Warning: The following contains major spoilers for episodes 1 - 4 of The Handmaid's Tale. Proceed with caution and blessed be the fruit.
Most of us had probably forgotten all about The Handmaid's Tale until Hulu announced that it would be adapting the seminal novel from 1985 into a 10-part TV series. You probably last read the book in a college English class some years ago, and might have even needed to re-read a synopsis to remember what it's all about. Well, we're now a few episodes in, and the horror of Margaret Atwood's dystopian world feels very real indeed.
#TheHandmaidsTale is not easy to watch. Set in a totalitarian military state, America no longer exists as we know it, instead replaced by the doctrine of Gilead who rule over the tattered remains of a country rife with war and ecological disaster. In this world, women's rights have been entirely stripped away and the population is divided into classes.
Doctors, intellectuals, homosexuals, artists, and anyone who disobeys the strict rules of Gilead are killed or banished to the mysterious 'Colonies' to die a painful death clearing up toxic waste. The population has been decimated by infertility — which is, by law, always the fault of women — and those who remain fertile are classed as Handmaids, serving as walking wombs to the regime's leaders.
#ElizabethMoss stars as Offred (Of-Fred; the name of her assigned Commander), who pre-Gilead worked at a publishing house, living happily with her husband and daughter. Sadly, Offred is now a Handmaid, and it's through her eyes that we see the world and its brutality.
Punishment and duty features heavily in both the novel and the series. The regime has no time for dissidence, but Handmaid's possess the ability to produce children, so they are usually pardoned from the death penalty. The reckless use of punishment isn't the only thing that drives Gilead in its abhorrent traditions and beliefs though. Here are several of the hardest scenes to watch from the first four episodes of The Handmaid's Tale.
1. The Ceremony
This monthly state-sanctioned rape is the norm in Gilead, as the duty to produce children comes above all else. In the ceremony, the Handmaid lies between the legs of the Wife, and is then, erm, impregnated by the Commander. It's a sterile and uncomfortable affair, one which is difficult to watch — and which represents the absolute insanity of the regime.
2. "If My Right Eye Offends Thee, Pluck It Out"
A lot of harrowing stuff goes down in Episode 1, 'Offred' but one moment which sticks out is when we first meet Janine (Madeline Brewer), who arrived at the Red Center with Offred — the place where Handmaids are sent for training, which is run by older faithful women known as Aunts. In the first few minutes' of arriving, Janine openly mocks the establishment, and is subsequently electrocuted for her disobedience before being taken away.
Later that night, Janine is dragged whimpering into the dorm room she shares alongside the other would-be Handmaids, with her face in bandages. When Offred — still known by her pre-Gilead name June — asks what happened, her friend Moira (Samira Wiley) reads a verse from Matthew 5:29; "If my right eye offends thee, pluck it out."
3. The Punishment For Freedom
In Episode 4, we see June and Moira's near-perfect escape attempt from the Red Center. While Moira manages to escape on a train dressed as an Aunt, June is not so lucky, and is caught on the platform. Her punishment for attacking an Aunt, stealing her clothes, and leaving the Red Center is many painful and bloody lashes to the soles of her feet, leaving her unable to walk.
4. Death by Handmaid
In one bizarre and brutal scene from Episode 1, we see what the punishment is for 'rape' (a word which has become the catch-all term for any sexual activity outside the Ceremony). A former Eye (spies and guards of the republic) is accused of raping a pregnant Handmaiden, and his punishment is to be beaten to death by dozens of them. It also serves as the one and only way that Handmaidens are allowed to channel their fury and rage at the status quo.
5. Death by Hanging
Episode 3 was one of the strongest episodes so far, but also the hardest to watch. We discover that Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) — Offred's shopping partner, a lesbian, and resistance member — is still alive. She is taken to trial for being a 'Gender-Traitor' as the words 'gay' and 'lesbian' are now forbidden. She is tried alongside a Martha — women who serve a household — who turns out to be Ofglen's lover.
While Ofglen is pardoned for her crimes because she has two working ovaries, her lover is not. The pair share an emotional reunion in the back of a van before the Matha is dragged out and hung from a crane in front of a hysterical Ofglen. While many people are hung in The Handmaid's Tale, this was the first time that we saw the emotionless nature of Gilead dish out their uniquely inhuman form of justice.
If watching her lover hang from a crane wasn't cruel enough, Ofglen's own punishment is even more traumatic. At first, we see Ofglen awaken in a sterile white room and stumble out of bed. Realising that something is wrong, she lifts her smock to reveal bandages. Aunt Lydia tells Ofglen (whose real name is revealed to be Emily) that "you won't want what you cannot have," which is meant to imply that she has undergone a clitoridectomy.
The Handmaid's Tale is supposed to be difficult to watch. The show portrays the lengths to which women's bodies are abused and restricted under the totalitarian regime. Fortunately, #Hulu isn't shying away from the book's more graphic moments — unlike the bizarre 1990s movie starring Natasha Richardson. With six more episodes left to air from Season 1, there is bound to be even more brutality, but let's just hope there is some light as well.