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale, may seem like a simple declaration on the surface, but what they represent is far more important than any straightforward vow. They’re a testament to the significance of resistance in the face of overwhelming odds, and to the power that’s derived from retaining control over one’s mind, even when every other part of your being doesn’t belong to you.For Offred (Elisabeth Moss), her mind’s ability to endure the horrors of her current situation is what contributes to the most compelling storytelling within the show’s first three episodes. Much of her inner monologue is conducted via voiceover, perhaps a natural extension of adapting The Handmaid’s Tale to series, since the book is told from first-person perspective. However, Offred’s voiceovers aren’t just a means of exposition; they’re a direct line to her resilience. She may be a paragon of virtue and good manners in her verbal interactions with characters like Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) or Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), but inside the privacy of her thoughts, Offred doesn’t hold back about even her most tenacious opponents.
In a rigidly structured society like Gilead, Offred’s very existence as a Handmaid is a contradiction; as a woman who has the ability to bear children she is set apart from others who cannot, but her value is limited to her fertility. As far as the world is concerned, her body–her womb– is not her own, and if she cannot conceive a child then she will be put to use on other tasks, like going grocery shopping.
The Handmaid’s central paradox is exalting certain women for their potency while subjugating all of them in almost every way possible. Women are forbidden to have an occupation, handle money, or read. Even speaking up in defense of yourself is prohibited. When Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) is arrested for pursuing a romantic relationship with another woman, she is gagged while the charges against her are read, rendering her unable to utter a mere syllable in her own defense. Ultimately Ofglen’s life is spared because she still has the ability to bear children, but the woman she loves is sentenced to death. Blessed be the fruit.
The timely echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale reverberate through the present; there’s a reason so many of the images from the trailers and these three released episodes have struck a chord that continues to resound. We’re not living in Gilead, but it’s not unimaginable to consider our uncertain future and how we might find ourselves in a similar dystopia. Women’s bodies are already the subject of frequent discussion, debate, criticism and legislation. Is it really so impossible to imagine now?
Many critics have already dubbed this series mandatory viewing for television audiences, but several of the people behind the show have warned viewers not to binge-watch. It’s true that a series like The Handmaid’s Tale deserves thoughtful contemplation and unrushed absorption, but that is not because the show leaves the viewer feeling hopeless. Offred’s thoughts are her own. Gilead, the government, the Waterfords may have control over her body, but they do not control her mind, and in her mind, she is free and will continue to defy in every way she knows. “My name is June,” she thinks to herself, reaffirming her true identity and reassuring us, by extension, that she has not given up the fight to belong to herself again.